March 8, 2020 was celebrated as the International Day of Women. To mark the occasion, the United Nations produced a study which tracked how women are doing regarding equality around the world. It was called “The 2019 Human Development Report” and it was produced by The Human Development Report Office (HDRO) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The study took into account a number of factors including violence against women, economic power, ability to obtain an education and political power. It tracked the results by country and region and tried to assess why certain “social norms” existed in certain societies. It did this focusing strictly on the statistical data for most of the report, but the introductory comments spoke generally about how certain societies viewed women:
“Social norms cover several aspects of an individual’s identity—age, gender, ability, ethnicity, religion and so on—that are heterogeneous and multidimensional. Discriminatory social norms and stereotypes reinforce gendered identities and determine power relations that constrain women’s and men’s behaviour in ways that lead to inequality. Norms influence expectations for masculine and feminine behaviour considered socially acceptable or looked down on. So they directly affect individuals’ choices, freedoms and capabilities.
Social norms also reflect regularities among groups of individuals. Rules of behaviour are set according to standards of behaviour or ideals attached to a group’s sense of identity. Individuals have multiple social identities and behave according to identity-related ideals; they also expect others sharing a common identity to behave according to these ideals. Norms of behaviour related to these ideals affect people’s perception of themselves and others, thus engendering a sense of belonging to particular identity groups. The beliefs people hold about appropriate behaviour often determine the range of choices and preferences that they exercise—in that context norms can determine autonomy and freedom, and beliefs about social censure and reproach create barriers for individuals who transgress. For gender roles these beliefs can be particularly important in determining the freedoms and power relations with other identities—compounded when overlapping and intersecting with those of age, race and class hierarchies.”
The study states that societies have certain normative behaviors and gender is very integral to that configuration. A break from accepted patterns risks a rupture in the community to which one belongs. As such, a seemingly small break from community norms like young Pakistani woman Malala Yousafzai insisting on going to school, got her shot.
Reviewing the study from a country and regional standpoint highlights certain trends in what are considered “societal norms.”
The leading countries in gender equality are from western Europe, North America and Australia. The worst performing countries are from sub-Saharan Africa. The Arab States and South Asia were right behind sub-Saharan Africa.
It was a curious label to see “Arab States” as a category under “Region,” (Table 1) as it is not a region the way “South Asia” and “Latin America” are. One would have expected the report to call the region “Middle East and North Africa (MENA)” the way the United Nations usually refers to that part of the world.
But it could not because of an anomaly in the MENA region in its treatment of women which broke statistically from all of the Arab and Muslim countries: Israel.
As seen in the chart above, Israel is statistically much more like the leading western countries in the world in its treatment of women and not like its neighbors in the Arab world. The western countries in the chart above include Norway; Germany; Australia; Netherlands; Canada; United Kingdom the United States… and Israel. The Arab states include The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Qatar; Iran (not actually Arab but Muslim), Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Palestinian Authority, Iraq and Syria.
The differences in every category are striking:
- Maternal Mortality. The West is 7.4 and Arabs 35.4, while Israel is 5 deaths per 100,000 births
- Adolescent Birth Rate. The West is 10.0 and Arabs 35.0, while Israel is 9.6 births among women 15-19 years old per 1,000
- Per cent Seats in Parliament. The West is 31.6% and Arabs 13.2%, while Israel is 27.5%
- Per cent of Women with Secondary Education. The West is 91.9% and Arabs 60.1%. Israel is 87.8%
- Per cent of Women in Labor Force. The West is 58.3% and Arabs 22.5%. Israel is 59.2%
Israel is not only an outlier in the Middle East in being the only Jewish state in the middle of Muslim states, it is an outlier in its progressive treatment of women as well.
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