What Muslims Around the World Think About Women's Rights, in Charts

Insights from the massive Pew survey of adherents of the world's second-largest religion.
Afghan widows clad in burqas line up during a cash for work project by humanitarian organisation CARE International in Kabul January 6, 2010. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

We often talk about "the Islamic world," or the "Muslim community," but sometimes it takes being smacked with an enormous, amazing data dump to remind us that Muslims are actually an incredibly diverse group -- if you can call them a group -- who adhere to views that are informed by their cultural and political context as much as their religion.

For their mammoth new study about the world's Muslims, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life interviewed more than 38,000 Muslims in 39 countries on topics ranging from morality, to politics and justice, and the relationships between the sexes.

There's a lot to parse here, but one of the most interesting sections is on views about women, given the recent controversy over sexual abuse in India, the flare-up over the "topless jihad," and the potential resurgence of Sharia law in Syria and other unstable areas.

One big takeaway is this: The way Muslims see the role of women is highly dependent on where they live.

The countries are divided up into rough geographical areas, and the regional comparisons are stark. In Afghanistan, for example, a whopping 94 percent of Muslims say "a wife must always obey her husband," compared with just 34 percent in a more liberal, but still predominantly Muslim, country like Kosovo:

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Muslims in former Yugoslav countries, Central Asia, and parts of North Africa are also much more likely to support the right of women to divorce:

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Among countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Muslims in the Palestinian Territories were the most likely to support equal inheritance rights for their daughters and sons:

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Another interesting finding was that Muslim women aren't always more likely to support greater freedoms for themselves than their male counterparts are. On the question of whether it should be a woman's right to decide whether or not to wear a veil, "in 12 of the 23 countries where the question was asked, Muslim women voice greater support than Muslim men ... in the remaining 11 countries, opinions of women and men do not differ significantly on this question."

Elsewhere, the report offered both promising and frightening news. Overall, the survey found that most Muslims see little tension between being religiously devout and living in a modern society, most favor democracy over authoritarian rule, and the vast majority reject acts of violence like suicide bombings. Still, 26 percent in Bangladesh say violence is sometimes justified, along with 29 percent in Egypt, and 39 percent in Afghanistan. Pew also revealed that U.S. Muslims are more moderate and tolerant than those elsewhere: They are much less inclined to support suicide bombing and are more likely to believe that people of other faiths can go to heaven.

Read the entire report here. It offers a fresh, varied look at the quarter of the world's population whom we often paint with one brush.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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