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Middle East Survey Sees Patchy Progress in Views on Women's and LGBT Rights

Supporters of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community attend a sit-in to protest the ongoing criminalization of homosexuality and arbitrary arrests, in front of Hobeich Police Station, where protesters say four men are being…

More men than women in Iraq say they have been sexually harassed, while only 6% of Lebanese people think being gay is acceptable, according to a major survey of public opinion in the Middle East published on Monday.

The wide-ranging study, conducted by researchers at Princeton University, found although support for women's rights and for female leaders was growing, many people still felt men should have the final say in family matters.

"Opinions regarding women's rights and their roles in society are progressing unevenly in the Middle East and North Africa," said Aseel Alayli of Arab Barometer, the research network that conducted the survey. "There is little agreement that women should play equal roles in public or private life."

Arab Barometer surveyed more than 25,000 people across 10 countries and the Palestinian territories for the study, which was commissioned by BBC News Arabic.

Its findings have revealed the complex and often conflicting views held by people in the region on LGBT+ and women's rights.

Attitudes are shifting on certain topics, the research showed, with Jordanians and Moroccans more supportive of women gaining a university education than they were in 2006.

Several Gulf governments including Saudi Arabia refused "full and fair access" to the survey, according to BBC Arabic News.

The conservative kingdom has long been a focus for women's rights in the region and was applauded for lifting the world's last ban on women driving in 2018.

But optimism about women's rights has been tempered by the detention of prominent Saudi female activists who have campaigned to end a guardianship system whereby women must seek permission from a male relative to work and travel.

LGBT+ Rights

Acceptance of being gay is low across the Middle East, the study found, with Algeria, where 26% of people deem it acceptable to be gay, the most tolerant country.

In Jordan, so-called honor killings - where relatives kill a family member, typically a woman, who is seen as having dishonored the family - were deemed more acceptable than homosexuality, according to the study.

"Many people in the Middle East believe one's sexuality can be changed, and would wish to see gay people change accordingly," said Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher on LGBT+ Rights for Human Rights Watch.

Religious and political leaders should do more to speak out in support of LGBT+ rights, Ghoshal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that LGBT+ activists faced a particularly difficult task building movements in the region.

LGBT+ relationships are illegal across most of the Middle East and North Africa, and gay people often risk fines, jail and even the possibility of death, according to Human Rights Watch.

A 2018 poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen among the 10 most dangerous countries for women.

"People don't accept it (LGBT+) but they might acknowledge it ... It's very complex," said a gay Qatari man, 31, who asked not to be named. "Maybe attitudes are shifting but the general consensus is people don't accept it as something that should be outward."