The sorry state of Arab men

Down and out in Cairo and Beirut

The sorry state of Arab men

They are clinging to the patriarchy for comfort

AHMED, who lives in Cairo, allows his wife to work. “At first, I insisted she stay at home, but she was able to raise the kids and care for the house and still have time to go to work,” he says. Still, he doesn’t seem too impressed. “Of course, as a man, I’m the main provider for the family. I believe women just cannot do that.”

Ahmed’s outlook is widely shared throughout the region, where men dominate households, parliaments and offices. Chauvinist attitudes are reflected in laws that treat women as second-class citizens. A new survey by the UN and Promundo, an advocacy group, examines Arab men’s views on male-female relations. (One of the authors, Shereen El Feki, used to write for The Economist.) It finds that around 90% of men in Egypt believe that they should have the final say on household decisions, and that women should do most of the chores.
So far, so predictable. But the survey sheds new light on the struggles of Arab men in the four countries studied (Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine) and how they hinder progress towards equality. At least two-thirds of these men report high levels of fear for the safety and well-being of their families. In Egypt and Palestine most men say they are stressed or depressed because of a lack of work or income. Women feel even worse, but for Arab men the result is a “crisis of masculinity”, the study finds.

Far from relaxing their patriarchal attitudes, Arab men are clinging to them. In every country except Lebanon, younger men’s views on gender roles do not differ substantially from those of older men. There may be several reasons for this, but the study suggests that the struggle of young Arab men to find work, afford marriage and achieve the status of financial provider may be producing a backlash against assertive women. In other words, male chauvinism may be fuelled by a sense of weakness, not strength.

Another explanation is that a general climate of religious conservatism makes men suspicious of newfangled liberties. Muslim legal scholars promote a notion of qiwamah (guardianship) that gives men authority over women. In conservative countries, such as Saudi Arabia, this is official policy. But the attitude persists even in relatively liberal parts of the Arab world, such as Morocco, where 77% of men believe it is their duty to exercise guardianship over female relatives (see chart).

In such an atmosphere, violence and harassment are common. In the four countries surveyed, 10% to 45% of men who have ever been married admitted to having beaten their wives. Between 31% and 64% of men admitted that they had harassed women in the street. Fewer than half of Moroccan men think marital rape should be criminalised; most expect their wives to have sex on demand. Some 70% of Egyptian men still approve of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Well over half of Egyptian women also say they approve of FGM. In fact, Arab women espouse many of the same views as men. In Egypt and Palestine, over half of men and women say that if a woman is raped, she should marry her rapist. In at least three of the countries, more women than men say that women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed. Most of the women surveyed say they support the idea of male guardianship.

Activists have tried hard to encourage Arab women to assert themselves. They have made little effort, however, to soften men’s attitudes. This is changing. ABAAD in Lebanon is one of several NGOs in the region confronting the rigid norms of manhood; it uses awareness campaigns and psychological counselling. The study’s authors see an opening in men’s relatively liberal attitudes towards fatherhood and women in the workplace. They also want to stop the thrashing of boys at home and in schools, which makes them more likely to harm women later on.

Studies suggest that greater equality would make Arab countries richer as well as fairer—liberated women earn more. Yet although some biased laws have changed, official support has been grudging. “We don’t have a Justin Trudeau in the Arab region yet,” says Dr El Feki, referring to Canada’s hunky feminist prime minister. But Lebanon recently appointed its first-ever women’s affairs minister—a man.