I. Overview of the Status of Women Having seen how the Christian faith might influence the mind of a young believer on missions, let us now step back several orders of geographical amplification, and take an overview of the status of women around the world. Our tool for doing so will be 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, helps indicate where the paper's authors are coming from. Some of the criteria by which they analyze the status of women seem to reflect a western feminist bias. However, one has to start somewhere, and this paper gives a good snapshot of the general state of affairs by 1988. While this is a few decades ago now, that's a fine time to start, since various religions had, by that time, had plenty of time to work their magic, or mischief, in the civilizations which they influenced. The authors did NOT seem to mainly interpret these findings in terms of religion, but in terms of poverty, as the subtitle also indicates. (And that is how the newspaper article reporting the study, which I read while living in Taiwan, interpreted matters.) It is helpful, in a sense, that the study's authors do not appear to come to the issue with a religious bias. While perhaps biased towards certain secular ideologies, in choosing among religions, the study is thus reasonably objective. (Though we will later also see how a Muslim scholar reworks the same body of data.)
One bias the authors may hold, that may warp some findings, is they seem to too sanguinely accept communist figures, which probably deserve skepticism. Also, they omit questions of great importance to many women, such as, "Is your husband a raging drunk?" That would no doubt have pushed 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 would push 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 inconvenient wives: the virtues of freedom and commitment create a complex nexus of goods and ills which is not easily evaluated.
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 (Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru), while others are mostly immigrants from Europe (Argentina, Uruguay) or Africa (especially Haiti). 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, and draw conclusions.
In the following post, 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 we'll look more closely at the gospels.
Of the top 17 countries when it comes to employment, Mozambique is a mix of Muslim (18% in 2007), Christian (56%, but this would have been lower two decades earlier), and animist (7%, but this would have been higher). The other countries 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: women being left behind, the workforce would have become more feminine.
Of the bottom 20 countries, Lesotho, a poor land-locked country in southern Africa, is now 90% Christian, from an animist background. (Though this number has probably increased since 1988, since Christianity grew rapidly in Africa over the 20th Century.)
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 category was Benin, an African country on the Atlantic coast which 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 (43%), 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 and high level of general education.)
Marriage and Children
One 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 which is grossly unfair to women who have been forced to have abortions! (In Heart for Freedom, Chai Ling, one of the leaders of the Democracy Movement just the year after this survey, tell her own story of rape and abortion, and her work for All Girls Allowed which attempts to offset the Chinese tendency to abort female babies!) In general, the survey seems to give communist countries too much credit, partly perhaps because its authors share some of their values, partly because they took official statistics (on the eve of the Velvet Revolution) far too seriously.
Still, it is worth noting that the bottom ten countries in this category were all Muslim, with an extremely wealthy country, 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 Chile, which while richer than most Latin countries was not very wealth in 1988, and Poland, which was still quite poor.
The four bottom countries are were Muslim, including Afghanistan, dead last. Next came Nigeria, about evenly mixed between Christian and Muslim, with some animists. Nigeria, Africa's largest country, grew from about 36% Christian in 1963, to about half presently. So the percentage in 1988 was likely in the low 40s, with more Muslims, and a significant indigenous African presence still. After that came Nepal, which is Hindu, Mozambique, mixed, and Malawi and Rwanda, Christian, but only for a couple generations.
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, black for Marxist or atheist.)
USSR (in its last full year of existence)
Great Britain . . . 21st
Japan . . . 34th
India . . . 23rd worst
China . . . just below the middle
If Christianity has locked women in a dungeon, it seems to have been an uncommonly sloppy jailer, and seems to have to outsourced the jail-keeping duties to other cultures. In fact, the data strongly suggests just 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.
Countries which were still communist (and largely atheist) in 1988 appear at first glance to do pretty well, many appearing at or near the "top of the charts." This data should be interpreted from three perspectives: (1) Most communist countries listed were also post-Christian, or still partially Christian, and therefore their cultures were historically influenced by biblical teachings. (This is reflected by the black-and-red mix of letters in their names, above.) (2) Communism did emphasize women's rights, which led to greater female literacy and participation in politics, along with reforms such as attempting to end prostitution. This was even true in non-Christian countries: as a young man Mao Zedong, for instance, wrote movingly about a girl who had been forced to commit suicide rather than marry against her will. (He later acquired a large harem, however.) (3) Communist statistics were unreliable and misleading, however. Women in the Soviet Union may have "enjoyed" an advantage over men because they drunk less, maybe, but that only placed a larger burden on mothers and wives. (When I worked on a Soviet ship, the only women on board seemed to be cooks, none ate in the officer's mess with me.) In China, the survey actually gives an "advantage" to women because of low birth rate: but what that meant in practice, was that women were forced to have abortions against their will, and usually ended up aborting girls at a far higher rate than boys.
How can we explain the dramatically higher status which this survey seems to show for women in Christian or post-Christian countries? 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. And then I will demonstrate the source of that influence: the teachings and example of Jesus.