By Sean Stoker
In the United States, we like to think of ourselves as a forward-thinking, progressive society. After all, this is the birthplace of modern democracy, as well as the breeding ground for much of the Western world’s culture. But in some respects, we have a long way to go.
Though beautiful and generally prosperous, the land of the free is far from the utopia we hope it might one day be. Case in point, women are still pitifully outnumbered by men in congress, making up just 19 percent of the House and Senate combined. But even though Afghanistan was named the most dangerous country on earth for women last year by Human Rights Watch, Afghan parliament consists of 28 percent women, a full 9 percent more than the United States Congress.
But what does that really mean? Various news outlets have been holding up this factoid as evidence that the United States needs to step up its game in the gender equality department if we are behind Afghanistan in this one gauge of equality.
True, the US could stand to improve. Women still make less money than men for the same job, are more likely to be the victim of a violent or sexual crime and are taught by the media from an early age that their measure of worth is their level of sexual appeal. We are far from equal in this country.
However, we should be careful to remember that just because Afghanistan has more women in their parliament, that doesn’t mean they’ve beaten us on all other measures of equality. While Afghanistan is regarded as the most dangerous country for women, the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked the United States the 6th overall safest country on earth for women, just behind France, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the number one safest, Canada, our neighbors to the north.
Only 37 percent of Afghanistan’s 8 million students are female, and only 15 percent of Afghan women are even literate, whereas in the United States, 99 percent of the entire population regardless of sex is literate, and for the first time in history, more women than men are enrolled in higher education, 57 percent of US college students are women.
American women also have infinitely more to say in whom they marry when compared to their Afghan counterparts. While American women can generally take their pick, Afghan marriages are largely arranged by a girl’s parents, often when she is very young and sometimes even while she is still in the womb. There is little to prevent pubescent or even prepubescent girls from being married away to men much older than themselves. Customarily, the groom-to-be will present the bride’s family with a dowry, which many families, because of destitution, can’t refuse. Once married, an Afghan woman’s prospects do not get much better. In order to divorce her husband, a woman needs her husband’s permission, a conflict of interest if ever there was one. Her husband does not need her permission if he wishes to divorce her.
I want to make it clear that I am not anti-Islam. The circumstances I am describing are not indicative of the Muslim experience as a whole, but specifically the circumstances in Afghanistan, especially at the height of Taliban power.
In the end, one can easily make the conclusion that, while an indicator of equality, gender diversity in the House, Senate, or Parliament is not the ultimate gauge of the gender equality of a nation. As long as women are treated like second-class citizens in America or Afghanistan, there can be no equality.