- By Marya HannunMarya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.
People across the world are celebrating International Women’s Day today as both a reminder of the struggles women face and a celebration of their achievements and progress since the holiday’s inception in the early 20th century. In many countries, it’s even an official national holiday. But in a few, men are explicitly excluded from participating.
In countries such as China, Madagascar, and Nepal, the holiday is specifically geared toward "women only." In China, for instance, women get a half day off but men have to work. Other less institutionalized examples of male discrimination exist as well. The London borough of Tower Hamlets, for example, once made news by banning all men from its libraries on International Women’s Day.
This "positive discrimination" against men raises interesting questions in a world where gender gaps are still so pronounced. Just look at the latest figures for cross-country rankings of women’s political representation. Rwanda, is the only country in the world where women outnumber men in parliament, and just by 6.3 percent. The bottom five countries, conversely, have zero female participation, and Yemen, which comes in sixth-to-last, has a mere 0.3 percent. The United States ranks pretty poorly as well, finishing in 77th place with women holding only 17.8 percent of national legislative positions.
Globally, women are behind when it comes to literacy, health, and income, and things are not changing fast enough. According to the World Economic Forum’s comprehensive 2012 study, only nine countries have closed health and education gaps, while none have managed to completely eradicate gaps in economic or political participation.
Debates about the best ways to change these numbers often center on methods of "positive discrimination," from legislative quotas to affirmative action programs. But does positive discrimination reinforce problematic gender divides? Or is it necessary in a world where women are still so widely disadvantaged? These questions might be too complicated to tackle in a blog post, but they are certainly worth thinking about. Particularly on International Women’s Day.