The Thomson-Reuters Foundation recently published its third annual poll on women’s rights in the Arab world. The poll is a “perception survey” of 336 gender experts from 22 Arab countries. It ranked Egypt as the worst Arab country for women’s rights, and Comoros as the best. The Reuters poll employed a problematic quantitative methodology that has serious flaws, bringing into question the poll’s conclusions and rankings.
A key problem in the Reuters survey is the absence of a scientific method and criteria by which the “experts” were selected. The survey was distributed in an ad-hoc fashion to individuals in the region whom the foundation perceived as having an interest in gender issues. Thus, we have no knowledge of the educational and professional background of these experts, the kind of decision-making positions they might hold in the public or private sectors, and whether or not they are citizens of Arab countries. The poll has also adopted a gender-biased approach, placing a strong emphasis on female respondents, and thereby disregarding the reality that key defenders of women’s rights in the Arab world include men.
The conclusions of the poll are also likely skewed by the differing numbers of “experts” that were polled in different countries. Those that had a higher percentage of experts participating in the survey (such as Egypt and Iraq) were ranked lower than countries that had a smaller number of participating experts. The sample used in the poll is not randomized and is too small to merit the overarching conclusions and definitive country rankings put forth by the Reuters Foundation.
Another major flaw in the poll’s methods is that the survey contains terminology that is likely to be interpreted in various ways in different Arab countries. For example, the term “pressure to marry” might be interpreted as only describing women who are literally forced to marry against their will, and as such rejects abuse of their human rights. In other Arab countries, this same term would more likely suggest subtler social pressures to conform to social expectations of female gender roles, which the young women themselves may have internalized.
These differences in interpretation could lead to significantly different response patterns. The latter could also be further exacerbated by the specific factors affecting various female population groups in the Arab countries; for example, whether they live in urban or rural areas, the extent of their education, their social status and economic participation in the public, private or informal sectors respectively. The poll is also silent about the difficulty of translating questions from English into Arabic and the subsequent challenges that might have occurred.
Creating a hierarchical ranking of countries based solely on the subjective perceptions of a small number of respondents is very risky and misleading. It is a poor substitute for the kind of detailed and nuanced analysis that is needed to compare social, economic and political variables across multiple and diverse regions. The Reuters poll erases some very important distinctions; for example it asks respondents about the presence of gender-related legislation, but does not consider the degree to which such legislation is actually enforced.
The poll also lacks an analytical framework for comparability and fails to account for differences between countries. It overlooks the heterogeneity in the current political dynamics affecting the Arab world. It disregards the fact that many Arab countries are still embroiled in conflicts or struggling with the legacy of recent uprisings. Egypt, for example, has experienced two revolutions in less than three years, while Libya, Tunisia and Yemen are undergoing fragile transitional periods following regime changes. Political upheavals have also affected countries such as Jordan and Morocco, albeit to a lesser degree. These countries are in the midst of state-led reforms after heightened tensions due to citizens’ dissatisfaction with the status quo. Bahrain has witnessed a recent uprising that was swiftly put down by the state and its allies. Countries like Iraq, Somalia and Syria suffer from different degrees of conflict that continues unabated. On the other hand, Gulf countries are responding to citizen’s needs through buying compliance, a strategy that might work at this point of time, but might not be sustainable.
The heterogeneous nature of political unrest is further reflected in stagnating economic growth that rocked and continues to affect many of the Arab countries that have experienced uprisings. These key factors need to be kept in mind when discussing the outlook for gender equality in different countries.
Using the key provisions of the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women as the sole reference point constitutes another weakness in the methodology and is highly questionable. Nearly all of the Arab countries included in the Reuters poll have voiced objections against key provisions in CEDAW. The one Arab country that has unequivocally embraced the convention, Tunisia, was not ranked highly in the poll.
The conclusions put forth by the Reuters Foundation include a number of such incongruous results. Saudi Arabia, for example, where to date women do not have the right to vote and require permission from a male guardian to work or travel, is rated higher than Egypt, which has seen significant formal and informal gains in women’s rights in recent years. The flawed methods of the Reuters poll have thus resulted in conclusions that are not in line with reality and are not supported by evidence.
Unfortunately, readers who have limited knowledge of the Arab region may take the conclusions of the survey at face value. This contributes to generalizing and stereotyping social dynamics in Arab countries rather than acknowledging contexts where gender-based gaps have narrowed. This does not negate the urgent need to advocate for gender sensitive human rights in the Arab region in addressing prevailing gender discrimination.
Mehrinaz El Awady, Ph.D.