Iran is relatively liberal on social issues

By Razib Khan | November 23, 2011 9:46 am

We’ll be talking about Iran a lot in the near future in the United States. I doubt we’ll invade the country (thank god). But one thing I think needs to be emphasized: on social issues Iran is more “progressive” than many of our close allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia, and one of the more progressive nations in the region. This is neither here nor there in the domain of geopolitics, but to convince a public about something it is often necessary to make a cartoon or caricature the enemy. I think it is important to remember though that aside from Israel our closest allies in the region are techno-feudal monarchies like Saudi Arabia, not those nations, like Iran, which have made a more thorough accommodation with modernity out of necessity (because oil can’t support the whole economy). It also reminds us that labels like “Islamic Republic” may not be totally useful.

As a gauge of modern outlook, as understood in the West, I poked around the World Values Survey. The results are for wave 4, around ~2000. The question asked was: A wife must always obey her husband. Possible answers:
- Agree strongly
- Agree
- Neither agree or disagree
- Disagree
- Strongly disagree

Below are two tables with nations which responded to this question. I stratified by sex and educational level of respondents. The sample sizes are in the “Total” column. The other numbers are percentages, summed along the rows to 100%. There are some surprises, but I’ll let the data speak for itself….


Total Agree strongly Agree Neither Disagree Strongly disagree
Algeria 1252 44 31 15 8 2
Sex Male 635 57 27 11 6 1
Female 617 31 35 20 11 2
Bangladesh 1489 34 49 10 5 2
Sex Male 825 38 49 8 4 1
Female 664 29 49 12 7 3
Indonesia 992 27 52 6 12 3
Sex Male 499 36 50 6 7 1
Female 493 18 55 6 17 5
Iran (Islamic Republic of) 2496 24 28 18 17 12
Sex Male 1343 31 31 17 14 7
Female 1153 16 25 20 21 19
Iraq 2305 64 25 9 0 2
Sex Male 1114 63 27 9 0 2
Female 1191 65 24 10 0 2
Jordan 1219 43 31 7 12 7
Sex Male 593 57 29 5 6 4
Female 626 29 34 10 18 9
Morocco 1012 56 24 13 6 1
Sex Male 496 66 22 10 3 1
Female 516 47 27 17 8 1
Nigeria 2020 83 13 2 1 1
Sex Male 1031 87 10 1 1 1
Female 989 79 17 3 1 1
Pakistan 1975 28 19 20 20 13
Sex Male 1021 34 18 19 17 12
Female 954 22 21 21 23 14
Saudi Arabia 1494 52 30 13 3 2
Sex Male 753 64 26 8 1 0
Female 741 39 33 19 5 4
Turkey 3368 32 42 15 11 0
Sex Male 1706 39 41 13 8 0
Female 1662 25 43 16 15 0
Egypt 3000 47 31 12 10 0
Sex Male 1540 53 29 11 7 0
Female 1460 40 34 14 12 0
Total 22622 44 31 12 9 4



Total Agree strongly Agree Neither Disagree Strongly disagree
Algeria 1248 44 31 15 8 2
Education level (recoded) Lower 301 49 31 12 8 0
Middle 544 46 31 16 7 1
Upper 403 39 30 17 10 4
Bangladesh 1476 34 49 9 5 2
Education level (recoded) Lower 789 34 52 8 5 2
Middle 401 37 46 10 5 3
Upper 286 31 49 12 7 2
Indonesia 985 27 53 6 12 2
Education level (recoded) Lower 241 25 58 5 8 3
Middle 411 28 53 5 13 1
Upper 333 29 49 6 13 3
Iran (Islamic Republic of) 2391 24 28 18 17 12
Education level (recoded) Lower 757 36 27 16 12 9
Middle 981 21 31 19 18 11
Upper 653 16 25 19 22 18
Iraq 2288 64 25 9 0 2
Education level (recoded) Lower 1298 67 25 7 0 1
Middle 577 63 24 11 0 3
Upper 413 55 29 13 0 3
Jordan 1217 43 31 7 12 7
Education level (recoded) Lower 587 54 27 6 7 6
Middle 332 36 34 8 15 8
Upper 297 27 38 9 19 8
Morocco 1012 56 24 13 6 1
Education level (recoded) Lower 788 63 24 10 3 0
Middle 160 38 26 22 13 1
Upper 64 22 30 25 14 9
Nigeria 2012 83 13 2 1 1
Education level (recoded) Lower 768 83 13 2 1 1
Middle 774 85 13 1 1 1
Upper 470 80 15 3 2 0
Pakistan 1973 28 19 20 20 13
Education level (recoded) Lower 1078 36 27 12 9 16
Middle 614 20 10 33 31 6
Upper 281 13 11 24 36 17
Saudi Arabia 1494 52 30 13 3 2
Education level (recoded) Lower 135 46 31 13 6 4
Middle 973 52 29 13 3 2
Upper 386 52 30 13 3 2
Turkey 3179 33 43 14 11 0
Education level (recoded) Lower 1975 37 48 9 6 0
Middle 918 29 39 18 14 0
Upper 287 15 23 33 29 0
Egypt 2998 47 31 12 10 0
Education level (recoded) Lower 1516 53 32 9 7 0
Middle 927 43 31 15 11 0
Upper 555 38 30 18 15 0
Total 22272 45 31 12 9 4
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis
MORE ABOUT: Data
  • Emily

    Here’s another shocker. It turns out that the Iranian election in 1979 was rigged. OMG – who knew?

  • pconroy

    Hmmm, so 79% of Nigerian women agree strongly that a wife must always obey her husband.

    …how much are the air fares to Lagos again??

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #1, what’s your point? be clearer or i’ll ban you.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com Peter

    Are the Nigerian responses limited to the Muslim population?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #4, no. 86% for muslims, 82% for xtians.

  • zach

    Hi Razib,

    nice blog post. I just went to the WVS to see how the US would stack up on the same question. However, it looks like this question was not asked among the US surveys….. I would imagine European countries would be strongly negative but I am curious how strong the traditionalists in the US would answer this question. Pakistan’s answer was certainly surprising to me.

  • Anthony

    Interesting that Pakistan has less difference between male and female responses than does Iran, but still higher than most other Muslim countries.

    If I wanted to trade in stereotypes, I’d guess that the high female disagreement among Iranian women stemmed from a more general attitude among Iranians that the world revolves around themselves, or from more Iranian than Arab women sharing that sort of attitude.

  • http://whywereason.com Sam McNerney

    I suppose it’s important to understand Iran relative to its neighbors. But it is still morally unacceptable for so many of its citizen to think this way.

  • John Emerson

    What are the US numbers?

  • Paul R

    #2, probably less expensive than a Nigerian mail-order bride site. A point most Nigerians would agree on- though whose fault this is is a matter for debate.

  • Xerxes

    As a British/Iranian, the result of your pole does not surprise me about Iranian Men/Women views. However, I would (like John Emerson) like to ask how do these figuers compare with US and UK? Maybe then we can have a better understanding of your figures.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    One could argue something similar on democratic politics. Iran is certainly not a full and free democracy, but its elections are more democratic the systems of Saudi Arabia, Oman, pre-Iraq War Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, pre-revolution Libya, pre-revolution Yemen, pre-revolution Egypt, or Syria (or for that matter Cuba or North Korea).

    In Iran, there are genuine decisions within the realm of theocratic acceptability between genuinely differing candidates and the democratic institutions in revolutionary Iran have some real power and are not pure consultive or figurehead institutions. Overall, its position on the demcracy to dictatorship scale is on a par with China perhaps.

    Iran is less democratic than Turkey or contemporary Indonesia, and probably less democratic than Pakistan or Bangladesh.

    An understanding of the social and political “moderation” of Iran relative to some of its neighbors as being a function of the need for representation when the state needs taxation and can’t simply rely on ownership of natural resources is also a pretty plausible analysis of why it is this way, although it doesn’t do much to explain why a country like Pakistan isn’t much better democratically and politically than it actually seems to be.

  • Michelle

    Anthony #7…Exactly what do you mean by “If I wanted to trade in stereotypes, I’d guess that the high female disagreement among Iranian women stemmed from a more general attitude among Iranians that the world revolves around themselves.” I have lived in many different countries, including Iran, and I have found that every country suffers from the belief that the world revolves around it. Americans are irritated when they see this attitude in others, but they too suffer from a delusion of cultural and moral superiority.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    What are the US numbers?

    Those are the only countries for which there are data for that question. It appears to have only been asked in Muslim countries.

  • http://urbanrealist.blogspot.com John smith

    That’s too broad of a question. A more interesting question would be to ask whether a woman should be stoned to death for adultery or sex outside marriage. The international community condemned iran for that sentence. Well, let’s see whether the policy is the goverment’s idea or a reflection of the people’s view.

  • hass

    In Iran, you’ll find a world class reduction in fertility (with the Mideast’s only condom factory, and mandatory sex ed classes), massive program to build cars that run on natural gas, world class AIDS programs, free needle exchange programs for addicts, government funded sex change operations, a system of healthcare for the poor that is being used as a model inbthe US, teaching evolution, etc.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/03/how-iran-derailed-a-health-crisis/

    http://www.fasebj.org/content/20/13/2183.full

  • xerxes

    Michelle, cannot agree with you more. Well said. As for Anthony, look up in history, Persians had human right charter 2500 years ago. Maybe that history has a little bit to do with the attitude of Iranians!

  • Eugenick

    Nothing unexpected. Unlike the Saudis, Iranians actually have a recent secular past & traditions to cling to, in this case the progressive Pahlavi regime. Similarly, Pakistanis have the British secular traditions to remember, although more distant in time.

    The Egyptians also had Lord Cromer, his influence lasted for a while too: http://islamizationwatch.blogspot.com/2010/02/steady-islamization-and-arabization-of.html

    Unfortunately, in all of those cases the secularization did not go far enough so as to eradicate religious fanaticism. Ataturk, however, managed what the Shah and the British could not.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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