Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A tale of two cultures

I saw something very interesting today in two news items. The first is a UPI item about the closing of the gender gap in Norway, which ranked first in the list of countries examined in a report from the World Economic Forum.  The US ranked 27th.
The Report examines four critical areas of inequality between men and women:
1. Economic participation and opportunity – outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment
2. Educational attainment – outcomes on access to basic and higher level education
3. Political empowerment – outcomes on representation in decision-making structures
4. Health and survival – outcomes on life expectancy and sex ratio
So Norway, one of those godless Scandanavian countries, recognizes the value of women in their society, whatever role they may take, and supports them. Providing a full year of paid maternity leave is just one example.  I can't help but think that perhaps the secular majority (up to 70% of the population reports a lack of belief in a god) may help that along since there is little reliance on scriptures that extol the subservience of the wife to the husband. Focus on the Family, just so you know, is not big in Norway.

Contrast this with what is going on, and has been going on for centuries, in Afghanistan.  The Taliban were no slouches when it comes to control.  They know that an ignorant population is easier to control through fear and propaganda.  So they put all the boys through religious indoctrination, and forbid females from any education at all.  Since the US invasion and the fall of the Taliban, girls have been allowed to return to school.  Well that just won't do, will it? CNN reports that a group of schoolgirls in Kandahar were attacked by men on motorcycles wielding squirt guns full of acid.  Two of the girls were blinded and several others were badly burned simply because they wanted an education and a chance for a better life.

Christopher Hitchens has called the education and empowerment of women the one sure way to relieve poverty and suffering in a society.  With one of the world's highest per capita GDPs, very low unemployment, and extremely low violent crime rates, Norway is doing its best to prove Hitchens right.  I only hope that Afghanistan can someday break free of its crippling theocracy and come to see women as the full partners in society that Norway does.  

And at the same time, the US has some serious work of its own to do with respect to the equality of women.  We congratulate ourselves on having a woman nominee for the Democrat presidential ticket and another for vice president on the Republican ticket.  Let's not forget that we are quite late to the party on this one.  Many countries in the EU have had women leaders: Margaret Thatcher (UK), Angela Merkel (Germany), Edith Cresson (France), Anneli Tuulkki Jaatteenmaki (Finland), Gro Harlem Brundtland (Norway),  plus others in Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Israel, and Portugal.  Even countries with large muslim populations have had women leaders: India, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.  Sri Lanka has the honor of the first female Prime Minister ever, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.  So let's not pat ourselves too hard on the back just yet.

We as a country still have a long way to go.  We are not Afghanistan, obviously.  But we are not Norway either.  While I do not relish the thought of putting up with Sarah Palin's divisive rhetoric again, she does have a shot at being the first major party female presidential candidate in 2012. I have to believe that's a small step in the right direction.

Be well,


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