Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, recently gave a TED talk on the attitudes that sparked the Arab Spring. Lisa De Bode, islawmix contributor, sits down with Ms. Mogahed to discuss how the Center’s work could help journalists.
islawmix: Your talk focused on your main conclusion, “Human development, not secularization, is what's key to women's empowerment in the transforming Middle East.” We thought this was particularly interesting because your research shows that women in Egypt actually favor Islamic law as a source of legislation, as much as men do. Reem Abdellatif at the Los Angeles Times, who pointed to Egypt’s new first lady’s conservative dress code as “complicating” the debate on women’s roles, cites your work showing:
that [paradoxically] many Egyptian women were not worried about implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, or dramatic changes under the new president. The study found that 44% of women surveyed believe sharia should be the only source of law; 38% said it should be one of a number of sources.
What lessons does this data contain for journalists?
Mogahed: I think the most important take away from all our work for reporters is to use the results of scientific survey research to find representative voices. If the majority of Egyptian women don’t see “shari’a” as a threat, then a story only featuring women who do misrepresents reality. Surveys are a great tool for journalists to get a picture of the landscape of opinion in a particular society. Their job is to provide texture and personality to that landscape, but should still portray it accurately.
islawmix: Your research also debunks the belief that religion would impede women's access to the labor market, and secularization would be the only answer to “set women free.” In fact, your research shows that religious men who adhere to Islamic law actually might encourage their wives to exercise their rights more than those who do not. Their encouragement is positively correlated with men's employment status, life satisfaction, and other economic and social development. What more could you tell us about this research?
Mogahed: We found that as men were more supportive of women’s right to legal equality and employment, women actually were more likely to work in professional jobs. The question was what drove progressive views of women’s rights among men? Was it secular norms, education, economic development? What we discovered flew in the face of conventional wisdom. We found that men’s views of shari’a as a source of legislation had no link whatsoever with how they saw the role of women. Men who wanted a large role for shari’a were as likely as men who favored a smaller role to favor women’s rights. More secularly minded men were no more or less in favor of women’s rights. Therefore secularization of society will not automatically help women.
Instead, higher education, employment and higher country score on the UN Human Development report were all positively correlated with higher male support for women’s rights. It was human development that drove progressive views, not the banishing of religion.
We also found that more religious people were more likely to support a woman’s right to initiate a divorce. This is perhaps the most surprising, but underscores that anti-women social norms in the Arab world spring more out of culture than religion.
islawmix: You also mention in your talk that people’s deep longing for freedom, not unemployment and poverty alone, is what ultimately sparked the revolution. In fact, what Arabs and Muslims around the world admire most about the West according to your research is liberty and justice: “following democracy in its true sense, freedom of speech,” as you also show in your book “Who speaks for Islam? What a billion Muslims really think.”
Do you think Islamic law can help strengthen the first Islamic democracies in the world, Egypt and Tunisia?
Mogahed: The term “Islamic law” is a bit hard to define, even in Muslim societies. It means very different things to different people. It will be instructive to see how these new democracies negotiate its application in a pluralistic society. It could be a source of inspiration for social justice or a pretext for oppression, all depending on how it is applied and understood. Very hard for an analyst to predict.
What we do know is that according to 2007 surveys in Egypt “shari’a-compliance” is associated with ‘justice for women’, ‘protection of minorities’ and ‘scientific advancement’ much more than it is associated with ‘cruel criminal punishments’. When publics say they want “shari’a” they mean something very different than what many in the West think they hear.
Mogahed: Like any set of principles, deciding how they are applied in the real world in a democracy requires national dialogue and citizen education. In this day and age it has never been more important for ordinary citizens to attain both political and religious literacy to be able to navigate the new world of political choice.