Last week, the legal news service TrustLaw released a poll of the most dangerous countries for women. Based on a survey of 213 experts on women’s issues from around the world, the poll ranked countries on the basis of six categories: health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to health care and other resources, and human trafficking. Summing these factors up, the top five worst countries to be female are Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India (!) and Somalia.
Although this poll was an important effort, I found its methodology to be frustratingly opaque (it would have been nice to see the runners-up), and certainly questionable in some respects. For instance, India’s willingness to be transparent about crimes like human trafficking, female infanticide and dowry violence probably earned it a worse ranking than countries that cover up the extent of their problems. Personally, I was amazed that Saudi Arabia didn’t make the top five – if religious and cultural factors that oppress women are being considered, how much worse could you get than a country whose every female inhabitant is legally enslaved and imprisoned in her home?
Still, this is a valuable reminder of how dangerous it is to be a woman, even today – and not just in anarchic failed states like Somalia, or war zones like Congo or Afghanistan, but in allegedly modern, democratic countries. In tribal societies governed by village councils, when two families quarrel, the gang rape of a woman belonging to one family by the men of the other is often considered a legitimate means of settling the dispute. In some cultures, if women spurn men’s advances or defy arranged marriages, they may have acid poured on their face or have their noses and ears cut off, if they’re not murdered outright by male relatives seeking to cleanse their family honor from the shame of a disobedient female. (This isn’t limited to Third World slums; it almost happened to an actress from the Harry Potter movies.) And there are millions of women subjected to human trafficking – which is an antiseptic phrase for what it really means: women abducted or sold into slavery and forced to be prostitutes, usually with “persuasion” in the form of drugs or beatings.
But these headline-grabbing acts of violence, shocking as they are, tend to overshadow a more mundane, yet more deadly, reality of everyday discrimination and neglect that takes a constant toll. In poverty-stricken regions lacking access to modern medical care, death in childbirth is still a routine occurrence. In cultures where women are considered less valuable, daughters may be starved or denied medical care because their parents don’t want to spend the money to take good care of them. Lack of education, lack of literacy, lack of legal protections, and lack of any control over finances also conspire, in countless subtle ways, to degrade and shorten women’s lives.I recount this litany of horrors not to plunge you into despair, but to emphasize how far the world still is from true gender equality. Over the last hundred years, the feminist movement has made enormous strides, but even those great achievements are just the first step in a long journey that still remains to be walked. Therefore, let no one deceive you by saying that the battle for equality has been won, that feminism as a movement has outlived its usefulness. It’s still an urgent cause for all people of conscience and reason to support.
And here’s something the TrustLaw survey didn’t dwell on: in nearly all cases, especially among the worst offenders, misogyny and violence are rooted in religious beliefs about the lesser worth of women. Ever since the first Jewish scribe wrote that menstruating women are unclean, ever since the first Christian priest preached that it was women who brought sin into the world, ever since the first Muslim imams preached polygamy and the veil, religion has been used as a weapon to keep women in subjection. (These are just the examples from Western religions; there are just as many from eastern belief systems like Hinduism.)
By contrast, in which country does religion make the status of women better? I doubt there are any that can make that claim, which is why the spread of atheism has the potential to be a huge boon for feminism – and vice versa. As I’ve speculated in the past, the misogyny of religion is probably rooted in religious leaders recognizing that controlling reproduction is the key to perpetuating their own beliefs, which means that the success of the atheist movement and of the feminist movement are inextricably linked. By defending both godlessness and women’s rights, we can fight the brutality of patriarchal faith on two fronts.