Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Attitudes towards gender equality in Arab countries

The position of women has fluctuated considerably in the recent history of the MENA region. But in general, Arab countries rank lower on gender equality than other societies at a comparable level of development. This column reports evidence on changing social attitudes towards gender across generations in a number of these countries, as well as the impact of the political regimes they have experienced over the past 50 years.

In a nutshell

Whereas there was a whole generation of people exposed to gender egalitarianism in the socialist-leaning countries of the MENA region, a more conservative, religious and pro-natalist ideology continued to flourish in other Arab societies.

The cohorts exposed to more egalitarian gender regimes in their formative years – approximately 15-25 years of age – retain their attitudes throughout their lifetime.

The effect of early exposure to gender equality lasts even in societies that have since experienced major turmoil or wars, as well as for those where very conservative regimes have superseded more egalitarian ones.

How do attitudes towards gender equality vary across Arab countries – and are attitudes changing across generations? Our research examines the trajectories of gender values and social change revealed in the 13 Arab societies surveyed in Wave 3 of the Arab Barometer Project. This survey measures gender egalitarianism using an index compiled from expressed attitudes to the following statements: ‘A married woman can work outside of home’; ‘In general, men are better in political leadership’; and ‘University education is more important for boys’.

The data show that support for gender egalitarianism generally grows among the youngest generations of the conservative states, those countries with no experience of secular regimes. But the growth in support is from a rather low level, and there is variation across countries.

We observe a stable growth of gender egalitarianism in Kuwait and Sudan. These societies had no socialist experience and their elites preferred to support patriarchy, which got challenged only recently due to modernisation, globalisation and feminist movements.

In Northern Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where family laws were extremely controlling of women, the oldest cohorts are about as egalitarian as the youngest, but the middle cohorts are more conservative. In Jordan, people of all ages keep the same (very conservative) attitudes to the position of women in society, which may be due to a large number of Palestinian refugees.

The Moroccan case is much discussed as a story of feminist success in the Arab world. Departing from the pro-natalist and gender conservative policies of the 1960s and 1970s, women’s organisations have been established and they have been affecting government policies.

In contrast with the conservative states, the countries that have had experience of secular nationalist regimes show a decline (from a relatively high level) of egalitarian attitudes in younger cohorts. This is true for Egypt, former South Yemen, Palestine and Tunisia.

Female-supportive policies in the areas of education and employment in light manufacturing led to the boost of the middle class and to sustainable economic growth in Tunisia. It ranks very high on support for gender equality, but it still shows a negative trend in younger generations.

South Yemen, on the other hand, started from a higher level and went lower than Saudi Arabia’s level. As for Algeria, it started from a secular base after gaining independence, but has turned to a more conservative setting in the 1980s. The fall in support for gender equity among those born in the 1950s may reflect this fact.

The case of Iraq is of interest as it had socialist experience, but now ranks the lowest among all the countries surveyed. The women’s movement was very strong in Iraq in the post-revolutionary early 1960s. But the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein ruined most NGOs, which prevented further progress. Gender issues became even more acute after his fall, due to the growth of violence, poverty and lasting instability.

A historical perspective

The country variation of cohort differences reflects the varying levels of female emancipation in the Arab countries during the second half of the twentieth century. Women in some Arab societies had more freedom back in the 1950s and 1960s than they do nowadays.

Historically, those states that promoted female rights used to have secular governments in the post-colonial period. The struggle for independence and the socialist ideology led to the emergence of secular regimes that revolutionised the public sphere, developed better healthcare and education, and recruited women into the labour force.

Some regimes, looking for a larger labour force and greater political support, encouraged mass school attendance by girls. A whole generation of people holding attitudes that are more egalitarian grew up. Women and men experienced studying and working together, and the former enjoyed better opportunities in various spheres of life.

The efforts of secular politicians encountered resistance from conservatives within their societies. But more importantly, their proponents’ disillusionment caused by various pitfalls within a decade or two after the policies were implemented. In some socialist-oriented countries, such as Iraq, dictatorial regimes usurped power and put the grass-root organisations that had fought for freedoms and rights (including gender) under government control.

The reversal of the ideological trend towards political Islam coincided with the oil boom of the 1970s, when some conservative societies that had no socialist experience found themselves rich and able to promote their own ideology in the rest of the Arab world. The oil boom led to discrepant consequences in these countries, simultaneously stimulating positive changes in health protection and education but also stagnation in political development.

Conservation of the status quo lasted for two decades, but eventually the modernisation process and the challenges coming from the outside world called for change even in the conservative Gulf monarchies, where women have been gaining more rights and freedoms recently.

Thus, whereas there was a whole generation of people exposed to gender egalitarianism in the socialist-leaning countries, a more conservative, religious and pro-natalist ideology continued to flourish in other Arab societies. The effects of those policies can be traced in surveys taken generations after they took effect.

The cohorts exposed to more egalitarian gender regimes in their formative years – approximately 15-25 years of age – retain their attitudes throughout their lifetime. This holds true even for the societies that experienced major turmoil or wars afterwards, as well as for those where very conservative regimes superseded more egalitarian ones.

Modernisation in some Arab countries was hindered by very conservative regimes, whereas in other societies it was forcefully shoved forward. Nowadays, these two groups of countries seem to be converging in the younger generations. The history of socialist modernisation sheds additional light on attitudinal change across generations and helps to explain why older people are more likely to support gender egalitarianism in some countries but not others.

This means that current efforts to ensure a fairer position for women – especially policies on equal access to education and the labour market, legal rights recognition, affordable childcare and protection from family violence – will have a delayed but long-lasting effect. It will take time for younger generations influenced by those policies to achieve higher positions in their countries when will they determine social norms. But the traces of current policies will be evident even 50 years after their implementation.


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