Civilization's Gender Gap


Samuel Huntington was only half right. The cultural fault line that divides the West and the Muslim world is not about democracy but sex. According to a new survey, Muslims and their Western counterparts want democracy, yet they are worlds apart when it comes to attitudes toward divorce, abortion, gender equality, and gay rights?which may not bode well for democracy?s future in the Middle East.

That's the come-on for a provocative Foreign Policy article which argues that social attitudes toward gender equality are better indicators of whether the West can really get along with the Orthodox/Islamic East.

Everyone, even the leaders of Communist China, pays lip service to "democratic ideals" say authors Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, who oversaw the "World Values Survey." The real question is whether they actually embrace tolerance and pluralism.

The United States cannot expect to foster democracy in the Muslim world simply by getting countries to adopt the trappings of democratic governance, such as holding elections and having a parliament. Nor is it realistic to expect that nascent democracies in the Middle East will inspire a wave of reforms reminiscent of the velvet revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in the final days of the Cold War. A real commitment to democratic reform will be measured by the willingness to commit the resources necessary to foster human development in the Muslim world. Culture has a lasting impact on how societies evolve. But culture does not have to be destiny.

When I hear phrases like "real commitment" and "the resources necessary" I reach to make sure my wallet's still in my back pocket, and I have real doubts as to whether the sort of simple gender parity in global legislatures the authors seem to be talking about is all that important.

But I think the Inglehart and Norris have identified a major rift between East and West. The relative social, economic, and cultural autonomy of women in the West and the general acceptance of female sexuality as something other than terrifying and debilitating to civilization is one of the great accomplishments of Enlightenment-derived liberal modernity–and one that, as Mae West and Madonna could tell you, is of exceedingly recent vintage. The same is equally true for homosexual and alternative sexualities too.

[Link courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily.]