Today it is easy for us -- men and women -- in the western world to look at the strides of women in the workforce and be lulled into the complacent and deeply flawed conclusion that "women have arrived." By "arrived" I mean that those historical fetters and negative, institutionalized norms of male-dominated society have somehow disappeared into the glitz and glitter of a brave new 21st century world.
But there was a time in the early 20th century that women in the so-called enlightened and civilized western world were not allowed to vote in elections; could not enter Ivy League universities and were generally considered second class, inferior citizens, only good for domestic work and childbearing and almost bereft of any intellectual capabilities.
Today, these vestiges of social ignorance still unbelievably persist in religious cults in the western world and elevated to social normative behavior in Eastern nations where religious dogma rule supreme in places like Iran, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. In these nations women are devalued and considered inferior to men and therefore of very little use value.
And there was a time when women who entered the workforce did so as lowly factory workers, domestic servants, nannies and other menial jobs that required no brain effort or specific skills. There was also a time when families educated boys and relegated girls to the job of learning to wash and iron clothes, cook, make up beds, and be obedient and subservant to their husbands. There was a time when women could not own property, have a bank account or complain about violence and abuse in the home.
In fact, in those days female factory workers were often proud of their "profession," since they considered themselves somewhat emancipated from the drudgery and powerlessness of being a lowly housewife.
But especially in the United States and so-called "Western Democracies," a lot has changed and a lot has remained the same as we celebrate Women's History Month for 2014. Today, in America, women make up more than 50 to 60 percent of the workforce. 60 percent of the degrees awarded by universities in the US and Europe now go to women and major corporations (though not enough) now have women at their helm.
And in traditional male-dominated professions like politics women are slowly, but surely, breaking down the barriers that were erected centuries ago to keep them out. For example, in Europe more than 40 percent of the members of the Swedish Parliament are women. In the Spanish Cabinet there are more women than men. It can be generally agreed that in the last 50 years, women in the west have made giant strides in both education and the workplace.
But even with these impressive accomplishments the struggle is not yet over. Yes, there has been significant and real movement in the direction of women's liberation and struggle for social justice in the western hemisphere, and, dare I say guardedly, democracies. It is, in a manner of speaking, a horse of a different color in the East and Middle East even for emerging nations like India and Pakistan where it is now quite fashionable to use the overworked and open to interpretation terminology "emerging democracies" when referencing these two nations.
If anything India and Pakistan are studies in social, economic and political contradictions and contrasts. Though India and Pakistan are considered democracies, yet the rights of women are severely controlled and curtailed. These two states are male-dominated -- through and through. There are far more men than women in the workplace, and the gap between male and female literacy, though narrowing, is still significant. In Pakistan honor killings and honor rapes, as well as arranged marriages, a holdover from a backward, archaic age of religious zealotry, are still alive and well.
Still, in both nations where the underlining religio-class constructs are yet to be dismantled in favor of a more open society there is some progress and movement in liberating women. The Internet, in particular Web 2.0 with its social networking capabilities, has helped oppressed women get their stories out and expose, and at times embarrass, the reactionary nature of these exploitative social processes that still keep them in bondage.
In all areas of the Middle East, Far East and Asia women are defining their relations in society in the face of tremendous odds occasioned by institutionalized male-dominated society. The growth of the service sector in recent years and the explosive speed of urbanization has also enhanced the contribution of women to the formal economy and brought their social and economic conditions into the limelight.
Progress notwithstanding, no analysis of the plight of the world's women would be complete without referencing their continued brutal exploitation in so-called Islamic countries. In oil-rich Saudi Arabia, presumably an enlightened beacon in the Middle East, women cannot drive cars, are not allowed to work where there are men, and can only attend segregated schools and universities. The Islamic Shari'a, and not civil law, governs personal and social contracts. Women have to seek male approval for every act. There is no concept of equality before the law. A female witness's count testimony is given half the weight of that of a male witness.
In Iran, a woman can inherit only half as much as a man, and a female victim of an accident is entitled to only half the compensation awarded to a male. All women are required to cover their heads, though they can show their faces. In Pakistan, female literacy rate is almost double that of the male literacy rate, while, in Afghanistan, it is over three times. Women who are partners in adultery are stoned to death while men often get off lightly.
All things considered women's equality is still a great distance away given this uneven progress accompanied by setbacks that characterize the women's liberation movement as "two steps forward; three steps backward." Cultural backwardness is closely related to the social status of women. Societies where women have succeeded in becoming empowered have advanced in every field of life, art, culture, literature, science, and economically. These are the societies that do not hesitate to question entrenched shibboleths and succeed in advancing through new discoveries.
On the other hand, societies that continue to treat their female population as chattel slaves have nothing new to contribute to the world and have nothing better to offer to their members than centuries-old regressive practices steeped in old, outmoded, and backward religious and political relics of the distant past. Deprived, disadvantaged and dispossessed women cannot bring up strong children. Female backwardness only leads to the perpetuation of backwardness, passed on from mother to child. How can an uneducated woman, unable to read or write and treated as a glorified domestic worker bring up an educated child?
In Pakistan, would so many children have been taught in dangerous fundamentalist madrassas - where some have become radicalized, potential terrorists - if their mothers had been empowered to contribute to their education and to Pakistan's economic progress? Moreover, what are the chances of women priests preaching radical, political Islam in mosques across Europe? Since there are few female priests, no female Rabbis, Imams or Ayatollahs this question is moot.
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