Gender Beliefs in Six Muslim-Majority Countries – Gender and Society

Gender Beliefs in Six Muslim-Majority Countries - Gender and Society
Written by admin

Maria Charles, Roger Friedland, Janet Afary and Rujun Yang

Western depictions of gender relations in Muslim-majority societies reflect two widespread assumptions that are held even by many academics. The first assumption is that the Muslim world is equally traditional in terms of gender, which means that there is not much variation in views on gender issues within or between Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian (MENASA) societies. A second, related assumption is that gender ideology is single-dimensional, meaning that if you know someone’s position on one issue, such as the veil for women, you can easily predict their position on other issues, such as men’s control over their wives’ employment. . This suggests that Muslim-majority societies are equally traditional in terms of gender politics.

Our recent Gender and society In this paper, we test these ideas using data from a new Facebook survey of more than 6,000 Muslim men and women in six MENASA countries: Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, and Palestine. In addition to examining gender issues typically addressed in Western surveys (such as the division of household labor and women’s rights in education, employment, and politics), we examined two principles central to gender relations in Muslim-majority countries. The first principle of gender we analyzed was female chastity. This is particularly evident in societies where social control of women’s bodies can be a symbolic marker of Muslim cultural authenticity and where perceived impurity can be subject to severe social sanctions. The second principle of gender we analyzed was marital patriarchy. This reflects issues of male preference in marriage, particularly beliefs about the unequal status and rights of husbands and wives. We measure beliefs about chastity using survey questions on whether women should wear the hijab and whether women should be virgins at marriage. We measure marital patriarchal beliefs using questions about husbands’ rights to control their wives’ work and to resort to physical violence against wives through the use of “other methods of persuasion.”

Marital patriarchy and the principles of female chastity differ in that they clearly endorse gender inequality. Men’s rights to beat their wives and control their wives’ labor depend on an uncontested gender hierarchy in marriage, while norms of female modesty may be more likely to be interpreted through a “different but equal” lens, legitimized by beliefs about the innately different bodies of men and women. and sexual essences – for example, the natural sexual aggression of men. We argue that this distinction is important because forms of gender inequality that openly violate liberal egalitarian ideals are often met with considerable resistance, while inequality based on a perceived natural gender difference (“gender essentialism”) can exist quite comfortably alongside liberal ideals.

Two main questions motivate our study. First, how do beliefs about marital patriarchy and female chastity vary across and within MENASA societies? Second, do these gendered principles differ from one another—in particular, are beliefs about marital patriarchy and female chastity differentially influenced by respondents’ religious beliefs and gender status? When considering religiosity, we include two distinct aspects: piety and absolutism. Piety refers to strict adherence to religious practices and beliefs, and absolutism refers to belief in the complete moral authority of the Qur’an and the enforcement of its injunctions and prohibitions through national laws.

With regard to the first question of attitudinal variability, we find a large heterogeneity of gender beliefs that is difficult to reconcile with the West’s depiction of a monolithic Islamic patriarchy. Attitudes towards gender differ between countries and between men and women and people of different religious beliefs. Agreements with marital patriarchy and female chastity also vary greatly from country to country.

Regarding the second question, we see that support for female chastity is much more widespread than support for marital patriarchy in all six societies. Indeed, the survey results show that the majority of MENASA men do not support the right of men to abuse their wives – even in countries where religious absolutism is the highest and women’s chastity is most supported. This finding is reminiscent of the “different but equal” gender regimes found in the West, where inequality based on apparent male superiority is perceived as less legitimate than that attributed to fundamental differences between (essentially equal) men and women. Although social desirability bias is always a concern with culturally sensitive topics, we are less concerned about such bias because we are analyzing an anonymous online survey. Because Western polls do not typically ask for views on domestic violence, we cannot say how the attitudes of MENASA men compare to those of their North American and European counterparts.

The six MENASA countries appear to have three distinct gender cultures to varying degrees. Supporters of gender reform question both marital patriarchy and chastity norms and constitute the largest group of respondents in Turkey. Gender traditionalists support both female chastity and marital patriarchy. They are the largest group in Algeria, Egypt and Pakistan. We also find a group of people who reject matrimonial patriarchy but adhere to norms of sexual chastity. We call them the chastity group, and they are the largest group in Tunisia and among the Palestinians.

The different overall levels of support for the principles between the two sexes is partly due to stronger support for female chastity than marital patriarchy among women and liberal Muslims. Although women’s and men’s relative acceptance of bridal virginity norms and head covering norms depends on the local meanings and history of the practice, we find a strong gender gap in attitudes towards a clear marital hierarchy that places women below their husbands. Religious beliefs also show unequal effects on the two genders. Muslim piety is associated with maintaining female chastity, but not with patriarchal control of marriage. Islamic absolutism is associated with stronger support for both principles.

Mandatory veiling, a distinctly hierarchical form of state patriarchy not directly assessed in our survey, has indeed sparked fierce opposition in some contexts, including Iran (not included in our study) at the time of this writing. However, our findings suggest that the symbolic meanings and practical implications of veiling and other gendered modesty practices are complex and context-specific. It is those forms of patriarchal oppression that are most clearly hierarchical that Muslim women seem to oppose most uniformly—and that are most likely to lead to successful movements for change.

Maria Charles is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is also Director of Sex and Gender Research at the Broom Demographic Center and an affiliate of the Feminist Studies Department. Her research examines how gender-related beliefs, inequalities and processes vary across national societies and demographic groups.

Roger Friedland is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies and Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research examines the relationship between gender, sexual practices, Islamic piety, and Islamism in Muslim-majority countries and with various forms of religiosity among university students in the United States. Friedland also seeks to develop a method of institutional logic that is based on a non-theistic religious understanding of the non-phenomenal basis of institutional practice.

Janet Afary holds the Mellichamp Chair in Global Religion and Modernity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Iranian Studies Initiative. Her research examines courtship, sex and marriage in the Muslim world and the history and politics of gender and sexuality in the Middle East.

Rujun Yang is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Broom Center for Demography. Her research examines various aspects of gender beliefs, their causes, consequences, and differences in China and across societies.

About the author


Leave a Comment