Which is worse, a burqa or a bikini? A scantily clad Samba contest or female genital mutilation? That is the earnest question NPR asked this week in its piece “Which Place Is More Sexist: The Middle East Or Latin America?” Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR’s South American correspondent, attempted to answer the question while ignoring the data on maternal mortality, the ratio of women in government, women’s ability to secure a drivers license or the number of children married before the age of 10.
Garcia-Navarro may have thought pitting one region against the other would be a fun experiment, but when it comes to gender equality, the Middle East and Latin America are not in the same category — they’re not even in the same century.
Early on, Garcia-Navarro concedes that, yes, Brazil has a female president (as do Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica) and that, sure, “This isn’t Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive, or Afghanistan under the Taliban, where women could not study.” But beauty pageants are very popular in Brazil, and liposuction is rampant; therefore, are they really that different? The answer is yes, they are.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn addressed why in their 2010 book Half the Sky: “We tend to think of Latin America, with its legacy of machismo, as a man’s world. But Mexico and other Latin countries actually do pretty well at educating girls and keeping them alive. Most Latin nations have populations that are majority female. Maternity hospitals even in poor neighborhoods of South American cities such as Bogota and Quito provide free prenatal care and delivery, because saving women’s lives is considered by society to be a priority.” This imperative to value, even glorify, mothers may come from a patriarchal place in the region’s collective religious unconscious, but the outcome is longer life expectancy and greater quality of life for women.
According to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, the Middle East “ranks the lowest on the Economic Participation and Opportunity and Political Empowerment subindexes.” Also:
Thirteen of the 20 lowest performing countries on the work force participation indicator are from the region, as are eleven of the lowest on the estimated earned income indicator. Seven of the lowest countries on the Political Empowerment subindex are also from the region. One of only two countries with a score of zero on the Political Empowerment subindex are from the region.
By contrast, Latin America is a shining example of growing gender parity. It closed 70 percent of its overall gender gap in 2013, and showed “the biggest improvements from last year compared to the other regions.” When the report counted the number of female legislators, senior officials and managers, 10 out of the 20 best performing nations are in Latin America. And “the three overall highest climbers of the 110 countries that have been included in the Report since 2006 are from Latin America and the Caribbean Coast: Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador.”
Garcia-Navarro is right about one thing: Latin America’s history of violence and conflict has not spared women. Violence toward women in the region has been on the rise in the last decade and is often tied to long-running armed conflicts. Latin America is also sexist and patriarchal. I am reminded of this every year, when I go back to Colombia, where I grew up. My uncle’s off-color jokes, the cat-calling, the scantily clad women parading themselves on TV between weight-loss commercials, and all the plastic surgery, which has real health risks and constitutes a multimillion-dollar industry rolling deep in the low self-esteem of women.
But even if my female relatives have had plastic surgery, they are also moving around unchaperoned, driving cars and getting college degrees. They are doctors, architects, stockbrokers, business owners, philosophers and lawyers — and these are just the women in my family. (This while Iran is banning women from college majors, Saudi Arabia is almost ready to give women the right to vote, and in Yemen, a woman is not considered a full person in the eyes of the courts.)
Garcia-Navarro writes that, “The Middle East and Latin America’s most famously immodest country both impose their own burdens on women in the way they are treated and perceived.” She’s right. And I don’t want to generalize as she does: There are many countries in the Middle East — like Israel and Lebanon — where women have it good. But to wonder what’s worse, a society where a woman can go outside wearing whatever she wants and go wherever she chooses to one where, in some countries, women are stoned for being raped, means you fundamentally don’t understand what you’re asking.
Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo is a photo editor at Slate and co-founder and writer at Femination: http://femination.org.