Woman. It is one simple word. A word that everyone knows. A word that describes roughly 50% of the world population. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a woman as:
What one should note about the above definition is that none of it suggests that a woman is somehow lacking in certain qualities. It does not state that a woman is unfit to make political decisions. It does not say that being a woman means a person is not cut out to succeed in the corporate world. It does not state that the government is more suited to decide about a woman’s body than she is. Yet society seems to have trouble understanding that.
Although there is undeniable evidence of the immense amount of progress that has been made towards the emancipation of women, as 2015 marked the year when the last country that denied women the right to vote* – Saudi Arabia, finally passed a law that gives its entire adult population a voice in the election process, it is not all roses.
Despite the improvement of the position of women in Saudi Arabia, in the words of one of the country’s 2019 campaigners, being of the female gender is still synonymous with being a ‘second-class citizen’. This is partly due to the country’s guardianship system. This is a system that restricts women’s freedom by requiring a male guardian’s permission for things such as starting a business. It not only forces women to be over-reliant on men but also hurts the Saudi Arabian economy as it prevents a large part of its labor force from taking entrepreneurial opportunities and discourages autonomy among women. According to the World Bank, in 2019, Saudi Arabia’s female labor force participation rate was 23 percent, meaning that only 23 percent of women of working age actually had a job (the world female labor force participation rate is 47 percent). This figure is even more shocking compared to the male labor force participation rate in Saudi Arabia (2019), which was 82 percent, thus showing the vast gap between male and female involvement in the economy.
However, Saudi Arabia is still considered a developing nation. Surely, women’s freedom is not as restricted in developed countries. Unfortunately, this is not true. An example of how women are stripped of their most basic right; the right to be in control of what happens to their own body, is a European Union member state – Poland. The current Polish government – Law and Justice (PiS, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), has made a mark on the country’s history through implementing one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the EU. Polish women are not legally allowed to have an abortion unless there is “a threat to the mother’s life… a fetal abnormality, or when pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest.” However, as scary as this might sound, the government is not the biggest enemy to Polish women, it is the Polish people themselves.
In 2008, a 14-year-old girl, who was referred to as Agata by the Polish press, was raped. Despite the law being on Agata’s side, her mother’s request for an abortion was denied by a hospital in Lublin and the girl’s gynecologist forced her to see a priest. The next hospital, located in Warsaw, although at first seemingly more willing to cooperate felt pressured to drop Agata as a patient due to harassment by church members and anti-abortion organizations. In the end, the girl and her mother had to travel “500km from [their] home to Gdansk to have the abortion.”
What this case shows is that even when the legal framework is in place, it comes down to the people to execute it. Therefore, it is not enough to change the law, as it is not the law that governs a country, it is its people.
Thus, in order for the emancipation of women to keep on moving forward, society needs to not only write down the correct words but understand and internalize them. The Oxford English Dictionary contains the correct definition of a woman: simply a female human being. However, for now, society does not seem to understand that the fact that women are human beings also means that they are to be treated as such.
Written by Alexandra Keller
*This excludes Brunei and Eritrea where both men and women are denied the right to vote and the Vatican City where only cardinals are given this right.
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Irish Times
- The World bank
- Foreign Policy
- The Guardian