Published on Arab Voices

Is patriarchy on the rise?

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ImageLast Spring, I wrote a about the rise of conservatism among 15-35 year old men in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) despite higher education and better connectedness to the world than the previous generation.  The level of conservatism was measured by the number of objections toward women working outside their home: based on a 2008/09 survey of 40,000 individuals in Amman, Cairo, and Sana’a across income, age, and educational groups, over 40 percent of young men objected.  I then asked whether, voting and voter preference would help advance women’s rights.
A year later, disproportionately higher numbers of Islamists have been elected, raising the question about the future of women’s rights. In Libya, even before a formal election, the incoming council’s first promise was to reinstate polygamy (was this Qaddafi’s main sin?).  Yemeni and Syrian women face the same challenge, as was demonstrated by the case in Iraq and Iran with earlier regime changes. 


Some say that mosques provided the cover for opposition to autocratic regimes, that Islamists provided much needed social services, and/or, that they were viewed as less corrupt.  These answers are only partial. The question remains: why do people continue to support Islamists when they no longer need to hide and when secular parties provide an alternative choice?

An explanation that is missed is the differential fertility rate between secular and conservative families over past decades. Conservative families simply had more children than their secular counterparts.  With two-thirds of MENA’s population under the age of 30-35, a larger share of the voters simply comes from traditional and conservative families; they outnumber those with more “modern” thinking.

The rise of conservatism is not unique to Muslims or to the MENA region. This trend is present everywhere. The US faces the rise of the Tea Party movement and socially conservative (Evangelical) value voters. In Israel, similar challenges are reflected in the recent clash between orthodox and secular Jews over the question of gender segregation in the public sphere.  And, so is Europe.

In his article “The Return of Patriarchy”, Philip Longman explains: “during the post World War II era, nearly all segments of modern societies married and had children. Some had more children than others, but the disparity in family size between religious and the secular was not so large, and childlessness was rare. Today, by contrast, childlessness is common among seculars, or couples who have just one or two. Tomorrow’s children, unlike members of the postwar baby boom generation, will be for the most part descendants of comparatively narrow and culturally conservative segments of society….[hence] advanced societies are growing more patriarchal, whether they like it or not…”

Unfortunately, demographic indicators do not typically distinguish between religiosity or secularity, but mainly fertility rates at the national or regional levels – at best, they differentiate fertility rates between the rural/urban, rich/poor, or educated/non-educated.

Taking the case of Egypt, one can make some inferences based on the figure below: over the past 20 years, Egypt’s average fertility has declined from 4.5 per woman to 3. However, the fertility of rural, poorer, and less educated women has remained higher than that of women who live in urban areas, are educated, and from higher income groups.  Assuming that rural, poorer, and less educated women are more likely to be traditional and religious, their children will outnumber the children of secular families.  Hence, Egypt’s demographic dividend may come from traditional families, who will then tend to vote for candidates with traditional conservative values. The same can be said for the rest of the Middle East.

(Click on image to enlarge)


Going beyond the rural, poor, and less educated groups, religious conservatism can cut across all income and educational levels.  How widespread is conservatism among the urban middle class?

To shed further light on the impact of this differential fertility, I turn again to the 2008/09 survey. The survey’s question of whether women should work outside of home serves as a good litmus test of conservative versus secular views. The urban 15-30 year-old male objectors are 8% more likely to come from larger households across all educational/income groups — a statistically highly significant variable – suggesting that larger families tend to be more conservative.    

Demography is democracy. Even though the Arab Spring began with men and women standing side-by-side, the success of Islamic groups may lead to a different ending.  Their success may have less to do with reactions to past dictators, but more with the values the voters grew up with. Greater religious conservatism is on the rise not just in MENA but across the world.  Unfortunately, its first target is women’s rights.


Nadereh Chamlou

Former Senior Advisor to the Chief Economist

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