Lack of economic and social development, not religion is our enemy: Arab women tell Gallup poll

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Arab women show off their fists painted in the colours of five Arab national flags (L to R):- Yemen, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt. Photo - AFP/Getty Images

The greatest challenge in the quest to Arab women’s empowerment is not religion but the lack of economic and social development and a dearth of perceived security, a Gallup Poll released on Monday said.

The report urged policymakers to allow Arab women’s own priorities to guide efforts at gender equality.

“The idea that coming in with a secular liberal social programme as the solution to fixing how societies view women isn’t supported by the evidence,” Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, said.

She added that women in the Middle East have very much the same priorities as women in the West as they want to lead prosperous lives.

“The research shows that human development and overall education and economic empowerment are the most important interventions we can make to help women’s rights,” Mogahed said.

Gallup conducted multiple surveys of 1,000 people each time in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, countries that have been affected by the uprising of the Arab masses.

The data was collected between 2009 and 2011, before violence broke out in several countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Gallup said the surveys began in February 2010 in Libya and were restricted to eastern cities and did not include Tripoli.

The survey found that both women and men in Libya and other Arab Spring countries rate their lives worse now than it was before the Arab Spring. However, they believe it will be better in coming five years. The exception was in Egypt, where women and men rated their futures higher now than under Hosni Mubarak.

Gallup found that a majority of women in Arab nations demanded equal legal rights and access to education and employment, with a smaller majority of men consenting with the demands.

“The biggest divide was in Tunisia, where 87% of women and 59% of men say women and men should have the same legal rights, which is surprising because it is often hailed as the most progressive Arab state on gender issues,” Gallup said.

Women and Sharia Law

The survey revealed that Arab women favoured Sharia (Islamic law) as a source of new legislation like their male counterparts.

“The current fear of the rise of Islamists is important and we need to address that,” Mogahed said. “So we attempted to look at how women feel about religion. There isn’t a gender divide.”

The Gallup report said male employment and education are linked to more progressive views of women’s rights and how they view the role of religion in society had no correlation to their views on gender equality.

Among Arabs who said religion is important, 69% supported divorce initiated by a wife. Among those who did not consider religion important, only 49% supported such divorce.

However, Gallup report found that Arab women differ on religion depending on where they are. In Egypt, women are more likely to support an Islamist candidate, for instance, than women in Tunisia, which for years has been a secular state.

Dalia Ziada, executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies in Cairo, insists gender equality has to come from political leadership.

“Women’s rights will change from the top down. It will not change from grassroots up,” Ziada said.

“It’s a grassroots movement that has been calling for freedom an economic rights but it did not call for women’s rights,” she said of the revolutionary movement in Egypt.

The head of the policy centre agreed that economic prosperity and education are top priorities for Egyptian woman but the main challenge for women is to become an essential part of the decision-making process.

Gallup said a third of the protesters in the Egyptian revolution were women but many, like Ziada, feel left out of the nation’s transition to democracy.

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Egyptian army soldiers arrest a female protester during clashes with military police. Photo - AP

Ziada, an observant Muslim, is optimistic about the new president of Egypt and hoped policies will be enacted that empowered women.

“That is the only way out,” she said.

Safety of Arab Women

Some of the transitional Arab governments have recognised women’s participation in bringing about change.

The Gallup survey said Tunisia required half of each party’s electoral list to be made up of women in last autumn’s constituent assembly election. Women hold nearly 25% of the legislative assembly seats.

Safety was another troubling issue for Arab women raised by the Gallup poll.

Women in all the Arab Spring countries surveyed said they feel less safe to walk alone at night after the revolution with the most significant drop coming from Tunisia where 78% of women said they felt safe before the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and only 30% said they were safe last autumn.

Women in Egypt have reported being sexually assaulted while protesting on the streets. There were accusations of rape and sexual violence used by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s forces during the country’s rebellion.

“The greatest barrier to women’s participation in public life may be their perception of lack of safety and respect,” Gallup said.

Ziada said she feels scared to be in crowds in Cairo.

“Sexual harassment is real problem that has been happening in Egypt for so long,” she said.

The Gallup report urged national leaders to address the perceived lack of safety “to help increase women’s confidence to participate in all aspects of life, including politics.”

Tawakkol Karman, first ever Yemeni and female Arab Nobel Peace Prize winner in her Nobel acceptance speech last year raised many of the issues reported in Gallup’s survey.

“The solution to women’s issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together,” she said.

“Our civilisation is called human civilisation and is not attributed only to men or women.”

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