New Study Sheds Light on Violence Against Women in the Middle East

A coalition of international and UN organizations, private foundations and governments have come together to produce startling new research on the state of gender norms in the Middle East. The study, entitled Understanding Masculinities: Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), helps to clarify how cultural norms for both men and women contribute to hostility and violence against women, specifically in the nations of Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine.

The new study, called IMAGES MENA for short, is funded by governments, the UN, and the Arcus and Oak Foundations.

Supporters of this effort range from foreign ministries in the Netherlands and Sweden  to UN organizations and programs. As well, the Arcus Foundation, the United States Institute of Peace, the U.S. Department of State in partnership with Vital Voices, and the Oak Foundation, contributed to funding this report.

Along with surveying about physical violence against women, the study also turned up information about a highly prevalent form of gender-based violence in the region:  street-based sexual harassment. This kind of harassment mainly takes the form of sexual comments, stalking/following, or staring/ogling. Many men reported carrying out such acts, with 31 per cent and 64 percent of men acknowledging carrying out such acts in their lifetime, and 40 percent to 60 percent of women reporting experiencing sexual comments, stalking, or staring.

And why are men doing it? According to the study, “When asked why they carried out such violence, the vast majority of men – up to 90 per cent in some countries – said they did it for fun, with two-thirds to three-quarters blaming women for dressing provocatively.”

The study also helps with revealing how prevalent violence is in men’s lives, with one half to three-quarters of men reporting being on the receiving end of physical violence in the home.

Another key finding about street harassment that cries out for further research: The more educated you are, the more likely you are to harass a woman on the street or be harassed. From the study:

Younger men, men with more education, and men who experienced violence as children are more likely to engage in street sexual harassment. More educated women and those in urban areas were more likely to report that they had experienced such violence. This finding, that more educated men are more likely to have sexually harassed (with the highest rate found among men with secondary education, in three of the four countries) – and that more educated women are more likely to have experienced sexual harassment – is one that deserves more research.

Another key takeaway that this study uncovers: the need for men to grow their skills in the home. “Just one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally female tasks in their home, such as preparing food, cleaning, or bathing children.”

From the study:

Men’s use of violence against women is widespread, both at home and on the streets.

Over the past decade, gender-based violence (GBV) in Egypt has gone from a private taboo to an issue of public discussion. This is particularly true of sexual harassment in public spaces, which, having hit headlines at home and abroad during the events of the 2011 revolution, continues to excite popular debate, legislative activity, and civil-society action. While a number of national surveys have studied women’s experiences of GBV, including sexual harassment, less is known about men’s attitudes and experiences as perpetrators or victims of GBV, in either the public and private domain.

When it comes to domestic violence, more than half of male respondents believed that women deserve to be beaten on occasion, and 90 per cent asserted that women should accept such treatment in order to preserve the family (see Table 3.2.1a). While women strongly disagreed with their male counterparts on the former point, they were far more willing to tolerate violence for the sake of family unity.

Nearly half of Egyptian men have used physical violence against their wives. More than 8 in 10 ever-married men reported having been emotionally violent toward their wives at some point in their lives. Just over half of ever-married men surveyed had carried out one of these acts of violence in the previous 12 months (Table 3.4.6a). Physical violence is also common: almost half of male respondents had ever slapped, shoved, struck, or otherwise physically abused their wives, with a fifth of ever-married men reporting physical violence against their wives in the previous year.21 More than half of men and women reported that such acts of violence were committed in front of children. Furthermore, a fifth of men reported ever having used forms of economic violence against their wives.

Women report experiencing violence at lower rates than men report perpetration, except in the case of economic and sexual violence. On the whole, women’s reported rates of experiencing physical and emotional abuse were lower than men’s of perpetration.22 As has been seen in other countries where IMAGES has been carried out, the biggest gap between men’s reports of perpetration and women’s reports of experience was in the case of sexual violence. One in six women reported having been forced to have sex with her husband, while almost no men reported having committed such abuse.

In the Egyptian penal code, marital rape is not classified as an offense. However, more than 80 per cent of the men surveyed believed that a woman should have the right to refuse to have sex with her husband (Figure 3.4.6a), and by the same token, fewer than a fifth of men believed that a man has the right to have sex with his wife if he supports her financially. Rights in theory, though, are different from those in practice; almost all men in the study said they expect their wives to have sex when they themselves so desire it (see Figure 3.4.3c). Women, for their part, were more inclined to uphold male privilege, and to subscribe to the notion that women are obliged to accede to their husbands’ sexual demands. In short, men’s underreporting of such violence may reflect a state of denial, and women’s more frequent reports their lived reality. 


Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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