Gender gaps in MENA remain stubbornly entrenched, despite positive trends

This piece is part of a four-part series published by the Middle East Institute in cooperation with Arab Barometer analyzing the results of the seventh wave of the Arab Barometer surveys.

Key findings from the latest Arab Barometer survey, its seventh wave, reveal that clear majorities in the 12 countries in which the survey was conducted still hold traditional views on gender norms.

Despite political gains in several Arab countries, gender attitudes across the region continue to lag behind. In 9 out of the 12 countries surveyed by Arab Barometer, the plurality of citizens either agree or strongly agree with the statement “In general, men are better at political leadership than women.” More than three-quarters of Algerians (76%) support this view, as do clear majorities of respondents in Sudan (71%), Libya (69%), Iraq (69%), Jordan (66%), Egypt (66%), Palestine (65%), and Kuwait (65%), while only in Lebanon and Tunisia does the majority of the population disagree or strongly disagree.

The good news is that trend analysis, starting from the first Arab Barometer wave conducted in 2006 till the latest survey that took place between October 2021 and July 2022, reveals that public opinion across the region has in fact trended toward gender equality. In particular, when broken out by gender, women in every country have increasingly disagreed with the assessment that men are better political leaders. Significant changes in women’s attitudes toward gender parity point to a growing feminist consciousness, partly a result of an expanding online space that has increased access to information and allowed for cross-border solidarity building and feminist activism.

In the past decades, there have been extensive national efforts to enhance the status of women and achieve gender equality. The region has in fact witnessed a growing body of laws, programs, and policies dedicated to the promotion of gender equality. Civil society continues to support women’s empowerment, and governments have set up elaborate national women’s machineries and developed national strategies to promote it. Women have been able to achieve both gains in political representation and improvements in gender-related indices, especially in education and health. However, this state-sponsored feminism often appears to be motivated by the need to manage national reputation and to signal positive change. The disconnect between public commitments to women’s empowerment and realities on the ground is telling. Governments’ patriarchal character has effectively prevented efforts to meaningfully address negative cultural and social constructs, limiting the ability to bring about a qualitative change in prevailing power relations and social roles.

Gender gaps persist, and progress is slow. Like other social problems in the region, gender inequality sits within deficient systems and institutions that perpetuate various inequalities, including gender-related ones. A democracy deficit and economic challenges loom heavily for all. The 2022 global poverty update from the World Bank reports that the MENA region is the only one where the extreme poverty rate increased between 2010 and 2020. Food insecurity is a major challenge across the region, with majorities in 6 out of 10 countries surveyed by Arab Barometer reporting that they often or sometimes run out of food before they have money to buy more, including Egypt (68%), Mauritania (65%), Sudan (63%), Iraq (57%), Tunisia (55%), and Libya (53%). Nearly half of all citizens in Lebanon and Jordan report the same. Viewed through an intersectional lens, women across the region are disproportionately affected by overlapping forms of discrimination and inequality, which create challenges that are unique to each country.

Calls for gender equality are still met with institutional and social resistance stemming from the entrenched idea that a woman’s role in public life is secondary to her role in her family as mother and caregiver who has to defer important decisions to male family members. The majority of respondents in 8 of the 12 countries surveyed by Arab Barometer in this latest wave agree with the statement that “A man should have final say in all decisions concerning the family.” Attitudes like this often restrict women’s ability to enter the labor market and more generally shape the roles and opportunities they can access.

These attitudes are changing over time, however. Looking at trends across the region since 2016, when this question on family decision making was first asked, views are moving in favor of women’s equality. Over that same period, the level of agreement declined by at least 10 points in five of the nine countries surveyed, including Egypt (11 points), Lebanon (12 points), and Tunisia (15 points). Again, when breaking out trends by gender, women are always less likely to agree that men should have the final say.

Female labor participation in the region remains the lowest globally. Interestingly, when given the options between cultural and structural barriers, female respondents in the survey most often choose structural challenges, including lack of childcare, lack of transportation, and low wages, as the greater barrier to female labor force participation. At the same time, in seven countries surveyed by Arab Barometer, more respondents say the lack of transportation is an equal barrier for women and men than for women alone. This highlights the importance of gender-disaggregated data to understand the different needs of men and women and to plan and design gender-responsive transportation systems. In general, effective policies and programming to address women’s low labor market participation require quality gender data, without which gendered realities and related intersectionalities cannot be understood and addressed. Unfortunately, in the region today, such data is often either lacking, incomplete, or of weak quality. When available, it tends to be underused.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is also one of the main challenges facing women in the region today, with devastating effects on their health and well-being and their economic and civic participation. According to the survey results, women are significantly more likely than men to report that violence has increased over the past year. This is not surprising considering that GBV is greatly underreported everywhere, and Arab men do not always recognize various forms of violence against women, including domestic violence and child and early marriage.

To narrow gender gaps, the region cannot continue to contextualize gender equality as a women’s issue. While trend analysis of the results of the various survey waves reveals a positive trajectory, the situation remains dire and women’s views are changing more rapidly than men’s. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the recent Arab Barometer survey related to gender is the need to target men with efforts to promote gender equality, and to frame the narrative with gender equality at the crux of sustainable development, inclusive democracy, and human rights for all.


Dima Toukan is a Non-Resident Scholar at MEI and the Founder and Managing Partner of Integrated International, a development consulting firm based in Jordan.

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