Using the Qur’an to Empower Arab Women? Theory and Experimental Evidence From Egypt

Egyptian men and women respond more favorably to an argument for women’s political leadership that draws on the Qur’ān than to an argument based on scientific studies.


Gender disparities are prevalent in the Arab world, where women hold only 7.3% of upper parliamentary seats and make up a quarter or less of the workforce in Egypt, Tunisia, and other neighboring countries. These disparities mirror conservative gender attitudes; the World Values Survey found, for instance, that large majorities of Arab respondents favored male political leaders and believed men had more right to work than women. Non-Arab Muslim countries are typically more egalitarian about women’s rights than Arab countries, suggesting that aspects of Arab culture other than solely Islamic faith must also play a role. Nonetheless, such patriarchal beliefs are often justified using language from Islamic legal traditions and the Qur’ān, Islam’s central text. But not all Muslims agree on the meaning of these texts, and some Islamic feminists argue for alternative, progressive reinterpretations that challenge dominant patriarchal attitudes while offering solid religious grounding. In the first experimental study on religious discourse promoting progressive views, the authors explored the impact of a scriptural argument for women’s leadership in Egypt, the world’s largest Arab country. The study tested the effect of a Qur’ānic verse interpreted to support women and men’s equality on attitudes toward women taking executive political office. The authors compared this religious argument to a secular argument citing scientific studies to explore which argument was more effective in increasing women’s empowerment in Egypt


A religious argument for gender equality increased Egyptians’ acceptance of women’s leadership in a role such as president or prime minister—more so than a secular argument.

  • When presented with a brief religious argument interpreting a Qur’ānic verse in favor of women’s leadership, respondents were 24% more likely to accept women’s leadership (specifically, they were more likely to express the view that “there is no problem” with women’s leadership) compared with those who read no argument.
  • When presented with a brief religious argument interpreting a Qur’ānic verse in favor of women’s leadership, respondents were 18% more likely to accept women’s leadership than those who read a non-religious argument citing scientific studies.
  • Though the overall effect of the positive religious argument persisted even after accounting for participant demographics (e.g. age, employment status), the argument had slight variations by religiosity, education, and gender. Typically, those starting with less progressive views on women’s empowerment experienced a larger change than those with more progressive views on women’s empowerment.
    • The effect of the religious argument was approximately greater among less religious respondents—who were still moderately religious, with most praying daily—than more religious respondents. Meanwhile, the more religious respondents had a greater response to the secular scientific argument.
    • The effect was approximately greater among respondents with no formal education—who were less accepting of women’s leadership than educated respondents in the control condition where they read no argument—than those with some formal or a college education.
    • The effect was approximately greater among men—who were less accepting of women’s leadership than women in the control condition where they read no argument—than women, and especially among men who were interviewed for the survey by women.

These findings suggest that religious discourse can serve to advance women’s equality in Muslim-majority Arab countries, especially among moderately religious people, among less-educated people with conservative initial views, and by women when speaking to men.


The study surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,492 Egyptian adults in 2013. Following a set of questions about attitudes and behaviors, the survey asked whether the respondent’s opinion was closer to a positive or negative view of women’s leadership in “a position of authority, such as the presidency of the republic or the prime ministership.” Respondents were randomized into five groups, four of which read a brief preamble preceding the women’s leadership question: either a religious argument for or against women’s leadership, each quoting a verse of the Qur’ān; or a non-religious argument for or against women’s leadership, each referring to scientific studies. The five groups served the following analyses: 1) the religious argument supporting women’s leadership was the primary intervention ,2) the non-religious argument supporting women’s leadership provided a control, offering comparison to an alternative intervention and testing for acquiescence bias, which is respondents’ tendency to agree with given statements, 3) the religious argument against women’s leadership tested for social desirability bias (respondents’ tendency to provide answers deemed socially acceptable—in this case, answers aligned with the Qur’ān), 4) the non-religious argument against women’s leadership provided a control for the negative religious argument, 5) no preamble was given to the non-treatment control group. As an additional test for social desirability bias, each group received a second question about wage policy, which was considered to be less influenced by culture or religion. Each group received a parallel preamble (a religious or a non-religious argument, for or against, an upper limit on wages; or no preamble). The two questions were posed in randomized order.

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