The Global Gender Gap Index, compiled since 2006 by the World Economic Forum, provides a wealth of information on the relative distribution of national resources between men and women in four key areas: health, education, economy and politics.
In 2013, the WEF compiled data from 136 countries, ranking them according to the gap between women and men in these four key areas.
The 10 countries where the gap is least pronounced include Nordic countries, Nicaragua and the Philippines. Canada ranks 20th, with surprisingly low rankings for G8 members France (45th), Russia (61st) and Japan (105th).
The most striking feature of this year's report stands out in the colour-coded world map of national rankings, where a large swath of "red" (signifying the lowest-ranking countries) covers North Africa, the Middle East and Southwestern Asia. Cross-referencing with population data from the 2012 Pew Global Religious Landscape Report, one finds that 19 of the bottom 27 countries have majority Muslim populations, with 18 of those having a minimum Muslim population of 75 per cent. Furthermore, a number of Muslim-majority countries such as Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Tunisia are excluded from the study due to lack of available data.
As the report indicates, reducing the gender gap is directly correlated to a nation's competitiveness, its GDP per capita and human development. Women form half a country's population, and if they are denied equal opportunity in education, health, economy and politics, the country will operate at lower capacity. Gender discrimination has economic consequences for all.
The 2013 Gender Gap Report does not reflect well on many of these Muslim countries, since resources and opportunities are allotted disproportionately to men over women. This is most acute in the arena of political participation, in which Brunei and Qatar have a political empowerment sub-index of zero – dead last in the world. Other Muslim countries in the group of 19 hardly do better, as political rule is almost completely male-dominated. The average political empowerment gender gap sub-index in these nations is 0.07, meaning that there are roughly seven women per 100 men in positions of political power at the national level.
The economic landscape is also dismal; the average gender gap in the economic opportunity sub-index of these 19 is 0.45.
While many of these countries have made great strides toward investing in female education and health, the results are mixed in terms of integrating women into the labour force. More worrisome are Pakistan and Yemen, which rank near the bottom of the education sub-index. These two have been chronic underperformers since the WEF began compiling data in 2006. It's no coincidence, perhaps, that they continue to suffer from the effects of political instability and extremism.
There are, however, a few silver linings for Muslim countries.
Kazakhstan ranked 32nd overall (and tied for first in the health sub-index). Bangladesh ranked seventh in the world in the political empowerment sub-index (Canada was 45th), while the United Arab Emirates and Maldives tied with others (including Canada) for first with a perfect score of 1.00 in the education sub-index.
Senegal showed the greatest improvement among all countries, jumping from 90th to 67th in one year; it also ranked 20th in women's political empowerment. And despite their low rankings, Saudi Arabia and Yemen trail only Nicaragua in achieving the greatest relative reduction in the gender gap index since 2006. The hope is that, with many Muslim countries investing heavily in female education and health, disparities in economic opportunity and political empowerment will lessen over time.
Nonetheless, the report paints a grim picture for many Muslim countries. There will be the usual defensive responses blaming the West. However, the way forward is to tackle the issue head-on.
In his final sermon, the Prophet Mohammed counselled: "Do treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers," reiterating the Koranic message of partnership between genders as a basis for building a strong society. Muslims would do well to reflect on how far current attitudes toward women deviate from this message.