The road ahead for women in the Middle East is not just long and winding. It is breathtakingly steep.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center brings dispiriting news for women and all those fighting for equality in Muslim countries, particularly in the Arab world. Activists may sometimes ease their worries by interacting most frequently with other people who share their views. But the news from the Pew survey shows a region suffused with a deeply held view that women should be relegated to a role of subservience to men.
Among the many truly shocking finding of the poll was the answer to the question, “Must a wife always obey her husband?”
In Egypt, one of the epicenters of the fight for equality, 85 percent of respondents said Yes, a wife must always obey.
In Tunisia, frequently named as the most progressive of Arab countries, a stunning 93 percent said they believe a woman must always follow her husband’s wishes. In the Palestinian Territories, 87 percent said Yes. Even in Turkey, the NATO member that says it wants to join the European Union, two-thirds believe a woman must always obey.
The view was not unique to the Middle East or to Arabs. In 20 out of 23 countries a majority viewed the woman as obligated to submit to her husband’s wishes, a stark violation of the most fundamental equality. The only places where a majority disagreed were the European nations of Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Enormous majorities of Muslims in Asia and Africa concurred with their inequality-minded fellow Muslims in the Middle East.
The question, along with other revealing inquiries, was made by interviewers speaking directly with Muslims in 39 countries and territories in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. A total of 38,000 interviews were conducted in more than 80 languages as part of the ambitious survey.
On the issue of whether men and women should have equal rights of inheritance, beliefs showed somewhat less favor for inequality. The question is of practical significance, because beliefs in this area go a long way in perpetuating economic disadvantages.
European and Asian Muslims, with some notable exceptions, said they preferred equal inheritance treatment. But, once again, the results in the Middle East skewed sharply against women. In Egypt, just 26 percent believe in equal inheritance rules for sons and daughters. In Tunisia, the number is even lower; only one in eight supports equality. The numbers were similarly dismal in Iraq, Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon.
Progress in inheritance would boost women’s ability to become self-sufficient, which could help them survive outside of marriage. But for women living in abusive marriages, the Pew poll had more disappointing results.
Interviewers asked if women should have the right to divorce their husbands. The right of men to divorce their wives has never been in doubt.
Here, the more modern Arab countries showed results similar to some European counterparts. Strong majorities in Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon said women should be able to end their marriages. But support was minuscule in Iraq (14 percent), Jordan (22 percent), Egypt (22 percent) and the Palestinian Territories (33 percent), where people believe women should remain imprisoned in unhappy marriages unless the husband wants a divorce.
The survey showed deep disagreement over whether women have the right to decide if they want to wear the veil and wide-ranging views on whether Islamic law or Sharia should become national law.
In the Middle East, people strongly support for Sharia. The only surveyed country where a majority opposed making Sharia the law of the land was Lebanon. In Egypt, 74 percent said they want Sharia. In the Palestinian Territories, 89 percent favored Sharia. So did majorities in Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia.
The Pew survey covered a range of topics, examining views on morality, science and interfaith relations.
But the most striking of all was the section dealing with the rights of women. The results are profoundly disappointing news for women seeking equality and justice, and for the many men who would also like to see the emergence of more freedom, pluralism and fairness for all.
This new information may tempt some to give up the fight, to stop trying to climb up that steep mountain towards equality, but it should do precisely the opposite. It is proof of how urgent it is to continue the fight, and of the need to work at changing not only laws, but also prevailing attitudes about the role of women.