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The Political Economy of Women's Support for Fundamentalist Islam

  • Lisa Blaydes and Drew A. Linzer (a1) (a2)


Why do some Muslim women adopt fundamentalist Islamic value systems that promote gender-based inequalities while others do not? This article considers the economic determinants of fundamentalist beliefs in the Muslim world, as women look to either marriage or employment to achieve financial security. Using cross-national public opinion data from eighteen countries with significant Muslim populations, the authors apply a latent class model to characterize respondents according to their views on gender norms, political Islam, and personal religiosity. Among women, lack of economic opportunity is a stronger predictor of fundamentalist belief systems than socioeconomic class. Cross-nationally, fundamentalism among women is most prevalent in poor countries and in those with a large male-female wage gap. These findings have important implications for the promotion of women's rights, the rise of political Islam, and the development of democracy in the Muslim world.



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1 Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Apple by, and Sivan, Emmanuel, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 20.

2 Kaplan, Lawrence, ed., Fundamentalism in Comparative Perspective (Amherst: University of Mas sachusetts Press, 1992).

3 Kuran, Timur, “Fundamentalisms and the Economy,” in Martin, Marty E. and Appleby, R. Scott, eds., Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 290.

4 The Islamic basis for these practices is a source of debate in the Muslim world. For example, the performance of female genital mutilation is not supported by most interpretations of Islamic law but many women in the Muslim world associate this act with adherence to Islam. In 1995, 97 percent of ever-married women aged fifteen to forty-nine in Egypt were circumcised and 96 percent of families surveyed in Indonesia in 2003 reported that their daughters had undergone some form of circumcision by age fourteen. See Yount, Kathryn, “Like Mother, Like Daughter? Female Genital Cutting in Minia, Egypt,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43, no. 3 (2002); Sara Corbert, “A Cutting Tradition,” New York Times Magazine, January 20, 2008.

5 It is less problematic as to why Muslim men might support social practices that advantage them vis-à-vis women, though this, too, is a research subject in need of further investigation.

6 This definition of fundamentalism may not conform to some popular or journalistic uses of the term. We believe that our conceptualization is nonetheless valid and analytically useful. Debate over the status, role, and rights of women in Islam is perhaps the most important line of cleavage between those individuals who believe that the holy texts of Islam can be reinterpreted in the context of the present and those who would be considered hard-line literalists; see also Winter, Bronwyn, “Fundamental Misunderstandings: Issues in Feminist Approaches to Islamism,” Journal of Women's History 13, no. 1 (2001).

7 Kaplan(fn. 2), 9.

8 Fish, M. Steven, “Islam and Authoritarianism,” World Politics 55 (October 2002); Esposito, John, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Natchwey, Jodi and Tessler, Mark, “Explaining Women's Support for Political Islam: Contributions from Feminist Theory,” in Tessler, Mark, ed., Area Studies and Social Science: Strategies for Understanding Middle East Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

9 Saha, Santosh C. and Carr, Thomas K., Religious Fundamentalism in Developing Countries (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001), 3.

10 Eickelman, Dale and Piscatori, James, Muslim Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 55.

11 Euben, Roxanne L., Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

12 Brink, Judy and Mlencher, Joan, eds., Mixed Blessings: Gender and Religious Fundamentalism Cross Culturally (London: Routledge, 1997).

13 Marty, Martin E. and Appleby, R. Scott, eds., Fundamentalisms Comprehended (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 1.

14 Feminist scholarship suggests that during periods of rapid social change, gender assumes a paramount position in social discourse since women in developing societies are seen as the main transmitters of social values. Efforts are often made to reimpose traditional behaviors as a remedy for destabilization. See Moghadam, Valentine M., Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1993), 136.

15 Kaplan (fn. 2), 8. Mernissi adds that fundamentalism can be seen as a “political statement about men undergoing bewildering, compelling changes affecting their economic and sexual identity—changes so profound and numerous that they trigger deep-seated, irrational fears.” See Mernissi, Fatima, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), ix.

16 Esposito, John, Women in Muslim Family Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1982).

17 Lapidus, Ira, “Islamic Revival and Modernity: The Contemporary Movements and the Historical Paradigms,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40, no. 4 (1997); Deeb, Lara, An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

18 Abou, Khaled M.Fadl, El, And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and the Authoritarian in Islamic Discourse (New York: University Press of America, 2001), 7.

19 Conservatives often cite silrat al-nisā of the Koran, which says, “Men shall take full care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter,” as a justification for their attitudes and actions toward women.

20 Euben (fn. 11), 192; Hawley, John Stratton, ed., Fundamentalism and Gender (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Moghissi, Haideh, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism (London: Zed Books, 1999).

21 Hardacre, Helen, “The Impact of Fundamentalisms on Women, the Family, and Interpersonal Relations,” in Marty, Martin E. and Appfe, R. Scott by, eds., Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

22 Mahmood, Saba, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Brink and Mencher (fn. 12).

23 Hardacre(fn.21).

24 Mernissi (fn. 15); Piscatori, James, “Accounting for Islamic Fundamentalisms,” in Martin, Marty E. and Appleby, R. Scott, eds., Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

25 Torben Iversen and Frances Rosenbluth, “Gender Socialization: How Bargaining Power Shapes Social Norms and Political Attitudes,” Working Paper, no. 2008–0064 (Cambridge: Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, 2005).

26 Edlund, Lena and Pande, Rohini, “Why Have Women Become Left-Wing? The Political Gender Gap and the Decline in Marriage,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 117, no. 3 (2002); Edlund, Lena, Haider, Laila, and Pande, Rohini, “Unmarried Parenthood and Redistributive Politics,” Journal of the European Economic Association 3, no. 1 (2005).

27 Indeed, the general notion that economic factors shape individuals' political attitudes—and even their vote choices—is not a matter of much dispute. See Norpoth, Helmut, Lewis-Beck, Michael S., and Lafay, Jean-Dominique, eds., Economics and Politics: The Calculus of Support (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991); Norpoth, Helmut, “Presidents and the Prospective Voter,” Journal of Politics 58 (August 1996); MacKuen, Michael B., Erikson, Robert S., and Stimson, James A., “Peasants or Bankers? The American Electorate and the U.S. Economy,” American Political Science Review 86 (September 1992); and Anderson, Christopher, Blaming the Government: Citizens and the Economy in Five European Democracies (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1995).

28 Shimon Peres, interview with Middle East Quarterly 2 (March 1995).

29 Kepel, Gilles, The Prophet and the Pharaoh: Muslim Extremism in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Zuhur, Sherifa, Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Geneder Ideology in Modern Egypt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).

30 Almond, Appleby, and Sivan (fn. 1), 130.

31 Mahmood(fn. 22), 2.

32 Moghadam(fn. 14).

33 Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “Anatomy of Egypt's Militant Islamic Groups: Methodological Note and Preliminary Findings,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 12 (December 1980).

34 It is not clear whether individual extremists or fundamentalist group leaders who are subject to academic study are representative of the broader distribution of individuals with these beliefs. Ethan Bueno de Mesquita makes the compelling case that there exists a wide distribution of individuals in extremist groups, yet those selected for study may be the individuals of highest “quality” with regard to education and ability. See Mesquita, Bueno de, “The Quality of Terror,” American Journal of Political Science 49, no. 3 (2005).

35 In the wealthiest of the Gulf oil states, it is possible to live off of state largesse and family wealth although the vast majority of women are married, employed, or both.

36 Hoodfar, Homa, Between Marriage and the Market: Intimate Politics and Survival in Cairo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

37 Mahmood (fn. 22), 100.

38 Hoda Rashad, Magued Osman, and Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, Marriage in the Arab WWrf (Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, 2005).

39 Rugh, Andrea, Family in Contemporary Egypt (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1985), 108–9. As one Muslim male commented, “The fact is that men who have reservations about [female] circumcision would marry circumcised women, but those who see circumcision as necessary for women would not marry uncircumcised women.” (The term “female circumcision” is a euphemism for the practice more commonly known as female genital mutilation.) Conservative beliefs are seen as a necessary trait for many marriages and an acceptable trait for the rest. See Hoodfar (fn. 36), 261.

40 Almond, Appleby, and Sivan (fn. 1), 11–12.

41 Watson, Helen, Women in the City of the Dead (London: C. Hurst and Co., 1992).

42 This observation is based on conversations with dozens of Egyptian women during nine months of field research conducted in 2005 by Lisa Blaydes; see also Singerman, Diane, Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); and Zuhur (fn. 29).

43 Ismail, Salwa, Political Life in Cairo's New Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 110.

44 White, Jenny B., Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 89.

45 Harris, Colette, Control and Subversion: Gender Relations in Tajikistan (London: Pluto Press, 2004), 78.

46 Kamp, Marianne, “Between Women and the State: Mahalla Committees and Social Welfare in Uzbekistan,” in Luong, Pauline Jones, ed., The Transformation of Central Asia: States and Societies from Soviet Rule to Independence (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004), 45.

47 Cynthia Werner, “Women, Marriage, and the Nation-State: The Rise of Nonconsensual Bride Kidnapping in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan,” in Luong (fn. 46), 74.

48 Swanee Hunt, “Muslim Women in the Bosnian Crucible,” Sex Roles 51 (September 2004); Norris, H. T., Islam in the Balkans: Religion and Society between Europe and the Arab World (London: Hurst and Company, 1993); and Zalihic-Kaurin, Azra, “The Muslim Woman,” in Stiglmayer, Alexandra, ed., Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 172–73.

49 Barsoum, Ghada, The Employment Crisis of Female Graduates in Egypt: An Ethnographic Account, Cairo Papers in Society Science 25, no. 3 (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002). While many conservative women are able to seek employment in the state sector, these jobs are generally much less desirable and lucrative than private sector employment.

50 Daily Star Egypt, November 22, 2006; Mervat F. Hatem, “Economic and Political Liberalization in Egypt and the Demise of State Feminism,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 24 (May 1992).

51 Carrie Wickham, Rosefsky, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 54.

52 White (fn. 44); Deeb (fn. 17).

53 Callaway, Barbara, Muslim Hausa Women in Nigeria (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987).

54 See David Siddhartha Patel for a thorough discussion of signaling piety. David Siddhartha Patel, “Concealing to Reveal: The Changing Informational Role of Islamic Dress” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, August 31-September 3, 2006).

55 Bourqia, Rahma, “Women, Uncertainty, and Reproduction in Morocco,” in Obermeyer, Carla Makhlouf, ed., Family, Gender, and Population in the Middle East: Policies in Context (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995).

56 Hoodfar (fn. 36), 135.

57 Inglehart, Ronald, Basafiez, Miguel, Diez-Medrano, Jaime, Halman, Loek, and Luijkx, Ruud, eds., Human Beliefs and Values: A Cross-cultural Sourcebook Based on the 1999—2002 Values Surveys (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2004); and For more on the design and scope of other cross-national public opinion studies, see Heath, Anthony, Fisher, Stephen, and Smith, Shawna, “The Globalization of Public Opinion Research,” Annual Review of Political Science 8 (2005). Survey research based upon the principle of random sampling is widely recognized as an effective and reliable scientific instrument for the collection of opinion data in political science. Brady, Henry E., “Contributions of Survey Research to Political Science,” PS: Political Science and Politics 33 (March 2000).

58 A complete list of these countries, and the sample sizes for each, are given in Appendix 1. We exclude wvs countries with fewer than 150 Muslim respondents to ensure that each country has a sufficient sample size to be able to make meaningful estimates of country-level fundamentalism at a later point in the analysis.

59 The technique of latent class analysis was first set forth by Lazarsfeld, Paul F., “The Logical and Mathematical Foundations of Latent Structure Analysis,” in Stouffer, Samuel A., ed., Measurement and Prediction (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1950). A wide range of variations and extensions of that original model have subsequently been developed; see Hagenaars, Jacques A. and McCutcheon, Allan L., eds., Applied Latent Class Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). A study similar to ours in both spirit and execution is Yamaguchi, Kazuo, “Multinomial Logit Latent-Class Regression Models: An Analysis of the Predictors of Gender-Role “Attitudes among Japanese Women,” American Journal of Sociology 105 (May 2000).

60 Moghadam (fn. 14), 148.

61 Nadine El Sayed, “Extreme Differences,” Egypt Today (June 2007)

62 To be clear, while this article deals with belief systems in Islamic societies, we make no claims regarding whether certain beliefs are aspects of a “right” or “true” Islam.

63 Latent class models require no assumptions about respondents assigning utility to their responses, nor about any sort of utility maximization when selecting among outcomes. This contrasts with the statistical methods of ideal point estimation, which are also used to estimate latent characteristics of individuals based upon their observed behaviors, but which do require certain rationality assumptions. See, for example, Clinton, Joshua, Jackman, Simon, and Rivers, Douglas, “The Statistical Analysis of Roll Call Data,” American Political Science Review 98 (May 2004).

64 Dayton, C. Mitchell and Macready, George B., “Concomitant-Variable Latent-Class Models,” Journal of the American Statistical Association 83, no. 401 (1988); Bandeen-Roche, Karen, Miglioretti, Diana L., Zeger, Scott L., and Rathouz, Paul J., “Latent Variable Regression for Multiple Discrete Outcomes,” Journal of the American Statistical Association 92, no. 440 (1997).

65 If any survey item does a poor job of “discriminating” between the latent classes—either because the classes do not differentiate on that item or because the item does not contain that much variation to begin with—it will be apparent in the estimated values of πjkr. Using survey questions with low variance does not impede the estimation or interpretation of the latent class model in any way.

66 To fit the model, we utilize the statistical package poLCA implemented in R version 2.7,1. Drew A. Linzer and Jeffrey Lewis, “poLCA: Polytomous variable Latent Class Analysis,” R package version 1.1 (2007);; R Development Team, Core, R:A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (Vienna: R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2008);

67 It does not follow that one-third of all Muslims in the world are fundamentalist. This is because while the survey sample is random within each country, the pooled sample is not a random sample of Muslims worldwide. Countries such as India and Indonesia are undersampled, while others such as Azerbaijan, Jordan, and Turkey are oversampled.

68 It is possible that the secular group is so small because of the choice of countries surveyed. It is also possible that Muslim respondents who hold secular beliefs are not identifying themselves as Muslims on the survey. To investigate this possibility, we fit a four-class model to the 2,541 respondents who report no religious affiliation. A subgroup of 22 percent constitutes a secular class similar to what was found among self-identified Muslims; a further 20 percent are still more secular. Even if all of these respondents were actually Muslim, that would only be 1,070 individuals—less than 5 percent of the total number of self-identified Muslims in the sample.

69 The covariates are wvs items X001, X025, X028, and X045. Education and social class fall into ordered categories with eight and five responses, respectively. Employment status is a nominal variable with eight categories; we recode the variable as 1 if the individual is unemployed or a housewife, 0 otherwise.

70 Because respondents with missing observations on the dependent variables can be included when estimating the latent class model, it is possible to estimate the model across the entire eighteen-country sample for all sixteen dependent variables, even though the full battery of questions was not asked in every country. For how the latent class model accommodates missing values, see Drew A. Linzer and Jeffrey Lewis, “poLCA: An R Package for Polytomous Variable Latent Class Analysis,” Journal of Statistical Software (2008). We do not include country dummy variables among the covariates, as doing so would imply that respondents who gave the same survey responses and had the same covariates, but resided in different countries, would have different probabilities of belonging to each latent belief system cluster. This would imply that “fundamentalism” had different meanings in different countries, an operationalization we wish to avoid.

71 It is possible that fundamentalist women who marry are simply less inclined than secular women to seek work subsequently. However, this provides no explanation for why women are or are not fundamentalist to begin with and in particular yields no testable predictions about the effects of education, socioeconomic class, or (as we investigate in the following section) aggregate poverty and wage inequality.

72 Unfortunately, other countries such as Afghanistan under the Taliban and Sudan (since 1989) that also promote fundamentalist Islamic religious education were not in the wvs.

73 Women in the highest, upper class constitute just 2 percent of the survey sample.

74 Karam, Azza M., Women, Islamisms and the State: Contemporary Feminisms in Egypt (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), 12.

75 Islamist feminists have their roots in the activism of Zeinab al-Ghazali—founder of the Muslim Women's Association and affiliate of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

76 Moghadam questions whether Islamic feminism, as characterized by Karam, even exists or if this term is an oxymoron. See Moghadam, Valentine M., “Islamic Feminism and Its Discontents: Toward a Resolution of the Debate,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27 (Summer 2002); and Karam (fn. 74).

77 The emergence of a small but influential class of highly educated, fundamentalist women is an important area for future research. Since their fundamentalist orientation is not likely due to poor job prospects, other motivations, including but not limited to antiauthoritarian or antiglobalization sentiment, should be investigated. See Hessini, Leila, “Wearing the Hijab in Contemporary Morocco: Choice and Identity,” in Gocek, Fatma Muge and Salaghi, Shiva, eds., Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

78 Michael Ross, “Oil, Islam and Women,” American Political Science Review 102 (February 2008).

79 This assignment rule minimizes the probability of misclassification; see Bishop, Christopher M., Neural Networksfor Pattern Recognition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 1; Duda, R. O. and Hart, P. E., Pattern Classification and Scene Analysis (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1973).

80 These standard error estimates account for heteroskedasticity in the dependent variable and are more conservative than normal OLS standard error estimates. Lewis, Jeffrey B. and Linzer, Drew A., “Estimating Regression Models in Which the Dependent Variable Is Based on Estimates,” Political Analysis 13, no. 4 (2005).

81 United Nations, Human Development Report (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005). When data are missing, these data are taken from the closest available year, wvs study years are Algeria 2002; Azerbaijan 1996 (missing, use 1997); Bangladesh 2002; Bosnia-Herzegovina 2001 (missing, use 2003); Egypt 2000; India 2001; Indonesia 2001; Iran 2000; Jordan 2001; Macedonia 2001 (missing, use 2002); Montenegro 2001 (not available); Morocco 2001; Nigeria 2000; Pakistan 2001; Singapore 2002; Tanzania 2001; Turkey 2000; Uganda 2001.

82 World Bank, World Development Indicators Online, (accessed March 6, 2006).

83 Kuran, Timur, “Why the Middle East Is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18 (Summer 2004).

84 Mackie, Gerry, “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account,” American Sociological Review 61 (December 2006).

85 Greenhalgh, Susan, “Bound Feet, Hobbled Lives: Women in Old China,” Frontiers 2 (Spring 1977).

86 Gates, Hill, “Footloose in Fujian: Economic Correlates of Footbinding,” Comparative Studies in society and History 43, no. 1 (2001).

87 Al-Ahram Weekly, November 1–7, 2007.

88 The strategic basis for male support for fundamentalism is just beginning to be explored and offers another potentially fruitful area for research. See, for example, Arce, Daniel and Sandier, Todd, “An Evolutionary Game Approach to Fundamentalism and Conflict,” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 159 (March 2003).

89 Natchwey and Tessler (fn. 8).

90 Fish (fn. 8).

91 Binder, Leonard, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

* We thank Tim Biithe, Douglas Dion, James Honaker, Behnam Sadeghi, Jonathan Slapin, George Tsebelis, and especially Amaney Jamal for helpful and insightful comments. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2006 annual meetings of the American Political Science Association and the Midwest Political Science Association.

The Political Economy of Women's Support for Fundamentalist Islam

  • Lisa Blaydes and Drew A. Linzer (a1) (a2)


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