Arab Publics Continue to See Women as Second-Class Citizens

Pamela Abbott

Honorary Professor at the University of Aberdeen.

Andrea Teti

Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and IR, University of Aberdeen

During the Arab Uprisings in 2011 women as well as men engaged in political activism, on the streets and virtually. Some thought that after the Uprisings the Arab public would be more willing to accept the rights of women. However, this seems to have been a forlorn hope. Public option surveys carried out in the region since 2011 suggest that gender attitudes remain essentially patriarchal albeit that women are marginally more supportive of women’s rights than men. There is not even evidence that younger men and/or women are more supportive of gender equality than their elders, as is sometimes assumed. It might seem paradoxical, then, that when asked in 2013 in the Arab Barometer survey if they thought that gender equality should be mandated in their countries’ constitution there was near-total agreement that this should be the case, with men nearly as supportive as women. However, at the same time there was also the same level of support for Shari’a being mandated as the basis for law with no discernible differences between men and women[1]. Despite some variation across different countries, public opinion across the Arab Middle East seem to believe on the one hand that there should be gender equality, and on the other hand that the law should not only accord men and women different rights but also give women fewer rights.

Data from the 2014 Arab Transformations Survey suggests that this paradox is partly explained by interesting differences in gender attitudes in the four main areas of life generally used to measure progress towards closing the gender gap – education, employment, political life, and family life.  Public opinion, it seems, is fairly supportive of girls being educated, it is not strongly opposed to married women having paid employment, but it does not think that women make as good political leaders as men and wants the law to make women second-class citizens. A clear majority of both men and women do not think education is more important for a boy than for a girl, although overall a quarter do think this – varying from a fifth in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, to a quarter in Iraq and Jordan and a third in Libya.

Given that Arab countries have some of the lowest female labour-market participation rates in the world, a surprisingly high proportion of respondents, around three quarters, think a married woman should be able to have paid employment if she wants it. The proportion is somewhat lower in Egypt, but even there 57 per cent of people support married women’s right to employment. Women are noticeably more likely than men to support wives’ right to paid employment. However, when it comes to politics the picture is rather different. Although a clear majority, 60 percent, think that a woman can be president of a Muslim country, an even larger majority think that men make better political leaders than women: around 70 per cent, including three quarters of men and two thirds of women. In addition, there is strong agreement that family law should be based on Shari’a, with women just as supportive of this as men. This support is noticeably lower in Tunisia, but 70 per cent there still think family law should be based on Shari’a, compared to 90 per cent or more in the other five countries.

The Arab Transformations Index of Gender Equality, which combines the variables measuring the four dimension of education, employment, political life and family life, suggests that there is little appetite for gender equality, especially among men. Taking a score of 70 per cent or over as indicative of support for gender equality – a fairly conservative level at which to set the bar – only 17 per cent are supportive but with a noticeable difference between men and women: 1 woman in 4 compared to only 1 man in 10. The differences between the six countries are also significant: while none of the countries can be described as having liberal attitudes, statistical analysis shows that Egypt and Libya are the most conservative, while Morocco and Tunisia the least conservative. As well as confirming that there is a gender gap, with women less conservative than men, it also shows that age does not make a difference to such beliefs. Education, however, does make a difference, with those with little or no education being more conservative, and those with higher education more liberal.

It is clear that apparent high support for gender equality co-exists with a conservative preference for laws governing specific areas such as family matters, including marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, to be based on Islamic interpretations of religious texts. There is little support for a secular/Western view of women’s rights, and it is only on the issue of girl’s education that there is apparently strong support for gender equity. While public opinion does not seem to be strongly opposed to married women taking paid employment, the very low proportion that do suggests that there are strong barriers to women’s employment. There is a strong preference for male political leaders. However, it is the support for family law that makes it difficult to reconcile religious beliefs and gender equality, as the law gives women not just different but lesser rights than men.

These findings suggest that there are dismal prospects for progress on gender equality and the empowerment of women being made any time soon. Going beyond this they also have implications for democratisation and the establishment of stable democracies. Public opinion data suggests that political and religious preferences are closely intertwined, blurring the lines between religious and political life. In the Arab Middle East, as elsewhere, mandating law on the basis of religious principles conflicts with the rights of those who do not share that same religion or indeed the same interpretation of a religion. The obstacle this presents to democracy should not be underestimated.

However, it is important not to jump to the conclusion that Islam as a religion is somehow by its nature incompatible with democracy. Aside from the fact that Islam like any other religion can be interpreted in many different ways, what we can say based on public opinion surveys is that conservative attitudes are expressed in religious language, but what causes those attitudes to emerge in the first place is a different question. A combination of factors have brought about the resilience of conservatism, from the persistence of repressive authoritarian regimes which have destroyed progressive opposition forces over the decades, to their use of women’s rights as a fig leaf in otherwise ludicrous claims to being secular and progressive, to the crucial support those regimes have had from Western governments over the decades, to the implicit bargain struck with Islamist movements such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in which regimes have been complicit in rolling back women’s rights in exchange for such groups supplying the welfare which Arab oligarchies have been increasingly unwilling to supply. Conservative gender attitudes are symptomatic of the poor prospects for democracy in the Arab Middle East, but the roots of both lay elsewhere.


[1] Interpretations of Islamic law, do however, vary significantly from country to country.

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