Women's Equality via Secularism & Wealth?

Hank Pellissier's picture

A bulky research report titled The Global Gender Gap Index has been published annually since 2006 by the World Economic Index. The current 325-page report analyzed the status of women relative to men in 134 nations (out of the world’s 193) in four categories: Health, Education, Economy, and Politics. Every nation was then ranked, from 1-134, in a list of best-to-worst nations for women. What nations were picked in 2010 as the best in the world for women?

Here’s a list of the Top Ten:

1. Iceland  
2. Finland
3. Norway
4. Sweden
5. New Zealand
6. Ireland
7. Denmark
8. Lesotho
9. The Philippines
10. Switzerland

Other rankings of leading nations are:  19. United States 46. France 61. China 76. Italy 94. Japan 104. South Korea

The United States has risen quickly in the last two years, while France has plummeted; both changes are due to cabinet appointments, or lack thereof. Barack Obama can be categorized as one of the present world’s most “feminist” leaders because he’s assigned numerous women to top positions and improved the USA’s ranking. Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Nicolai Sarkosky has done the opposite, he dismissed many women and replaced them with men, and France has subsequently dropped in the standings.
Let’s peek at the bottom now. Here are the Ten Worst out of 134 nations, staring with the most awful.

134. Yemen
133. Chad
132. Pakistan
131. Mali
130. Ivory Coast
129. Saudi Arabia  
128. Benin
127. Morocco
126. Turkey
125. Egypt

The Top 10 list contains seven European nations and the Bottom 10 is all African and Western Asian. Anything else? Below, I’ve placed percentages next to several nations in both lists. These percentages represent the segment of the population that is “religious.”

1. Iceland 38% religious
2. Finland 25%
3. Norway 20%
4. Sweden 17%
7. Denmark 18%  
10. Switzerland 48%
134. Yemen 99%
133. Chad 99%
132. Pakistan 96%
131. Mali 90%
130. Ivory Coast 90%
129. Saudi Arabia 97%
128. Benin 90%
126. Turkey 95%
125. Egypt 100%

Obviously, the “non-religious” nations on the top list - we can call them “secular” or “humanist” or ‘agnostic/atheist” - are far better for women than the overwhelmingly religious nations in the lower list. It seems, gazing solely at the data above, that a hypothesis can be asserted that “religion is bad for women’s rights” - but this would be a premature claim because we haven’t examined all 134 nations yet. It is also erroneous, or premature, to generalize at this point and say that “Islam is detrimental for women's rights” because Ivory Coast and Benin have large Christian populations.

The truth is - if we look at the entire list of 134 - there are quite a few “religious nations” that score high in women’s equality, and there are many “non-religious nations” that have weak ranks in the Gender Gap Index.

Here’s another list:

8. Lesotho (90% religious)
9. The Philippines (90% religious)    
16. Sri Lanka (99% religious)
19. United States (65% religious)
43. Poland (80% religious)
46. France (25% religious)
47. Estonia (14% religious)
65. Czech Republic (21% religious)
72. Vietnam (19% religious)
94. Japan (24% religious)  
104. South Korea (48% religious)

Scrutinizing these statistics, we notice that “religious” nations don’t automatically fail to advance women’s equality. Five “nations of faith” - including the United States, which is frequently defined as the most religious nation in the developed world - are currently outperforming in women’s rights the six “non-religious” nations of the second list.

However, if we examine the “Bottom 30” in women’s rights, we discover that ALL those nations are “religious.” The majority of them have Islam as the majority religion, about 66%, but other nations do not, for example, India (#112) and Nepal (#115) are both 81% Hindu, Guatemala (#109) is Catholic, and Zambia (#106), Fiji (#108), and Ethiopia (#121) are all majority Christian.

Surprisingly enough, the link between religion and poor women’s equality is stronger within the United States. The next set of data posted below indicates the states that are the most and least “women-friendly” based on two criteria - how many women they have in elected political positions, and the narrowness of the wage gap between men and women:

Best States for Women

1. Colorado (38% representation)
2. Vermont (37.5% representation)
3. New Hampshire (37% representation)
4. Minnesota (34% representation)
5. Connecticut
6. Maryland
7. Washington
8. Nevada
9. Massachusetts
10. Alaska

Worst States for Women

50. South Carolina (10% representation)
49. Oklahoma (11% representation)
48. Mississippi
47. Arkansas
46. Louisiana
45. West Virginia
44. Kentucky
43. Montana
42. Tennessee
41. New Mexico

It is rather startling to see how similarly these two lists match up when we compare them to the “least religious” and “most religious” states:

Least Religious States

1. Vermont (2nd on the Women-Friendly list)
2. New Hampshire (3rd on the “Women-Friendly” list)
3. Maine
4. Massachusetts (9th on the Women-Friendly list)
5. Alaska (10th on the Women-Friendly list)
6. Washington (7th on the Women-Friendly list)
7. Oregon 8. Rhode Island
9. Nevada (8th on the Women-Friendly list)
10. Connecticut

Most Religious States

1. Mississippi (48th on the Worst States for Women)
2. Alabama
3. South Carolina (50th on the Worst States for Women)
4. Tennessee (42nd on the Worst States for Women)
5. Louisiana (46th on the Worst States for Women)
6. Arkansas (47th on the Worst States for Women)
7. Georgia
8. North Carolina
9. Oklahoma (49th on the Worst States for Women)
10. Kentucky (44th on the Worst States for Women)

Six of the Least Religious States are also listed among the top ten Best States for Women, and seven of the Most Religious States are in the list for ten Worst States for Women. Furthermore, none of the “non-religious” states are in the bottom ten, and none of the religious states are in the top ten. If the lists had been extended to include the top and bottom 20 States for Women, I believe all of the religious states would be in the bottom 20, and all of the non-religious states would have been in the top 20.
These rankings imply what the international rankings suggested — that secular places score higher on women’s rights. However, it would be crazy and irresponsible to think that religiosity was the sole determining factor in advancing women’s equality.

Let’s look at another factor now, per capita income, in the top 10 and bottom 10 nations:

1. Iceland $38,029 
2. Finland $44,491 
3. Norway $79,089 
4. Sweden $43,654  
5. New Zealand $29,000 
6. Ireland $51,049 
7. Denmark $55,992 
8. Lesotho $851            
9. The Philippines $1,745 
10. Switzerland $63,000
134. Yemen $1,061 
133. Chad $687 
132. Pakistan $989 
131. Mali $657  
130. Ivory Coast $1,052 
129. Saudi Arabia $14,450 
128. Benin $709 
127. Morocco $2,882 
126. Turkey $8,248 
124. Egypt $2,269

The per capita income in the Top 10 is considerably higher than it is in the Bottom 10, with eight of the Top Ten nations earning considerably more than all of the Bottom Ten nations. It is not unanimous though - The Philippines and Lesotho have high ratings in women’s equality, even though they are poor nations. Four of the Bottom Ten nations have higher per capita income than The Philippines, and seven have higher per capita than Lesotho.

Obviously, there are factors besides wealth (and religion) that have allowed The Philippines and Lesotho to advance women’s rights. There are also numerous other nations that break any stereotype anyone might have of rich nations having superior women’s rights. Here they are; the first list is of wealthy nations that are under-achievers in women’s right, the second list is of poor nations that are doing far better in advancing women’s rights, despite having less income:

Wealthy Low Achievers in Women’s Equality

74. Italy $35,084 per capita income
79. Hungary 12,868 
91. Mexico 8,144                
94. Japan 39,727 
104. South Korea 17,078
105. Kuwait 27,835 
110. Bahrain 19,817 
117. Qatar 59,990 
129. Saudi Arabia 14,540

Impoverished High Achievers in Women’s Equality                                                          
8. Lesotho $851 per capita income
9. The Philippines 1,745 
16. Sri Lanka 2,068 
22. Mozambique 428 
25. Namibia 4,338 
27. Mongolia 1,573 
30. Nicaragua 1,097 
33. Uganda 481 
34. Moldava 1,516

Once again, similar to the “religion” factor, we see that “per capita income” often coincides with women’s equality but is certainly no guarantee. It is possible to be desperately poor - like Mozambique - and still have a much narrow gender gap than other nations where the annual per capita income is up to 100 times more.

In the United States, though, the relationship between poverty and women’s inequality is much stronger. Let’s peruse those lists of the Top and Bottom Ten States in Women’s Equality, alongside their per capita income:

Best States for Women

1. Colorado $55,430 
2. Vermont 51,618 
3. New Hampshire 60,567                              
4. Minnesota 55,616 
5. Connecticut 67,034
6. Maryland 69,272 
7. Washington 56,548 
8. Nevada 53,341 
9. Massachusetts 64,081 
10. Alaska 66,953

Worst States for Women                                                                                                  
50. South Carolina $42,442 
49. Oklahoma 41,664 
48. Mississippi 36,646                
47. Arkansas 37,823 
46. Louisiana 42,492 
45. West Virginia 37,435                          
44. Kentucky 40,072 
43. Montana 42,322 
42. Tennessee 41,725                                
41. New Mexico 43,028

There is an enormous discrepancy here — all the Best States for Women have higher incomes than the Worst States for Women, by a wide margin — over $8,000 annually.
To conclude, it seems possible that these two national characteristics - religion and income - frequently parallel a rise in women’s equality, but we’re not sure yet what comes first. Does secular thinking and increased per capita income advance women’s equality? Or does women’s equality promote secular thinking and per capita income? How do these three characteristics interact?

If they’re all linked, it’s logical to surmise that a rising trend in secular thinking and per capita income will be accompanied by an advance in women’s equality. What do surveys reveal about that? Secularization is rising very quickly in Europe, this is apparent in the empty churches and the harsh criticism of the Pope. Secularization is also advancing in North and South America and in many parts of Asia, but it is not clearly progressing in Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia, due partially to a rising tide of fundamentalism.

Per capita income growth is definitely increasing, however, it’s grown rapidly in the last few decades and one forecaster predicts that it will expand 700% by the year 2100.
Is women’s equality also advancing? The Global Gender Gap reports of the last five years indicate that in that short span of time 86% of the nations surveyed have improved their women’s status, with only 14% of the nations declining in equality. In reality, the situation is more lopsided than that, because the declines in the 14% are miniscule, while the advances in the majority of the 86% of nations are enormous.

Overall, women’s equality seems to be barreling ahead at a phenomenal rate of acceleration. Imagine, if this international arc continues moving in Iceland’s direction for another ten or twenty years, what will happen?. Will we journey beyond the current “Nordic Feminism” of the top four nations (Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden) into another zone, towards societies that have never existed before, that are unprecedented?