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Repressing Women, Repressing Democracy

Globally, better female health and education align with free government.

October 12, 2003|M. Steven Fish | M. Steven Fish is associate professor of political science at UC Berkeley and the author of "Islam and Authoritarianism," which appears in the October 2002 issue of World Politics.

It's a politically sensitive question but an important one: Why is robust democracy so rare in the Muslim world?

Some scholars hold that Islam is inherently incompatible with open government. Others disagree, arguing that it's not Islam per se that explains the democracy deficit but other factors common in the Muslim world, like poverty, an abundance of oil or ethnic divisions.

I think that to understand the phenomenon we have to look to the condition of women.

A recent study I conducted confirmed that, by almost any measure, countries in which Islam is the predominant religion are dramatic underachievers in democracy. This is true in the Middle East, where about a third of the world's Muslim countries lie, and elsewhere. But when I started looking at the whys, things got more complicated.

I first looked at factors identified by social scientists as boons or impediments to democracy. But many of them didn't correlate with the reality in Muslim societies. High interpersonal trust within a society, for example, is seen as beneficial for democracy. Such trust is relatively high in Muslim societies. Socioeconomic inequality is viewed as an obstacle to democratization. But Muslim societies do not suffer from greater class-based inequalities than do non-Muslim societies. Corruption may dim democracy's prospects. But corruption is not disproportionately severe in Muslim countries.

I did find one factor common across Muslim societies that works against democracy: the treatment of women and girls. In super-patriarchic cultures that put a different value on male and female lives, robust democracy is exceedingly rare.

There are many ways to measure the status of females in a society, but two indicators are particularly revealing. The first is the gap in literacy rates between men and women, which reflects the value that societies assign to the education of females. The second is the gender ratio, which is measured as the number of males per 100 females in the general population.

A wide gap in literacy between the sexes (which invariably favors males) tends to keep women out of public life and politics. The consequences for democracy are momentous. Social and political psychologists have found that women are on the whole better at building consensus, less comfortable with hierarchy and inequality in social relations, and more averse to extremism and violence in politics. The marginalization of women, whether in the neighborhood or in elective politics, means fewer anti-authoritarian voices.

The average literacy gap between the sexes in non-Muslim countries is about seven percentage points; in Muslim countries it is 17 points. And things seem no better in countries with secular regimes than in those where religion is mandated. The gender literacy gap is 20 percentage points in Iraq, 23 in Egypt and 28 in Syria. The gap in the more religiously repressive nations of Iran and Saudi Arabia is 15 percentage points. Outside the Muslim world, differences of 15 percentage points or more are rare. In El Salvador, the gap is five points, in Thailand three and in South Africa one.

And then there's the ratio of men to women. In non-Muslim countries, the ratio is 98 to 100. In Muslim nations, sex ratios are dramatically unbalanced: The average number of males per 100 females is about 103. In some countries, like Iran, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the ratio is even higher. A ratio in excess of 102 males to 100 females is a red flag: It usually reflects inferior nutrition and health care for girls and women and can point to an extensive practice of sex-selective abortion or infanticide.

When the ratio of men to women gets lopsided, young men are far more likely to join fanatical religious and political brotherhoods. Particularly in many Muslim societies, where men must be capable of supporting a family before being allowed to marry, and where older, wealthier men practice polygamy, unbalanced sex ratios give rise to tremendous social frustration among young men.

Democracy does not demand total equality between the sexes; it flourishes in many male-dominated societies. But patriarchy varies. A culture may have a reputation for machismo and emphasis on clan and family honor but still promote the health and basic education of its girls. Such is the case in much of Latin America, Southern and Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.

Alternatively, a culture may assign disparate weights to the value of male and female life, as in much of the Muslim world. In such cultures, democracy is far less likely to take root.

There is no good theological explanation for why the station of women is generally inferior in Islamic societies. The Koran provides no more justification for rigidly segregating the sexes and denying females an education or proper nutrition than the Torah or the Christian Bible do. Some believers understand their scriptures in ways that justify such practices, but many others do not.

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