Arab Attitudes toward Gender Equality and toward the Islamic State: New Public Opinion Survey Findings

By  Mark Tessler, Research Professor, Center for Political Studies, Samuel J. Eldersveld Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan.marktessler

Recent public opinion research in the Arab world sheds light on the views held by ordinary citizens about two very important issues.  The first of these is gender equality.  The second is the terrorist movement that calls itself the Islamic State.

Although the importance of gender equality is widely recognized, there are different views about the degree to which women and men should have the same rights and opportunities in various areas.  For example, my recent analysis of the data from 50 different surveys, in which 68,498 Muslim men and women in 15 Arab countries were interviewed, found that 69.0 percent disagree with the proposition that a university education is more important for a boy than a girl, but only 25.9 percent disagree with the idea that men make better political leaders than women.  Responses were similarly varied on the seven other questions in these surveys pertaining to gender equality.

Not surprisingly, the level of support for gender equality differs from one population category to another.  This is illustrated by Figure 1, which considers the item about the importance of a university education for boys and girls.  It shows that support for gender equality is higher among women than men and among those who are better educated.


This research sought not only to map the distribution of support for gender equality but also, using multivariate statistical analysis, to identify some of the factors that predispose individuals to either support or oppose greater equality between women and men.  One interesting finding, and perhaps a surprising one, is that in most cases more religious and less religious individuals hold similar views.  The study divided respondents into eight demographic categories based on sex, age and education taken together, and it found that more religious people were less supportive of gender equality in only three of these categories: older men, both better educated and less well educated, and less well educated older women.

The finding personal religiosity does not influence attitudes about gender equality among younger and better educated individuals, the latter defined as having had at least a high school education, suggests that religiosity, whatever may have been its influence in the past, is increasingly unlikely to involve the embrace of religious interpretations that hinder equality between women and men.

Another interesting finding is that among older individuals, of both sexes and regardless of educational level, support for gender equality is lower among persons in less favorable economic circumstances.  Among younger individuals in all demographic categories, by contrast, views are the same among persons in more favorable and less favorable economic circumstances.

These findings again show a significant generational divide, with fewer factors pushing away from support for gender equality among younger individuals.

Turning to the so-called Islamic State, frequently called Daesh, Arab Barometer [] surveys carried out in Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco between February and June 2016 found little support for the terrorist organization.

One question asked about support for Daesh’s goals and another about support for Daesh’s tactics.  Support for Daesh’s goals ranged from less than 1 percent in Jordan and Morocco, to 1.7 percent in Tunisia, and to 4.6 percent and 6.4 percent, respectively, in Algeria and Palestine.  In every case, support for Daesh’s tactics was even lower.

It is possible that some respondents who support Daesh were reluctant to acknowledge this to interviewers.  For this reason, responses were also tabulated with respondents who refused to answer or said they had no opinion provisionally counted as supporters.   But even with these “refusals and don’t knows” included, overall support remained very low.  The figures are shown in Figure 2.


In addition to examining the views of all respondents, a separate analysis was carried out among poorly educated younger men, a category of the population that has been the primary target of Daesh messaging and recruitment efforts.  Significantly, the views of respondents in this key demographic group were about the same as the views of others.  This includes Tunisia, the Arab country where Daesh has had the most success in attracting recruits.

These findings do not mean that Daesh messaging and recruitment efforts are no longer a serious concern.  But they do make clear that all but a small number of ordinary citizens in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Palestine, and Jordan oppose not only the tactics but also the goals of the so-called Islamic State.

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