MIDDLE EAST: Evaluating Women's Freedom in the Middle East

Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Foreign Policy
Northern Africa
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

Last week Freedom House released their "Women's Rights in the Middle East" report, on the state of gender equality in the Muslim Middle East. The report ranked countries based on 45 criteria, combined into five main categories, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Study after study suggests that improving the status of women is associated with improved child health, alleviating poverty and disease, among other benefits. But if improved gender justice predicts these positive outcomes, what predicts gender justice? What makes one country better for women than another? Is it culture, or is it politics? Data from Gallup surveys in 20 Arab Middle Eastern countries, not previously released, suggests that the determinants of women's freedom are more complex.

One popular theory often put forth to explain Muslim society's gender justice deficit can be summed up simply as "it's the culture, stupid." Proponents of this point of view believe that societies' legal norms are a reflection of their people's social and religious values. The policy implication of this premise is that religious, not political, reform is the most effective intervention to enable women's empowerment. Others prefer to focus on politics and legal institutions, such that the legal status of women, much like the prevalence of good governance, is relatively independent of public perceptions. Public support for democratic principles, for example, far exceeds the region's actual democratic development, suggesting political reform may be a more effective focus of governance development than religious or cultural public reeducation.

One possible way to test this theory is to examine how public support for women's rights lines up against on-the-ground reality as assessed by the Freedom House report. What relationship, if any, is there between the values people espouse and the legal rights they enjoy?

In 2007 and 2009, Gallup asked a representative sample of men and women in 14 Arab Middle Eastern countries (not Iran) a number of questions to assess their level of support for women's rights, and then created an index aggregating the results. The results reveal some striking differences from the Freedom House assessments:

The Freedom House and Gallup rankings reveal some surprising disparities. As the Table below shows, in Syria and Saudi Arabia public attitudes in the Gallup survey are significantly higher than the Freedom House evaluation, while in Egypt and the Palestinian Territories Freedom House finds significantly greater performance than did Gallup. They are not an inverse of each other either. In fact, statistically there is no significant relationship between the Gallup and FH rankings at all. Skeptics may dismiss this by simply saying they were measuring entirely different things, but even the sub categories in the Freedom House rankings, which are specifically pertaining to say "equal legal rights", a specific question Gallup, tested, do not correlate.

What does this mean? Public perception is not a good predictor of gender legal realities. This suggests that poor legal conditions for women in a given society are not necessarily a product of anti-women values in that society. The absence of a significant relationship between public perceptions and political realities points against the theory that culture is the driving force behind lagging gender progress. In some countries, like Lebanon and Morocco, which score well above the regional median on both the Gallup and Freedom House Indices, public perceptions reflect the more progressive gender based realities on the ground. In contrast, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Kuwait score below the regional median on both the Gallup and Freedom House Indices, suggesting that progress on gender justice in these countries requires not only political reform, but public education. In other cases, women's legal status may actually surpass their society's cultural norms, requiring a focus on public dialogue and education before more political reform. Egypt is perhaps the best example: It scores in the bottom five in the Gallup Gender Index and in the top five in the Freedom House Index. In other cases, reality lags public sentiment, requiring more effort toward legal and political reform. Saudi Arabia is an example of this.

Those hoping to promote greater freedom for women in the Middle East should take heed. They should disaggregate the region and examine the unique situation of women in each society to formulate effective policies. Rather than automatically looking to social values as the lever behind women's progress, a much more nuanced approach is in order.