Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Gender games

Interesting article in the February edition of National Geographic about women in Saudi Arabia.  The article was written by a woman who has had numerous contacts with the women of this country, especially in recent years.

Of course, and despite our decades long relationship with this oil rich country, there is occasional media coverage of the cultural and religious forces that restrict the rights and freedom of women in this country.  A few years ago the shocking news that Saudi women were not allowed to drive made headlines, and this article touches on that issue.  While providing good paying jobs to male immigrants who are specifically imported for this function, the "tradition" limits women's movements, thereby their freedom.  And, while the article portrayed the upper class Saudi women who generally accepted the restriction while also believing that it will be faded out, gradually, in the coming decade, the author did not interview or spend time with Saudi women who can not afford, or whose husbands will not pay, for a driver. 

What this article did bring to light, however, was the incredible progress women have made in this country in the past 10 years, despite the fact that "Saudi Arabia is the most gender segregated nation".  In just 35 years, from 1979 to 2014, the percentage of girls enrolled in primary schools rose from 30 to 99 percent.  In the area of higher education, in 1973, only 15 Saudi women were enrolled per 100 men (in the United States it was 78), but by 1993, the number of Saudi women per 100 men enrolled had risen to 72 (up to 93 in the US), and in 2013 there were over 100 Saudi women per 100 men enrolled (over 135 in the US). 

Also, the presence of women in the work force has changed.  Yes, restrictions abound in that physical walls separating single men from women are the still the norm in all phases of employment, yet the percentage of young Saudi women who are employed is far greater than even the generation preceding them, let alone those of 2 or 3 generations ago.  No longer are women consigned to jobs in the more traditional fields (such as education), but are now finding opportunities in areas such as manufacturing, and even politics.

It is easy to take the high road when it comes to equality for the sexes when we compare ourselves to countries like Saudi Arabia.  Clearly, it is completely male dominated, ruled by both a patriarchal religion and government.  Often, especially on certain right leaning TV and radio shows, the Saudis are portrayed as the worst kind of men in terms of their treatment of women. 

Yet, it is frequently these same men in America who fight against equal pay for equal work legislation, who love depicting welfare queens as abusing our system of assistance to the needy but never exhibit the same fervor against corporate welfare that costs ten times more money to the United States taxpayer.  It is this same gender bias, albeit a lesser degree, that has limited access to the upper echelons of American business and politics.  And, when a women does attain those rarified positions, she is often depicted as an ice queen or royal bitch when she performs the job as a man, or genetically unable to handle the pressures of such responsibilities when she fails, even though men fail at the highest levels of business and politics all the time without the toughness of their gender being maligned or questioned.

One might even say the battles over the Affordable Care Act, contraception as paid for by one's employer, Planned Parenthood funding, etc, are all gender bias based.  Would men be so resistant to health coverage for all people if they had to bear children, advise fellow men to place an aspirin between their legs to avoid pregnancy, or wish to restrict women's health services (including abortion) in law after law enacted to "protect women's health" if it was their health they were allegedly protecting?  (Don't see a lot of laws restricting access to Viagra, prostate exams, penile implants or male pattern baldness cures, do you?)

Compared to Saudi Arabia, we seem advanced, yet how about compared to Germany, England, Norway, or most other "western" countries.  How many of those countries have never had a women president?  How many allow employers to tell their women employees what forms of contraception they can take? 

I wrote a story once in which overnight, many people awoke with a different skin color or different gender.  Suddenly, laws and policies which were now controlled by those who had been the most negatively effected, began to change.  People were forced into the shoes of others, and did not like the fit.  It is easy to imagine the Saudi men lobbying to alter the interpretations of the Quran, if they suddenly became female, just as we might see some new understandings of the Bible should certain religious leaders find themselves in female form.

Like race, perhaps we should embrace the differences that exist between male and female without the added calculations concerning which is superior or inferior.  We are different, thank you very much!  Perhaps not exactly equal in all our traits but when brought together, we make something better than the sum of our parts.  Which means that by limiting the opportunities of one half of the union, we limit the strength and future accomplishments of the whole. 

Which also means we have underestimated and misunderstood the real truths of our holy books, if we assume they were inspired by the Creator, because I am sure She would expect us to discard our gender biases to truly honor and glorify the life and lives we have been granted.


No comments:

Post a Comment