My mother began her career as a high-school teacher in a country that regarded women as the property of men. She could not get a bank account or a credit card of her own, only one bearing my father's name - and only with his permission and under his control. Most jobs were open only to men. Only a quarter of drivers were women, and the whole phenomenon of women driving was hotly debated in the media.
That was Canada in the 1960s. I kept that in mind on Friday as I watched the ebullient spectacle of dozens of Saudi Arabian women daring to defy their country's laws by getting into cars and driving. You might think their humble rebellion is doomed to failure. But we forget how fast things can change, and how suddenly that change can begin.
We tend to think of the gross mistreatment of women as a matter of deeply rooted tradition and custom: Some places are just like that. Religion and culture are timeless, we like to believe. Sexual equality, then, is pointless: It would be an utterly alien import.
But the world doesn't work that way. The mistreatment of women is not some inevitable outcome of specific cultures and customs; rather, it is something that emerges in its own right, a poison that takes over and paralyzes nations.
That became vividly apparent this week with the release of a study conducted by Thomson Reuters Corp. on behalf of a legal foundation. It posed a bold question: "What is the worst place in the world to be a woman?" And it got its answer by surveying 213 experts on gender relations from five continents, all of whom have knowledge of the situations in multiple countries.
That Afghanistan (Muslim) and Congo (Christian) were the two worst countries wasn't any surprise: Both are victims of terrible conflicts that have used the mass abuse of women as martial acts. Pakistan, the third worst, was also no surprise: Also once far more open, its political chaos and poverty have left it open to the worst religious influences.
What stood out was the presence of India, the world's largest democracy, a place that has risen dramatically from poverty into "middle income" success, as the fourth worst of 195 countries for women. How could this be? A country that is 80 per cent Hindu, a religion that says little about the subjection of women, and deifies some? A country that, as my colleague Stephanie Nolen recently reported, "has more key political powerbrokers who are women than any other country in the world," including its president, the head of its ruling party, and the premiers of four of its states?
But few experts would disagree with the assessment. I wouldn't either. It isn't just the headline issues - murder of non-boy babies, teenage forced marriage and pregnancy, mass sex trafficking of unwanted female children - but also the treatment of women as dowry tokens, the disdain for non-arranged marriage, the all-too widespread groping and simmering sexual abuse, the belief among too many men that women are either virtuous brides or disposable whores. This is not in the nature of Indians, but rather has become habitual among too many men, some of whom can be found in every social class. Much of this has not improved, but has become worse: As economic gains have brought smaller families, the preference for boy children has multiplied.
None of it is traditional or timeless or built into the religion. Indian culture or economics or poverty aren't causing it, but it is having a dire effect on them. It has arisen and become a faith unto itself. It is unrelated, in any important way, to the wider culture - but it has choked back social and economic progress, preventing poor families from becoming more prosperous.
The second-class status of women is not, as this study shows, an inevitable outcome of any one religion or culture: The subjection of women is its own religion; it is a cause, not an effect. In all these countries, it usually expresses itself not as shame, but as celebration. Our women are precious, it is usually said. They must not be cast into the common world of men, but protected. The protection of their virtue is the subject of obsessive fear. As one commentator posted on a Pakistani news site in response to the study: "Compared to other countries, our women are much safer."
Here's a good rule: If you refer to them as "our women," then there is something deeply wrong. We are hardly in a position to act superior, for this sort of language was our part of guiding religion only recently, its effects still being felt within my lifetime. There is nothing timeless or inevitable about it.