Dear North America, You're Not As Great As You Think

Last week, Iranian-American scholar Reza Aslan taught all North Americans a lesson: don't generalize when it comes to regions of the world you know nothing about. In an interview with CNN, Aslan destroyed Bill Maher's two cents that the Muslim world "has too much in common with ISIS." His message? Not all Muslim countries are the same. While women are brutally repressed in Saudi Arabia and Iran, they have equal rights in Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

"Do you know that Muslims have elected seven women as their heads of state in those Muslim-majority countries?" Aslan asked the befuddled anchors. "How many women do we have as heads of state in the United States?"

Burn. As a colleague wrote on Facebook: "CNN, Bill Maher: You'll find the aloe in aisle four." And the criticism didn't end there.

On Friday, Ben Affleck called Maher's views on Islam "gross" and "racist" on the host's show Real Time.

Though it's tempting to dismiss the American broadcasters as bigots, the truth is, most of us don't associate "women's rights" with Muslim culture. North Americans tend to see the rest of the world through the lens of outdated stereotypes or extremist violence that makes the news. If we started to think more like Aslan, we'd realize some countries without indoor plumbing are actually surpassing us on policy.

If it surprises you that women have equal rights in some Islamic countries, the following feminist hub might knock you off your seat: Rwanda. Just let that sink in. Rwanda. The country where 20 years ago hundreds of thousands of women were raped during the genocide now has the highest proportion of female politicians in the world (64 per cent). In Canada and the U.S., where women comprise more than half of the populations, they make up roughly a quarter of elected officials. As Rwanda re-built its villages post-genocide, it tore down rigid gender roles. We may have Beyonce and Sheryl Sandberg, but the African state has a 30 per cent quota for women in politics enshrined in its constitution.

In North America, we're often better at talking about problems than solving them. Take income inequality. Experts and journalists have found countless ways to present the massive problem - "CEOs earn 300 times that of ordinary workers", "The wealthiest 10 per cent of Canadians earn almost half of the country's income" - yet policy-wise, nothing concrete has changed. We should look to Brazil for answers. Over a decade ago, the government started a program called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) which gives money to poor mothers on the condition their children go to school and get vaccinated. The handout keeps many just above the poverty line, but works in tandem with other programs such as the minimum wage. The results? Kids graduate and extreme poverty has been reduced by 89 per cent.

Brazil's neighbour, Bolivia, should be another example to Canadians. It's a nation most of us associate with poverty, but which puts us to shame it comes to working with indigenous peoples and grappling with a legacy of colonialism. Canada was recently the only country to reject a UN document that protects the rights of indigenous people (we took issue with some wording the government argues could give aboriginals veto power). It happened at the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous People at the end of September, where our prime minister, aboriginal affairs minister and environment minister were all no-shows. By contrast it was Bolivia's indigenous president, Evo Morales, who spearheaded the conference. The country has made protecting indigenous rights a pillar of its constitution.

Bolivia defines itself as "plurinational" to formally include First Nations. It adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as national law, granting, among other things, rights to land and the use of natural resources. Meanwhile in Canada, government relations with First Nations are frosty. It's the Supreme Court, not the feds, that has finally given aboriginals more control over their land. Ottawa refuses to hand over unedited documents from residential schools and avoids negotiating with anyone other than a national chief. In the Great White North, many First Nations people still live in abhorrent conditions on neglected reserves.

The lessons North Americans can learn from developing nations go on. While our politicians argue over pipelines, Cuba is kicking our butts on sustainability, with a renewable energy program that includes handouts of ten million energy-saving light bulbs and an electricity fee structure that rewards low consumers. While Toronto mayoral candidates bandy about half-baked transit plans, a city in Colombia has a system that's the subject of world envy.

North America often acts like the popular kid from high school who didn't evolve after graduation. We're too busy navel-gazing to notice how much progress the underdogs have made. It's time to put down the mirror and grow up.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen