Sunday, May 05, 2013

Opinions about Gender in the Pew Report on World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society

This report (pdf) is a compilation of face-to-face surveys in 39 countries or territories in Africa, Asia and Europe.  Most of the surveyed countries are predominantly Muslim but not all Muslim countries are included in the survey.  Likewise, Muslims in India are not part of the survey.

The sample sizes in the study vary between a low of 551 individuals for Lebanon and a high of 1918 individuals for Bangladesh.  All the participants for which the results are reported in this survey are Muslims, including those who live in countries such as Russia, where they are a minority.

If an overall conclusion appears from the report, it might be that the different areas are not identical with each other and that what seems to influence the findings is the actual history of a particular country:  If that history is one of something fairly close to Islamic theocracy, then the results tend to be more conservative.  On the other hand, if a particular country has had a more secular democracy or a period of non-Islamic laws, the results tend to be less conservative.  Thus, the European countries included in the report largely come across as more progressive, whereas the least progressive countries include the Sub-Saharan countries in Africa and the Islamic Countries of the Middle East.

When I use the term "progressive" I apply it in the social sense and as an internal yardstick within this study.  Many of the common values in this report would not be called progressive in the United States.  For example, the percentages of the interviewed who believe that homosexuality is morally wrong vary from  79% in South Asia to  95% in Southeast Asia.  Equally clear majorities regard prostitution, suicide, abortion, sex outside marriage, alcohol and euthanasia as morally wrong.

Given that background, the most dismaying of the findings: that overwhelming majorities in most of the countries completely or mostly agreed with the statement that a wife must always obey her husband becomes more understandable.  In all the surveyed countries except Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo, more than 50% either mostly or completely agreed with the statement.  The agreement percentage in Malaysia was 96%, in Afghanistan 94% and in Indonesia and Tunisia 93%, and above 70% in all countries except the three European countries mentioned above, Turkey and Kazakhstan.

That is not great news for anyone who believes in the inherent equality of human beings or in the equality of the sexes.  If all married couples are expected to follow that power-ranking at home, it is extremely difficult to see how women and men could be equal in the rest of the society.  Indeed, it is impossible.

A more rigorous analysis of those answers  is made difficult by the lack of historical data:  What were those percentages twenty years ago, for example?  It would be interesting to learn whether these percentages were higher, lower or the same in the past.

Likewise, answers to that same question from Christians, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and so on would be useful for such an analysis.  Most American Christian fundamentalists probably would give us very similar looking answers to those described in the Pew Report. The problem in this particular case is that in only the three European Muslim countries are the majorities mostly or completely in disagreement with this statement.  Thus the socially conservative views are not limited to conservative minorities in most of the surveyed countries.  On the other hand, I will discuss certain survey criticisms later on.

After that question, it's almost bizarre that many of the same countries strongly supported the idea that women should be allowed to determine themselves whether they veil in public or not.  Thus,  77% of the Malaysians agreed with that statement, despite leading the percentages agreeing on the importance of wifely obedience.  Several of the Malaysian respondents must have answered BOTH that wives must obey their husbands AND that women can choose for themselves whether they will be veiled or not.  But it's not possible, strictly speaking for both of these to be true at the same time.

What is going on here?*   I'm not sure, but given that the vast majorities of the surveyed individuals might also regard the Koran as a literal truth,  what may drive the differences in those results is that the Koran doesn't have an explicit statement about the need of women to veil.  That is based on a hadith (a saying attributed to prophet Mohammed).

But the Koran is pretty explicit on the need for wifely obedience.  So is the Old Testament, of course.  The difference (and thus the reason for the very high agreement on the spousal obedience question in the report) may be in the fact that a literal reading of the Koran is a more common  requirement than a literal reading of the Bible.

Alternatively, it could be the case that many muslims are aware of the salience of veiling as a problematic symbol in the West.  That could affect the answers obtained in the survey.

On other questions having to do with gender, opinions vary more.  For example, the question whether sons and daughters should inherit equally (the Koran states that the share of sons should be twice the share of daughters) was answered affirmatively by as many as 88% in Turkey and by as few as 15% in Morocco and Tunisia.  The writers of the research report that both Morocco and Tunisia currently have laws which give sons a larger share of inheritance.  Thus, the actual practices of a country probably affect the opinions in this survey.

Likewise, the question whether a wife should be able to divorce her husband (husbands can divorce their wives in Islam without a specific reason but wives usually have only limited rights to initiate divorce) was answered affirmatively by the vast majority in Tunisia (81%), most European countries and Russia (60-94%) and by the majority in most central Asian countries (except for Tajikistan), whereas the percentage agreeing with such equality fell to 14% in Iraq and 8% in Malaysia.

Answers to the question whether polygamy (one husband with more than one wife) is moral also vary, though the only region outside Sub-Saharan Africa where the majority regards it as morally acceptable are the five Muslim areas of Thailand.

The survey asks whether honor killings are ever permissibleThe answers (p 89):
The survey asked Muslims whether honor killings are ever justified as punishment for pre- or extra-marital sex.

In 14 of the 23 countries where the question was asked, at least half say honor killings are never justified when a woman stands accused. Similarly, at least half in 15 of 23 countries say honor killings of accused men are never justified. In only two countries – Afghanistan (60%) and Iraq (60%) –  do majorities say honor killings of women are often or sometimes justified, while only in Afghanistan does a majority (59%) say the same about executing men who have allegedly engaged in pre- or extra-marital sex.
A few countries' answers show a gender difference in that the permissibility of honor killings varies by the gender of the accused person.  In most cases the difference favors men who are accused,  with Jordan showing the largest gap (81% consider honor killings never permissible for men, whereas 34% consider honor killings never permissible for women.)  Uzbekistan is the only country with a large reverse "gender gap" (46% consider honor killings never permissible for men, 60% never permissible for women).

The report notes that when there is a difference in the answers men and women gave in the survey, women tended to be more supportive of women's rights than men.  But the few tables that are given separately for both sexes suggest to me that sometimes when there is no gender difference in the answers the overall percentages supporting women's rights can be quite high.  For some countries, at least.

In other words, it is difficult to conclude much about the demonstrated differences in answers provided by men and women, and I couldn't find the wifely obedience question broken down by sex.

On the wider question of shariah law, which affects the legal rights of men and women differently, the survey found:

Support among Muslims for enshrining Sharia — a set of ethical principles that offer moral and legal guidance for nearly all aspects of life — as the law of the land varied widely around the world, according to the Pew study.
In countries where Muslims make up more than 90 percent of the population, support ranged from overwhelming, such as in Afghanistan (99 percent) and Iraq (91 percent), to weak, such as in Turkey (12 percent) and Azerbaijan (8 percent). Experts say the results undermine the idea that there is a monolithic code that constitutes Islamic law.
"That's why we see such huge variations of what constitutes Islamic law in Asia and in Russia versus the Middle East and North Africa," said Amaney Jamal, associate professor of politics at Princeton University. "Sharia has different meanings ... understandings based on the actual experience of countries with or without Islamic Sharia."
She said that because the survey took place after the beginning in late 2010 of the Arab Spring, in which uprisings in several Middle Eastern and African countries with high concentrations of Muslims overthrew existing regimes, the survey provides an honest view of opinions in some countries where Muslims feel more free to express themselves.
The idea of Sharia as a legal code strikes fear into many Westerners who hear about its severe penalties for crimes or apostasy. For example, Oklahoma lawmakers passed a bill in April that would prohibit Sharia or other foreign laws from being enforced in that state's courtrooms.
Senzai believes such actions can be attributed to concerted efforts since 9/11 to demonize Islam as antithetical to democracy. But, he said, survey results showing that Muslims' support for democracy (regional medians ranging from 72 percent to 45 percent) and religious freedom (medians ranging from 97 percent to 94 percent) indicate that Islamic law and Muslims themselves are more nuanced in their views of religious law in the public sphere than Westerners realize.
The Pew study found Muslims are most comfortable using Sharia to settle family or property disputes. In most countries surveyed, there was less support for severe punishments, such as cutting off the hands of thieves. In Pakistan, where 84 percent of Muslims support codifying Sharia, those same people say it should only apply to Muslims. That exclusiveness explains why 96 percent of Pakistani Muslims support religious freedom for others, yet 76 percent support executing apostates from Islam.
Senzai explained that Muslims desiring their religious beliefs to be incorporated into public law is no different from some Christians wanting their moral standards dealing with marriage incorporated into public law.
A few of the surveyed countries (Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Indonesia and Egypt) had at least half of the respondents support shariah law even for non-muslims within the same country.  At the same time,  the support for general religious freedom was extremely high among all respondents.

That is my short summary of the relevant findings.  I refer those who are interested to the full report.  It is long but fairly quick reading, though probably very difficult to digest and analyze.

Then to my concerns about the survey:

When I was reading it I wondered how the included questions were determined.  Pretty much all of them are about concerns the "rest of the world" has about Islam, and most of them are "trigger" questions:  the sorts of questions we in the West often read about in the context of Islam.   But questions about, say, the education of girls or the chances of women to work outside the home or to serve as judges or to travel alone etc. were not included.

If the survey tried to clarify common doctrinal beliefs, why did it choose a certain set of beliefs for closer examination and not other equally interesting sets?

And perhaps I skimmed through the sections where the survey explains about the role of the Koran as the literal word of god in Islam.  Alcohol, for example, is explicitly banned in it, and, as far as I understand this, the majority of believing Muslims are taught that they cannot give any other answer except that drinking alcohol is immoral, given that the Koran states so.  To some extent individual respondents are not free, by definition, to give their own judgments about many of the doctrinal questions.  That work remains to be done within Islam, though some of it already is being carried out.

I also had some concerns about the way the individual questions were phrased.

Let's take one example for closer scrutiny:  The wifely obedience question.  The exact phrasing of the question is

Please tell me if you completely agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree or completely disagree: A wife must always obey her husband.
Think a little how a respondent would interpret the alternative "completely disagree" in this case.  Does it mean that wives must always disobey their husbands?  Or that husbands must always obey their wives?  Or that decision-making should be a partnership with equal rights?  Or what?

I'm not sure.  It would have been fairly easy to make the question clearer by making the alternatives more like the ones in my tiny questions.

Such concerns might be subtle.  But when cultural differences are added to the stew, longer explanations from at least a few respondents in each country could have clarified the issue.

During my blogging career (heh) I have found the Pew Research Reports on the whole fairly designed and executed.  I have had difficulty with apparent bias in only one of the many reports from Pew I have covered.  What this means is that (unless different information crops up)  I regard the survey findings as probably reliable, with the reservations I stated above.  On the other hand, the survey fails to cover several large countries with Muslim populations (India, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran).  Those countries may or may not resemble the included countries in their views.

But religion is seldom the best-friend-forever of women.
The section on gender in the report begins on p 91.

*For a different explanation of this (as being aimed against governments who try to ban the veil) go here.   That article also argues that the wife's obedience answers reflect general highly conservative views.