Sexist Afghan code highlights global inequalities

Today, women across the globe celebrate a century of freedoms won – voting rights, equality in marriage, equal pay laws. But a glance at the news shows we still have far to go.

Today is International Women’s Day. For the last 101 years, March 8th has been marked by protests, debates and campaigns to highlight the problems faced by women – as well as celebrations of the progress we have made. And there is much to celebrate: from suffrage to contraception to employment rights.

But this week – as if on cue – President Karzai of Afgahnistan backed a code that demonstrates how far horrendous inequalities persist. The code, written by a powerful council of hard-line Muslim clerics, is based on the principle that ‘men are fundamental and women are secondary.’ It endorses a shocking array of misogynist practices, denies women the right to leave the house alone, and condones beating women for disobedience.

Even before this development Afghanistan ranked as the world’s worst place to be a woman. 87% of its female population are illiterate, and the same proportion suffer from domestic abuse.

But other nations are little better. More than nine out of ten Somali girls, for example, face genital mutilation as young children. In Pakistan over 1,000 women per year are the victims of ‘honour killings’ by their family or community.

Readers in Europe and America, where women are largely free from this systematic brutality and repression, will recoil in horror at such statistics. But are Westerners really as equal and enlightened as they tend to assume?

Not entirely. Women in Europe still earn 25% less than men in equivalent jobs, despite pay equality laws. In business, a ‘glass ceiling’ means women occupy only 8.5% of top boardroom positions. And, with the honourable exception of Scandinavia, men are the majority in every parliament worldwide.

And more subtle discriminatory attitudes are arguably at least as damaging. The media, for instance, is widely criticised for perpetuating a superficial obsession with particular female body shapes. As a result, eating disorders among teenage girls are almost an epidemic.

Women’s plights

It is ridiculous, say some, to compare the outright abuse suffered by Afghan women with the petty frustrations of women in the West. Who cares if a super-rich American businesswoman gets paid slightly less than her male colleagues? International Women’s Day, they argue, should be about the women all over the world who are genuinely and tragically oppressed.

Of course, comes the reply, some women have a much harder time than others. But the root of most women’s problems is the same: a historic male domination of society that persists even after a century of struggle. This fundamental inequality is one of the world’s greatest evils and must be fought wherever it is found.

You Decide

  1. How sexist is the society you live in?
  2. Would you consider yourself a feminist?


  1. Design a poster to raise awareness about the problems women face around the world.
  2. Make a list of the things that a woman can do in your country today which she couldn’t have done in 1911.

Some People Say...

“Why isn’t there this much fuss about International Men’s Day? That’s discrimination.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m a girl and I’ve never felt discriminated against. Isn’t all this equality stuff a bit outdated?
In many countries, women are freer than ever. But they still suffer from disadvantages that men don’t. You are free to pursue an ambitious career, for instance; but if you choose to have children you may well be expected to drop it for a while and look after them. This handicaps many women’s working life. More grimly, women are overwhelmingly the targets of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
How can I help change things?
If you want to help, today’s the day to start. Take a look at the ‘events’ section of the International Women’s Day website to find something near you. If that’s too short notice, the website has plenty of other resources to help you get informed and involved.

Word Watch

Women’s suffrage – that is, the right to vote – was achieved in the UK in 1918. It followed decades of campaigning by ‘suffragettes,’ including hunger strikes and civil disobedience. Others, called ‘suffragists’, used legal means like writing to politicians.
Misogyny literally means hatred of women. The ‘miso-’ prefix comes from the Greek misein, meaning ‘to hate’ and can be found in other words like ‘misanthropy’ (hatred of all people), ‘misandry’ (hatred of men), and even ‘misocyny’ (hatred of dogs).
Glass ceiling
The ‘glass ceiling’ is a popular metaphor for an invisible barrier which prevents women progressing within a career. Women are not banned from top jobs, but often social and cultural factors prevent them from gaining them. The phrase has spawned a bunch of others: ‘stained glass ceilings’ for women in the Church, ‘bamboo ceilings’ for people of Asian descent and ‘sticky floors’ for women trapped in low-wage jobs, to name just a few.
Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway have a habit of topping charts that measure equality. Gender is no exception. Iceland has packed its government with women in an effort to avoid the mistakes made in the past by men!

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