Gallup Poll of Iraq: Specific Freedoms for Women in the New Iraq

by Richard Burkholder, International Bureau Chief

Part two of a two-part article on the future of women in Iraq

Given the strength of the view that women ought to adopt more traditional roles -- and Iraqis' division on whether to guarantee them legal privileges equal with those of men, what specific personal and social freedoms do Iraqis believe women should enjoy? A far wider variety of freedoms than the longing for "traditionalism" might imply -- and certainly wider than is the case in several neighboring societies. Interestingly, however, views in predominantly Sunni areas are generally more restrictive than those in heavily Shiite areas.

Employment Outside the Home

The vast majority (79%) of Iraqis say they agree with the contention that "women should be allowed to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home." Statistically equal proportions of men (78%) and women (80%) voiced this sentiment, and it was the majority sentiment (by a wide margin) among every major geographic and demographic component of Iraqi society. In short, the principle that "qualified" women have a right to participate in the workforce is largely taken as a given.   

Public Office and Political Leadership  

Similarly, by a margin of 2-to-1, Iraqis say they personally support women holding leadership positions at the national level in the country's cabinet and national council (62% support, 31% oppose). Here again, there is no significant difference between the views of men (61%) and women (64%) on this question. 

There is, however, some dissent along sectarian and geographic lines. It is in the heavily Sunni areas of the country, rather than the strongly Shiite areas, that a slight plurality expresses opposition to the incorporation of women at the highest level of government (49% oppose, 44% support). While it has been argued that social conservatism is a growing force among Iraq's Sunni community, this finding may also reflect the higher general level of opposition among Sunnis to existing governmental bodies at the time of Gallup's interviewing -- bodies that included women at very senior levels.  

Government-Mandated Dress Standards

Many observers -- our own interviewers included -- have remarked upon a sharp and highly visible increase in the number of Iraqi women wearing the hijab (head scarf) over the course of the past year. Given Islam's religious strictures regarding personal modesty, do Iraqis believe that the manner of women's dress should be publicly regulated? 

On balance, they do not. While 42% of Iraqis support the proposition that "the Iraqi government should impose certain dress codes on women," they are more than offset by the 53% who do not.     

Voting

In a region where popularly mandated selection of heads of state and political leadership remains the exception rather than the rule, the electoral franchise and universal suffrage guaranteed in Iraq's interim constitution are distinctive. How do Iraqis view the extension of this right to women? 

By a 4-to-1 margin (78% agree, 18% disagree), Iraqis accept the assertion that "women should be allowed to vote without interference or influence by family members." And -- notwithstanding the fact that the average educational attainment of women in Iraq lags behind that of men -- Iraqis also overwhelmingly accept the contention that women are fully capable of making their own independent decisions on whom to vote for (77% agree, 17% disagree). Here again, the views that men and women expressed on these two measures are statistically identical.     

Driving

According to one Islamic scholar in the United States, the difference between women's roles in Saudi Arabia and Iraq is that in Saudi Arabia, the women cannot drive cars; in Iraq, they drive buses. The difference reflects the largely secular basis from which women's rights were determined under Hussein, as well as the pragmatic need for female labor in Iraq during the long Iran-Iraq War.

-- "Could Longing for 'Tradition' Curtail Women's Rights in Iraq?"
Gallup Poll Tuesday Briefing, Sept. 20, 2003

Regardless of its genesis, does personal mobility for women -- and by extension, their social and economic freedom -- meet with widespread acceptance among Iraqis?           

Roughly two-thirds of Iraqi men (64%) and women (66%) agree with the assertion that women should be allowed to drive cars by themselves. Overall, only about 3 in 10 (31%) disagree and say that women should be prohibited from driving -- though support for such a prohibition is higher in strongly Sunni areas (47%), and in al Anbar province in particular (55%).

Bottom Line

Despite a reluctance to embrace the notion of formal equality, a degree of tolerance and pragmatism characterizes Iraqi attitudes toward women's rights. At least for the time being, Iraq appears to provide a rare instance in which the level of popular acceptance of everyday examples of women's freedom actually exceeds the theoretical acceptance of the principle of women's equality.

 

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