UN gender equality report gives insight into Arab male identity

While the report's result confirmed stereotypes within the Arab world, it did also show there was a sizable minority of Arab men who were progressive.

Story highlights

  • Report claims to be the most extensive comparative study of men and women that has ever been undertaken in the Arab region
  • Respondents said they felt they were at a crossroads as they tried to negotiate a world of shifting gender identity
  • Shereen El Feki, co-principal investigator of the report, tells CNN without involving men in discussions, society is unable to close the region's gender gap.

(CNN)Do Arab men support gender equality? What challenges do they face in their daily lives? What does it mean to be a man in the Middle East and North Africa in 2017?

These are some of the questions that 10,000 men and women across Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories were asked in the International Men and Gender Equality Study in the Middle East and North Africa (IMAGES MENA).
"The findings are, in essence, a powerful riposte to the 'why-do-they-hate-us?' characterization of men in the region which has come to shape media coverage and policy making in many quarters," Shereen El Feki, a writer on sexuality in the Arab region and co-principal investigator of the report, tells CNN.
    The report by gender equality organization Promundo and UN Women claims to be the most extensive comparative study of men related to gender equality ever undertaken in the region.
    El Feki, author of the 2013 book "Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World", says without involving men in discussions, society is unable to close the region's gender gap.
    She co-lead the research of the report with Gary Barker, CEO of Promundo.
    "We are only going to get so far in trying to level the playing field and promote women's rights, if we don't bring men along with us."

    Financial providers

    Men are under enormous pressure to succeed financially despite the region's economic challenges, the study found.
    In all four countries, around half of men said they were stressed or ashamed to face their families because they didn't have enough work, or they were fearful for the safety of themselves and their families.
    "In the Arab region ... men are seen as financial providers and supporters -- this is how they define themselves," El Feki says. "If men define themselves within that (economic) context and you take that self-identity away from them it becomes very difficult for them to find another role."
    Displacement (in the case of Syrian refugee families), unemployment and political uncertainty made men feel emasculated and ashamed to face their families.
    While half of men surveyed held favorable views of married women working outside their homes, their acceptance was conditional: the man still wanted to be the breadwinner.
    In Egypt, 74% of men supported equal salaries for men and women and 86% were willing to work with female colleagues, yet only 55% were willing to work for a female boss.
    During the current climate of conflict, displacement, unemployment and political uncertainty, the report found men had begun to feel emasculated and "uncertain about or unwilling to accept change that might ease their heavy burden of societal imposed patriarchal duty."
    "This is a really anxious and stressed group of individuals," El Feki says.
    While men held this somewhat favorable view of women working outside their homes, Egypt's female labor-force participation is only at 20% which is among the lowest in the world.

    Public vs private lives

    On the whole, a sizable minority supported gender equality, but were also uncertain what that would mean for their private lives.
    Many men in the MENA region supported women working outside their homes -- as long he is still considered the main breadwinner and she is still the main caregiver and organizer of domestic life.
    "What (the report is) pointing to is something really interesting which is this gap between public and private life. The public in some cases is further ahead and the private is lagging behind," El Feki says.
    In most cases, women became more powerful in the public sphere due to circumstances of their husband's imprisonment or their family's displacement -- particularly among Syrian refugees and Palestinians due to having to simultaneously manage household duties and earn an income.
    Several men who had been imprisoned said they had a greater respect and appreciation for women after learning of the responsibilities their wives took on.
    El Feki explained that while women's attitudes were more progressive than that of men when it came to economics and engagement in public life, regarding private matters women were just as conservative.
    For example, three quarters of men may have said that a woman's most important role was to care for their household, but half of women held these same views.
    Consistently throughout the report both genders in all four countries reported that men make most of the major household decisions.

    'Crisis of masculinity'

    In Morocco, men and women talked about a "crisis of masculinity" with both genders struggling to align their roles and rights in their public and private lives.
    A woman in her 20s was quoted in the report as saying that Moroccan society was "no longer anchored in tradition, but not in modernity either."
    "We are between the two without knowing where to place ourselves ... we have not yet fully grasped that if we believe ourselves to be the same, equal, in everything, that this means a redistribution of (gender) roles."
    In qualitative discussions, men noted various legislative changes that promoted women's rights and said it opened doors for women to be "selfish" and put "work and rights ahead of husbands and family."
    A male student in his