Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

8 sexist laws you won’t believe still exist

A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia October 22, 2013. A conservative Saudi Arabian cleric has said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and bearing children with clinical problems, countering activists who are trying to end the Islamic kingdom's male-only driving rules. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are barred from driving, but debate about the ban, once confined to the private sphere and social media, is increasingly spreading to public forums too. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY TRANSPORT) - RTX14JLI

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women aren’t allowed to drive Image: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Gender Inequality

It’s been said that there has never been a better time to be born female. No doubt it’s true. But it’s also a fact that no country in the world has closed its gender gap.

While many of the barriers to women’s equality lie in age-old and deeply rooted stereotypes and cultures, others are actually written into law. In other cases, some of the most basic laws needed to secure equal rights are absent. Here are eight of the most shocking.

India: Where husbands can rape their wives, with no consequences

Can rape ever be justified? The answer should be an emphatic “no”. Except that in India, along with approximately 49 other countries, there is an exception: when the perpetrator is married to the victim.

Two years ago, the United Nations recommended the country criminalize marital rape. The government responded by arguing that such a law was incompatible with the understanding of marriage in the country.

“The concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors, such as levels of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs and mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament,” the government explained in a press release at the time. A survey by the Hindustan Times revealed that most Indians don’t agree with this stance.

Image: Hindustan Times
Russia: Where domestic violence isn’t necessarily a crime

Russia made headlines for all the wrong reasons earlier this year, when the country’s parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of an amendment that decriminalizes domestic abuse.

The excuses were very similar to those made in India: that the family is sacred and the state has no right intervening in people’s marriages, not even to protect at-risk women. “The family is a delicate environment where people should sort things out themselves,” Maria Mamikonyan of the All-Russian Parents Resistance movement told journalists at the time.

Given that, according to estimates from the Interior Ministry, a woman dies every 40 minutes at the hands of an intimate partner in Russia, the move to decriminalize violence at home was condemned by many human rights organizations.

United States: Where rapists can claim parental rights

It takes a brave person to follow through with a pregnancy that resulted from rape. And yet as difficult as that decision is, it’s estimated that of the 17,000-32,000 women who are raped and impregnated in the US each year, around 32% to 50% of them keep the babies.

If any of those women are unlucky enough to live in Maryland, Alabama, Mississippi, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming or New Mexico, they might find themselves in a custody battle with their attacker. That’s because unlike the rest of the US, these seven states have no laws blocking rapists from claiming parental rights.

The issue made headlines again in April when Maryland failed to pass a law that would have protected rape victims who decided to keep their babies.

Image: CNN
Sudan: Where girls as young as 10 can get married

The most important thing a child should have to worry about is whether they will have their homework finished on time.

Not so for girls in Sudan, where 1 in 3 of them are married before they turn 18. In fact, the law even allows for girls as young as 10 to be married off by their guardian, as long as they have the permission of a judge. That makes it the lowest legal age of marriage in Africa, a continent where the problem is already relatively widespread.

The charity Girls not Brides does note that Sudan is part of an African Union campaign to end child marriage, but so far the laws have not been changed.

 Map showing where child marriage (under 18) is most widespread
Map showing where child marriage (under 18) is most widespread Image: UNICEF
Iran: Where wives need permission to travel abroad

Remember how frustrating it was as a child when you had to get your parents’ permission for everything? Welcome to the life of a married woman in Iran. Not only do women need a notarized permission slip from their husband to apply for a passport, they also need their spouse’s approval before leaving the country.

These sexist laws were cast into the spotlight two years ago when the captain of the country’s female soccer team wasn’t able to travel to an international tournament, after her husband refused to sign a permission slip allowing her to renew her passport.

Iranian women holding their passports wait to cast their votes at the shrine of Hazrat-e Massoumeh, granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad, during the presidential elections in the city of Qom, 120 km (75 miles) south of Tehran, June 12, 2009.  REUTERS/Damir Sagolj   (IRAN POLITICS ELECTIONS IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR24KW1
Iranian women holding their passports Image: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Jordan: Where women can be killed in the name of “honour”

There’s no honour in killing a partner, daughter, sister or niece for an alleged moral transgression, and yet all too many countries still show leniency towards murderers who use this as an excuse.

In Jordan, articles 340 and 98 of the penal code allow judges to give reduced sentences in cases where a murder was committed in response to adultery or during a fit of anger.

“The presence of these articles contributes to the continuation of social attitudes that view the body of women as a vessel for family honour,” Salma Nims, secretary-general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, told journalists.

Belarus: Where women can’t become truck drivers

It’s a question most kids get asked at some point: what do you want to be when you grow up? For little girls in Belarus, they had better not aspire to one day be a truck driver. That’s because it’s one of 181 occupations that are banned for women.

The sexist laws have their roots in the country’s Soviet past, and were initially introduced to protect women from jobs that were deemed to be too dangerous or strenuous. But over 80 years later, and even as technology has lightened the burden of many of these roles, there are still some people who defend the laws.

“There are certain jobs that a woman just shouldn’t do, because she has her children and family to worry about. There are plenty of less demanding occupations out there for women,” Aleksander Zaitsev, chief technical inspector with the country’s largest pro-government trade union, told Open Democracy.

 Belarus is one of 100 countries where women are barred from certain jobs
Belarus is one of 100 countries where women are barred from certain jobs Image: World Bank
Saudi Arabia: Where women aren’t allowed to drive

And finally, perhaps the most infamous of state-approved female discrimination: Saudi Arabia’s ban on driving for women. While there is no written law, only men can be issued with driving licenses, making it illegal for women to drive.

A note placed by an unknown person on female driver Azza Al Shmasani's car, is pictured in Saudi Arabia June 22, 2011. Saudi Arabia has no formal ban on women driving. But as citizens must use only Saudi-issued licences in the country, and as these are issued only to men, women drivers are anathema. An outcry at the segregation, which contributes to the general cloistering of Saudi women, has been fuelled by social media interest in two would-be female motorists arrested in May.  REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed   (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: TRANSPORT SOCIETY) - RTR2NYLS
A note placed on female driver Azza Al Shmasani's car in Saudi Arabia Image: REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

This piece from the Atlantic gives a great breakdown of the ban’s cultural and religious background, but hopefully it won’t be around for much longer: at the end of last year, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia publicly referred to it as “unjust” and an “infringement on women’s rights”, and called on his country to allow women behind the wheel.

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