Unveiling masculinities in the Arab world

by Shereen El Feki

© Olivia Harris

Shereen El Feki is the author of the award-winning Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World (2014), a study of the intersection of sexuality, politics, religion and economics across the Middle East and North Africa. Shereen is a Senior Fellow with Promundo and Co-Principal Investigator of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey Middle East and North Africa. She is also a Professor of Global Practice at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, as well as an Associate Fellow of Chatham House. Half-Egyptian, half-Welsh, Shereen was born in the UK, raised in Canada and now divides her time between Cairo, London and Toronto.

Summers are generally slow-going in the Arab region, but not this year - at least not when it comes to laws on gender rights. The past few months have seen notable legislative advances in a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa – from small steps in Qatar, which relaxed its nationality laws to allow the children of Qatari women to claim permanent residence (though full citizenship rights, like their peers with Qatari fathers, still remain out of reach), to significant advances in Jordan and Lebanon, which closed legal loopholes allowing rapists to evade punishment by marrying their victims.
Tunisia, birthplace of the “Arab Spring”, has gone farthest on this front, passing landmark legislation on violence against women, which includes mandatory compensation and follow-up support for survivors, and explicitly recognizes that men and boys, as well as women and girls, can be victims of rape. In another groundbreaking move, Tunisia also launched commission on the incendiary topic of equal inheritance for men and women, touching at the heart of male privilege not only in the Arab region, but the wider Islamic world as well.

© Promundo-US, UN Women

So what do men in the Middle East and North Africa think about this changing world of gender roles and rights? Support on some fronts mixed with resistance on others, according to IMAGES MENA, the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, Middle East and North Africa. Over the past decade, IMAGES has provided intimate insight into the lives of tens of thousands of men in more than two dozen countries across the Global South – how they see themselves as sons and husbands and fathers, their work lives and sex lives, their mental and physical health, their use of domestic and other forms of violence. Promundo, the international NGO which created IMAGES together with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), has worked with local research partners and civil society groups, as well as governments and UN Women, to bring IMAGES to the Arab region, surveying almost 10,000 men and women aged 18 - 59 in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine.
It is clear that men in these countries are under enormous pressure. More than 90% say they are fearful for their own safety, and more than three-quarters express high anxiety for their family’s present state and future prospects. This is not just the Syrian refugees in Lebanon we interviewed, or the Palestinian men living in the shadow of occupation we talked to, but ordinary men in Egypt and Morocco. Much of their disquiet comes from economics. These men, and women, defined manhood, above all, as the ability to provide for their families; but times are tough and aside from the double-digit unemployment rates that face younger men, even those with jobs are having a hard time making ends meet. Around half of men in Egypt and Palestine, for example, said they were frequently stressed or depressed, or sometimes felt ashamed to face their families, because of a lack of work and around two-thirds or more of men across the board worried about not being able to meet their families’ daily needs.
This economic primacy also affects men’s views of women’s place in the world. While three-fifths or more of the men surveyed considered it just as much of a priority to educate girls as boys, up to three-quarters also thought that it was more important for a woman to marry than to have a career and more than half said that when jobs are scarce, men should have access to work before women. It’s not just men who cling to these patriarchal notions either; while three-quarters or more of women insisted on their right to work, a majority in most countries also agreed with their male counterparts about the importance of marriage for women and the priority of work for men.

© Promundo-US, UN Women

The latest wave of legislation on gender-based violence comes none too soon. Up to half of women in the survey reported having been physically abused by their husbands at some point during the marriage, some of the highest levels ever seen in IMAGES surveys, and rates of emotional abuse were even higher. Outside the home and on the street, two-fifths or more of women experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.
Men reported committing such acts with more or less the same frequency as women experienced them. But they too were on the receiving end of violence, particularly in childhood. More than a third were beaten as boys at home, and up to 80% were physically punished by teachers at school. And then there were the sizeable minorities who found themselves in street affrays or were victims of state-sponsored violence. Such experiences have profound consequences: men who were beaten at home, for example, or saw their mothers as victims of the same, were more likely to go on to use violence against their own wives at home, or to sexually harass women in public. 
Amid these sobering results, IMAGES MENA also offers glimmers of hope. Men in all four countries are clearly interested in fatherhood—the vast majority saw no shame in looking after the kids or more than 70% said they attended antenatal visits with their wives. While most men in the study were missing in action when it came to the bathing and feeding their young ones, more than half enjoyed playing with their sons and daughters and up to 80% were in favor of paid paternity leave. Such findings offer an important entry point to engaging men and boys on gender equality for community practitioners and government policymakers, both within and beyond the Arab region (11 September 2017).