Monday, June 20, 2011

How Jesus has Liberated Women III: A UN Survey

Modern Overview

I.  Overview of the Status of Women   I will begin with an overview of the status of women around the world, from the United Nation's 1988 Population Briefing Paper: 'Country Rankings of the Status of Women: Poor, Powerless and Pregnant.'

The subtitle, which seems to put pregnancy on a par with poverty, may help indicate where the paper's authors are coming from.  Some of the criteria by which they analyze the status of women seem to reflect this western feminist agenda.  However, one has to start somewhere, and this paper gives a good general snapshot of the state of affairs by 1988. The authors did NOT seem to mainly interpret these findings in terms of religion, but in terms of poverty, as the subtitle also indicates.  (Certainly, that is how the article reporting the study, which I first read while living in Taiwan, interpreted it.)  It is helpful, I think, that the study authors do not appear to come to the issue with a religious bias.  While perhaps biased in other ways, in relation to religion, it's reasonably objective. 

One bias they may hold, that may scew some relevant findings, is they seem to accept communist figures, which probably deserve skepticism, too sanguinely.  Also, they omit questions of great importance to many women, such as, "How likely is your husband to be a raging drunk?"  That would no doubt have pushed the Soviet figures lower.  "How likely are you and your husband to get divorced?"  That question is not entirely ignored, but should perhaps be more central, and might scew US figures lower.  It is also hard to evaluate fairly, since divorce might be a sign that women can free themselves from oppressive husbands, or that husbands can free themselves from inconcenient wives -- or any combination thereof. 

I'll first show which countries come out on top in four of the five categories.  (I'm missing figures for the fifth category, "social equality.")  I'll list countries by religious background.  It should be remembered, however, that some of these countries have been influenced by a given religion for millennia (India, China, Taiwan, South Korea, European countries, Israel, Japan, Thailand), while others have only been influenced for one to three generations (most African "Christian" countries.  Latin American countries are harder to generalize about: some countries are largely native American, others are mostly immigrants from Europe or Africa. Anyway, Latin American countries seldom figure prominently at either extreme in the poll.) 

After that, I'll list 12 countries that have the highest and lowest scores overall.   

In Part IV, I'll show how we got from there to here, and how Christianity has helped women not only in the "best" and most "Christian" countries, but in societies around the world.  Then in Part V, we'll look more closely at the gospels. 


Of the top 17 countries when it comes to employment, Mozambique is a mix of Muslim, Christian, and animist.  The rest all have a Christian background.  (The authors point out that a lot of men have emigrated from Mozambique for work, which may skew that country's rating.) 

Of the bottom 20 countries, Lesotho, a poor land-locked country in southern Africa, is now 90% Christian, from an animist background.  The other nineteen countries at the bottom in this category, are all strongly Muslim.  India, the world's largest Hindu country, stands 25th from the bottom. 

Buddhist countries mostly stand somewhere in the middle (as perhaps appropriate for followers of the Middle Path): Thailand, Taiwan, China, with Japan a bit higher than middle.  So is the Hindu nation of Nepal. 


The top 12 countries in this category all had Christian backgrounds.  Number 13, Israel, was predominantly Jewish. 

The country at the bottom in this country was Benin, an African country on the Atlantic coast and has 54 living languages and the world's lowest literary rate.  No religion had a majority in the country, though Christians are now listed as its largest minority, also with large minorities of Muslims, animists, and followers of Voodoo.  The Hindu country of Nepal came second from the bottom.  Liberia was seventh.  The next 13 were Muslim countries, after which came India, then China about eight notches up.

Again, Buddhist countries tended towards the middle: Thailand a bit lower, Japan marginally higher. (Yet surprisingly low, considering its economic development.)

Marriage and Children

Another of the criteria in this category seems a little strange -- the authors of the survey seem to assume that women are better off having fewer babies.  Surely that depends on whether women (and their husbands) WANT the babies.  Read Cheaper by the Dozen on the beautiful possibilities of large families.

Nine of the top ten countries were influenced by strongly Christian, mostly Protestant, traditions.  The exception was Taiwan, at number #4.  China was at #11, its highest ranking -- perhaps because of its one-child policy, an advantage unfair to women forced to have abortions!  In general, the survey seems to give communist countries too much credit, partly perhaps because its authors share some of theirvalues, partly because they took official statistics (on the eve of the Velvet Revolution) too seriously. 

The bottom ten countries in this category were all Muslim, with an extremely wealthy countries, Saudi Arabia, occupying the very bottom spot.  Hindu Nepal and India were also fairly low, while largely Buddhist (and wealthy) Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong were a bit above the middle. 


The top 22 countries in this category all had a Christian background.  This included two relatively poor countries, Poland and Chile. 

The four bottom countries are were Muslim, including Afghanistan, dead last.  Next came Nigeria, about even between Christian and Muslim, with some animists.  After that was Nepal, Hindu, Mozambique, mixed, and Malawi and Rwanda, Christian, but only for a couple generations.   

Social Equality

Specific data is missing for this category, though it is factored into the overall data, below. 

Overall Ranking for Status of Women (Color-coding: red for Christian background, green for Muslim background, purple for Hindu, pink for Buddhist.) 

Top 20

East Germany
USSR (in its last full year of existence, at the time)
New Zealand
West Germany
Great Britain . . .  21st
Japan . . . 34th

Bottom 20 (from worst)

North Yemen
Saudi Arabia
India . . . 23rd worst
China . . . just below the middle

Provisional Conclusions

If Christianity has locked women in a dungeon, it seems to have been a sloppy jailer, and seems to have to outsourced almost all jail-keeping duties to other cultures.  In fact, the data strongly suggests the opposite: that where the Bible has been influential, for whatever reason, women enjoy better health, more education, better working conditions, and more control of their families, than in the rest of the world.  The contrast with Islam is starkest, with ancient Hindu countries also stark, but also noticeable with Buddhist countries.  Nor can this be blamed purely on economics: rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait and (to a much lesser extent) Japan tend to do surprisingly poorly. 

The only exceptions are a few African countries that have only recently become Christian, or were still only just partially Christian by 1988. 

How can we explain these dramatic figures?  The simplest explanation is that Christianity (and possibly Judaism) have consistently elevated the status of women, while Islam and Hinduism have lowered it, and Buddhism has had a more mixed effect.  But perhaps one shouldn't jump to this conclusion too quickly.  One possible alternate explanation is that the Enlightenment freed women in Europe first, and then, by  extension, those countries influenced most deeply by European colonialism, which also happen to be those that were "Christianized." 

But as I will now show, Christianity in fact began liberating women (how many, I will also give a rough estimate in each historical era) long before the Enlightenment.  Finally, I will then demonstrate the source of that influence: the teachings of Jesus.


cactusren said...

The thing you seem to be missing in this socioeconomic analysis is the economic part. The countries that have better status of women scores are all better developed economically than those with poor scores. I'd like to see the actual numbers here, or a principal components analysis, which might tell us which factor (economics or religion) is better correlated with the status of women.

Also, 1988? Are there really no more recent statistics out there on this subject?

David B Marshall said...

Cactus: That's how the authors of the study interpreted it, and even more, the press. But in fact some rich countries did quite poorly, like Saudi Arabia and (to a much lesser extent) Japan.

Beliefs influence a culture's basic assumptions over many centuries: it's not a quick thing. So I think it's more reasonable to compare countries that have had established beliefs for a long period of time.

This also means that 23 years is a flash in the pan, in historical terms. Things probably have changed since then: there may be better statistics from formerly communist countries, true.

Also, please read Part IV and V, where I show the causation that underlies this particular correlation, and extends it to non-Christian countries.

Anonymous said...

With the recent escalation of radical feminism within the atheist/skeptical community(pass the popcorn! "FreeThought" Blogs provides endless entertainment) I got to thinking.
The Reformation set the status of women in Christianity by stripping the Holy Mother of her unique status and ubiquitous presence in Christian culture. The practice of sainthood, recognized the value of individual females within the faith. Nuns were in essence, the first feminists. Rather than assume the traditional role of motherhood, these women formed independent organiztions, headed by women. By establishing schools, hospitals, orphanages, and countless other charitable institutions, women did not merely reap the benefits of Christian doctrine, they exemplified it. For a largely illiterate world, Scripture had limited influence on society. But demonstrating the love and mercy of Christ through action, gained traction.
The Reformation was absolutely vital to maintaining Christianity, by rescuing it from corruption. It paradoxically reformed Catholicism. But many of the benefits, particularly for women, were sacrificed. At a cursory assessment of the Catholic Church, one can easily conclude that women have little status since they are not eligible for the clergy. Christ is the central focal point from an interior designer standpoint. But you'll find that Mary (a female)is honored for her ultimate obedience to God, self sacrifice, and goodness in humanity.

David B Marshall said...

Anon (?): Thanks for your interesting thoughts, there may be some validity to them. But I think the statistics in this part of the series, and the history in the next part, plus the gospel analysis in the final part, show that Scripture in fact had quite a bit of impact, if not always as much as one might wish.

Honestly, I just don't understand the common conflation of status of women with elligibility for the priesthood. This is an issue that affects only a tiny minority of women. Given dramatic abuses like foot-binding and sati, and such larger issues like education, the structure of the family, and health care, whether or not one in ten thousand women are allowed to do a certain job, seems pretty trivial to me.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Dave, You keep employing the phrase, "countries with a Christian background," without noting how vague and nebulous a phrase that is, nor noting what else many modern industrialized nations have in common besides their "Christian backgrounds."

Many European countries and international corporations that hire female workers place them in largely secular environments today.

And the scientific, technological, economic, and educational revolutions as well as agricultural revolutions that allow western nations to prosper and travel to other nations and teach and aid them, and gift them with help, are not all of indubitably "Christian" origin.

Natural human curiosity after the invention of glass lenses that showed us the stars and microbes, catalyzed human curiosity, leading to revolution after revolution in science and technology. But Christianity for over a thousand years taught that curiosity was a sin and the thing that brilliant minds should be most interested in was obtaining salvation for themselves and others, including specifying how important this Christian doctrine and practice over others, with subsequent endless bickering, ill will, competition, even war between Christians.

Lastly, once women do become devout members of various churches many of them begin to question the male domination of such institutions, including not only their church's misogyny, but the relationships of men to women in marriage as taught by churches:

On the subject of having loads of children, one might read the book, NO LONGER QUIVERING, about one woman's exit from the quivering movement.

Conversely, one might look at the way some societies seem geared toward cycles of overpopulation and resulting famine like Chinese history teaches us happened time and again, even before Mao.

The global population is also something one might take notice of as ground water keeps being depleted due to overuse, and we keep turning more and more of the planet into things humans use and discard, including whole rain forests and non-human species that continue to vanish.

Without taking responsibility for the numbers of our own species we are no better than bacteria which God also commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" like us, with no command to ever stop multiplying or filling the earth.