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Survey Finds Modest Gains in Support for Arab Women’s Rights

A majority of Arabs would accept a woman head of state, yet only one-third think it is permissible for women to travel alone. At the same time, Arab young people are so disillusioned with their prospects in their own countries that large numbers want to emigrate.

These are a few of the latest findings from the Arab Barometer, a research network that has conducted surveys of public opinion across the Arab region since 2006. The nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative, run out of Princeton University, conducted its fifth and largest wave of surveys in 12 Arab countries between September 2018 and June 2019.

The survey’s questions deal, among other things, with governance and political affairs, personal and national economic circumstances, religion, and international relations. The Barometer has begun releasing parts of the results, a process that will continue until the end of the year. It recently released reports concerning the status of women, and attitudes among youth.

The reports are based on responses collected by local partners who conducted 45-minute, face-to-face interviews with over 25,000 citizens in their homes. There were about 2,400 respondents in each of the 12 countries surveyed: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen. The Barometer has been trying to expand to other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but the initiative’s organizers say they have been unable to get guarantees of “free and fair access” to the population, without which they will not include a country in the exercise.

In its report on attitudes toward women, “Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa,” the survey found modest but mixed support for greater rights, with positions largely unchanged since the start of polling a dozen years ago. On many questions, the greatest support for women’s rights came from people in Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia.

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“We become very impatient with the Arab countries because they are not changing faster, but we forget how slow change has been in the U.S. and Europe,” says Marina Ottaway, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It has been a century since women got the right to vote in the U.S., but there still has been no woman president.”

Mixed Views on Women in Politics

Overall, 60 percent of respondents think a woman can be the head of state of a Muslim country. (By country, the proportion of respondents agreeing with that statement ranges from 77 percent in Lebanon to 37 percent in Algeria.) Yet 66 percent feel that men are, in general, better political leaders.

At the same time, there is support for greater women’s political involvement. Over two-thirds of people support the idea of quotas that would reserve a certain number of seats in elected bodies, like parliaments, for women. Several Arab countries have such quotas, though experts say it’s hard to keep track since the rules change often.

Views of women’s rights in the social domain are also mixed. Only 20 percent of people think a university education is more important for men than for women, and most people think women who want to work outside the home should be allowed to. Moreover, 71 percent of Arabs polled believe women should have equal rights to men to get a divorce.

Yet 60 percent believe husbands should have the final say in family matters, ranging from 74 percent in Sudan to 46 percent in Morocco. Not surprisingly, this view is held more by men (70 percent across the region) than by women (50 percent).

The proportion of young people who feel they have the right to express themselves freely has decreased since the Arab Spring uprisings. “When people left the streets they were just sidelined. There is a lot of disillusionment.”

-Marina Ottaway  
A fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

In August, Saudi Arabia began allowing women to travel abroad without the consent of a male guardian. Yet in the region as a whole, only 30 percent of those polled said they think women should be allowed to travel on their own. By country, responses supporting that view ranged from 76 percent in Lebanon down to 22 percent in Palestine. And only 21 percent think women should have an equal share of inheritances.

Dissatisfaction Among Youth

As for the region’s youth, the Barometer released a report in August, “Youth in Middle East and North Africa,” that found them deeply dissatisfied. The Middle East has a very young population—47 percent are below 25 years old. The region has the highest youth unemployment rates of any part of the world—29 percent in North Africa and 25 percent in the rest of the region, with rates at least 10 percentage points higher for young women.

Less than half of young people feel they have the right to express themselves freely or join peaceful political demonstrations. That number has decreased by 20 percentage points since 2011, the year of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring were, naturally enough, filled with young people. But “when people left the streets they were just sidelined,” says Ottaway. “So there is a lot of disillusionment.” (See a related article, “Arab Citizens Are Disenchanted with Politics.”)

Less than one-third of young people say they are interested in politics, and many feel that the most recent parliamentary elections in their country were unfair. While young people may have cultural differences with their elders, “all of society tends to be very frustrated” with their governments and their country’s economic situation, says Michael Robbins, a research specialist at Princeton University and director of the Arab Barometer.

One result is that many young people say they want to emigrate—in six of the countries surveyed half or more express this desire. The most coveted destination for French-speaking North Africans is Europe; youth in the rest of the region want to go to the wealthy Arab Gulf states, with North America as the next choice.

When asked about which world power they would like their country to have closer ties with, the clear favorite is China. “They don’t have much experience with China,” says Robbins, “but it is seen as a possible new hope.”

The region is also seeing an increase in the portion of youth saying they are “not religious,” a position not easy to hold openly in a region where religion is such a strong force and where atheism is illegal in some countries. The number expressing this point of view across the region has increased from 11 percent in 2013 to 18 percent today.

Finally, Internet use is extremely high—over 90 percent of the young people surveyed use it via computer or cellphone. The highest rates are in Lebanon (99 percent), followed by Jordan (96 percent), Palestine (95 percent), Algeria (93 percent), and Morocco (93 percent). Even in Yemen, where a disastrous civil war has been raging for over four years, 77 percent of young people manage to get online with some frequency. (See a related article, “Study of Arab Media Use: Facebook Down. Podcasts Up. But Don’t Criticize the Government.”)

Social media is widely used by the region’s youth, for whom it is generally the primary source of news and information. Facebook is the most widely used service in all countries with the exception of Yemen, where WhatsApp is preferred.


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