The World’s Women in 2014-15: Knowing the Facts and Acknowledging the Gaps

Time magazine posted an article online in December of 2014 entitled ‘This may have been the best year for women since the dawn of time’. It has received many different responses, but Huffington Post retorted with a particularly astute notion, ‘2014 was a bad year for women, but a good one for feminism’.  Although both articles are riddled predominantly with pop culture and western-centric examples, their basic stance is evident in their titles. But the inherent variability of the human condition makes these things nearly impossible to assess. Yet, when it is attempted, informed generalizations can be warranted, but never sensationalist ones. In both articles, it is the verbal insinuation of a broader evaluation of women’s circumstances that is detrimental. Granted, Time seemed to take a jab at their own lighthearted approach, stating ‘since the dinosaurs roamed, since the pyramids were built, since the locomotive was invented, there has never been a better year for women than 2014.’ [1] Additionally, their examples are based around American women and predominantly media-centric and high profile cases (the movie Frozen, the NFL). This is certainly not wrong, but it is misleadingly anecdotal, especially in conjunction with the claims the title makes. Whether intentional or not, it sends the message that a narrow assessment of the American female experience can justify a comprehensive appraisal of women’s position in 2014.

1509 feminism (crop)
Image courtesy of Adolfo Lujan, © 2015, some rights reserved.

Huffington Post’s retort that 2014 was a good year for feminism is a bit easier to digest. A popular example of this is the speech Emma Watson gave at the launch of the HeforShe campaign that seemed to reach all cobwebbed corners of the internet and social media. She roused much discussion and attention and this made the concept of feminism more comprehensible to younger generations that have been struggling with conflicting views on the concept. The #womenagainstfeminism hashtag exemplifies one of these conflicting views. Young people took to social media and penned their enthusiasm for rejecting feminism, most misunderstanding or distorting the fundamental meaning of feminism altogether. Some Twitter examples of this anti-feminist solidarity elucidates this: ‘#Womenagainstfeminism because I like to shave my legs and wear a supportive bra. #yolo’, and ‘I am one of the #WomenAgainstFeminism because I choose not to adopt a victim mentality and instead rely on my talents and work ethic’, and ‘#WomenAgainstFeminism because this movement is less about equality, and more about dehumanizing men.’ [2] These interpretations, all quoted from females, of feminism show that no matter how constructive the concept, anything can be warped. So, in this aspect, although feminism has made great strides in 2014 and 2015, it is not infallible. But it is the reality that assaults on feminism and feminist ideals are most extensive and institutionalized outside of the US that exemplifies why America should not be the standard by which to judge women’s wellbeing. It might be easy for a girl from western Europe or the US to sit behind her computer and denounce feminism as a construct of some condescending matriarchy, but what of the girls in other countries trapped in violently oppressive societies that dehumanize and objectify them until their concepts of what constitutes the self cannot extend past their position as their husbands’ property? It is articles like Time magazine’s that suggest no sense of urgency for women globally and perpetuate the idea that western female success is unconditional progress.

But first, some great developments that women can be proud of in 2014 and 2015 include the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, an activist for female education in Pakistan and a survivor of a Taliban attack. There has been an end to centuries of male leadership in the Church of England with the consecration of Reverend Libby Lane as the first female bishop.[3] Moreover, 2015 will be the first year that Saudi Arabian women will be able to vote in elections. This decision, although made in 2011, will be in enforced this year. Additionally, female bikers in Afghanistan are persevering through threats and physical assault in order to take their Women’s National Cycling Team to the 2020 Olympics. Even with insults and rocks being hurled at them while they ride, they do not give up hope. As one young biker Marjan Sidiqqi says, attacks on their honor and morality must be thrown “to the wind” when they get on their bikes.[4]

Numerous more examples can attest for female success in 2014 and 2015 but generally, women this year have taken a stand on social matters, become increasingly represented in government positions, become more autonomous through increased entry into the workforce, and enjoyed more support from men in countries where oppressive patriarchy is still, if not physically enforced, culturally enforced. A great example of this came earlier this month when a group of 20 men in Afghanistan sported full-face burqas during a protest on International Women’s Day. This protest was meant to defend women’s right to choose to wear the burqa. Yet, responses to events like these shed light on the state of women in places like Afghanistan. A traffic policeman that witnessed this show of male support responded, “What’s the point of this? All of the women in my family wear burqas. I wouldn’t let them go out without one.” [5] This response speaks much less about his personal disapproval than it does about his assumed right to control women. At the ripe old age of 24, this police officer has no qualms about revealing that he can dictate the clothing and movements of his female family members, some likely older than himself.

This shows that hyperbolic articles and out-of-context success stories, such as Time’s, which speak about such issues within a framework of selectivity and nonchalance, should not overshadow the problems that desperately need international attention. Firstly it is imperative to acknowledge that much of the progress just mentioned is in response to the present existence of oppression. Meaning it is clear that Saudi women’s right to vote in 2015 is a vital step in the right direction, but this momentous event also illustrates the fact that they are just gaining this right. Moreover, the educational reform for girls in Pakistan, fought for by Malala whom survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, demonstrates strength, heroism, and bravery. But more than acknowledging her success, we should ask why something as fundamental as education for girls requires these attributes in the first place.

More important than citing specific events is understanding the larger scope of the female condition in the past year. The laws concerning women that persist in 2014 and 2015 are a good place to start when trying to illuminate how institutionalized female subjugation still is. For example, In India, unless the wife is under 15 years old, marital sex of any kind cannot be considered rape. [6] The prevalence of gang rapes this past year can attest to this lack of female protection from sexual violence in India. Additionally, corruption, bribery, and exploitation of lower caste women by law enforcement is not uncommon across the country. Moreover, over 100 countries retain laws that restrict or limit a women’s involvement in the economy. [7] In Yemen, ‘wives are required to have “legitimate intercourse” with their husbands when they are “fit to so do”.’ [8] And it is often these poorly defined guidelines and weakly regulated laws that result in child rape and violence without punishment. To expand, in Malta, if a kidnapper ‘”after abducting a person, shall marry such person, he shall not be liable to prosecution.”‘ [9] In Chile, husbands have sole responsibility over joint property and his wife’s property. [10] In Nigeria husbands are lawfully permitted to physically punish ‘”for the purpose of correcting his wife”‘. [11] And in Egypt, if a husband catches his wife cheating and murders her immediately, his punishment will be less than other murderers because it is considered an honor killing. [12] To contrast this, an Iranian woman was executed for killing her rapist in self-defense and women in many countries are often blamed for being attacked. [13]

All of these are a reflection of how little control women have over their own conditions and how little sway they have in changing it. To make matters worse, a common governmental response is that their culture needs time to change. But Sanam Anderlini, executive director and co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network summarily points out, “the same people and governments who decry equal rights for women as foreign or Western or colonial or immoral or ask for ‘patience’ or cultural sensitivity ‘have no qualms using Western medicine, weaponry, technology, education, media and probably Viagra and pornography.'” [14]

But what’s more is tradition and religious coercion that restricts women. In Saudi Arabia, for example, under Islamic ruling women should not drive cars because it could encourage the “removal of the hijab, interactions with men, and ‘taboo’ acts.” [15] A custom clearly stained with the realities of current oppressive patriarchy due to the fact that the quite modern automobile presumably caused minimal issues in Muhammad’s lifetime, when Qur’anic standards first manifested.  Under the same powerful thumb of custom is the widespread practice of Female Genital Mutilation. According to the World Health Organization’s November 2014 news release, between 100 and 140 million girls and women have undergone this debilitating and life-threatening procedure. [16] Millions more are at risk every year. Moreover, in India, a woman dies every hour “due to the demands placed upon her family as a result of the dowry system.” [17] The extent of female suffering that is wrapped up in tradition is worthy of its own focus, it contributes to much more torment than the existence of the laws. The laws are merely a reflection of this custom.

The aforementioned issues certainly include abusive situations, but violence toward women is such an urgent concern, it should be considered unambiguously. Worldwide, one in three women have experienced sexual or physical violence from their partner. [18] And this reality exists alongside the knowledge that domestic violence is severely underreported. But even as it stands, 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a criminal act. [19] In Thailand, almost 400,000 children under 16 are believed to be in the sex trade. [20] In Pakistan in 2014 there was an increase in acid attacks from the year before, 65 percent females, most victims married women. [21] In Afghanistan, a woman can be imprisoned for being raped. [22] In Sao Paulo, Brazil, a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds; and 2.6 billion women live in countries where marital rape is not a crime.[23] This is an even more horrifying reality when we realize that around 700 million women alive today were married as children.  [24]

When attempting to rationalize these appalling circumstances, it can quickly become demoralizing, especially when factoring in the girls that do not live to see these realities because they are aborted in favor of a boy. Currently it is estimated that there are 160 million women ‘missing’ due to sex-selective abortion, most prevalent in India and China where finding out the sex of the unborn child is now illegal if for non-medical reasons. But the women that do survive will find themselves at some sort of disadvantage or at a higher risk of sexual violence based on their gender, yes, even in the US and western Europe. After all, in the US, nearly one in five women have been raped in their lifetimes. [25]

The selective, anecdotal, and detached nature of the Time’s article is damaging enough. But it is also presumptuous about the general state of women. We truly do not know how well women worldwide are faring because there are so many significant data gaps. Women simply are not visible enough, even today, to understand the depth of their experiences. In so many places in the world, women are unaccounted for. We truly do not know how many girls will have to undergo Female Genital Mutilation because it often goes unregulated, we do not truly know how many girls are married as children because they are told to lie and they never know a life outside of forced motherhood, we do not truly know how many girls are sex slaves because so many will not survive AIDS or violence, and we certainly do not know how many are domestically abused because there are so many laws and traditions that permit it. The projected figures are always conservative.

Though certainly not the worst it has ever been, the overall state of women at present should not warrant the high-flying flag of triumph. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging success and progress but omitting the areas and women that are in desperate need of attention is unproductive. In many ways, this past year was a great year for women, but most importantly, this growth should point us in the directions that are dangerously deficient in gender equality and female wellbeing. Progress in 2014 justifies high hopes for 2015 but hoping and celebrating should not be the end of the conversation. Further change is vital and it is likely to still be vital in 2016, so continuing to work toward a world where women collectively can be a testament to equality (and celebrating progress on the way) is only half the battle, because there is nothing constructive about noting the gains but ignoring the gaps.

[1] Alter, Charlotte. “This May Have Been the Best Year for Women Since the Dawn of Time.” Time. 23 December 2014.

[2] Alter, Charlotte. “#WomenAgainstFeminism Is Happening Now.” Time. 23 July 2014.

[3] “Reverend Libby Lane named as CofE’s first female bishop.” British Broadcasting Corporation. 17 December 2014.

[4] Goodyear, Sarah. “Biking Toward Women’s Rights in Afghanistan.” CityLab. 4 September 2014.

[5] Reilly, Nicholas. “These men marched in burkas to protest against the treatment of women in Afghanistan.” Metro UK. 6 March 2015.

[6] Nuñez, Christina. “11 laws from around the world that stand in the way of gender equality.” Global Citizen. 8 March 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Deen, Thalif. “Sexist Laws Still Thrive Worldwide.” Inter Press Service News Agency. 18 February 2015.

[10] Nuñez, op. cit.

[11] Deen, op. cit.

[12] Nuñez, op. cit.

[13] Hongo, Hudson. “Iran Hangs Woman For Stabbing Her Alleged Rapist.” Gawker. 25 October 2014.

[14] Deen, op. cit.

[15] Nuñez, op. cit.

[16] “Worldwide action needed to address hidden crisis of violence against women and girls.” World Health Organization. 21 November 2014.

[17] Lazarus, Neville. “India: Shock Dowry Deaths Increase Revealed.” Sky News. 29 March 2014.

[18] “Worldwide action needed to address hidden crisis of violence against women and girls”, op. cit.

[19] “Gender-Based Violence.” Half the Sky Movement.

[20] “Sex trafficking of women and children in Thailand.” Wikipedia.

[21] Jalil, Xari. “42 acid attacks in Punjab; victims await justice.” 24 November 2014.

[22] “Gender-Based Violence”, op. cit.

[23] “Africa.” United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women. 2012.

[24] “Child marriage.” Unicef. 22 October 2014.

[25] “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.” The White House Council on Women and Girls. January 2014.

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