Religion and gender determine what we expect from life

New research from Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences examines what men and women in Qatar expect from a normal life, and the differences between genders are quite surprising.

2013.12.04 | Tine Bagger Christiansen

When asked to describe what constitutes a normal life in their own culture, Qatari men focus to a greater extent on religion. Qatari women, on the other hand, have an increasingly cross-cultural perception of what constitutes a typical life story. Photo: Colourbox

When asked to describe what constitutes a normal life in their own culture, Qatari men focus to a greater extent on religion. Qatari women, on the other hand, have an increasingly cross-cultural perception of what constitutes a typical life story. This is the conclusion of a new study that focuses on the life stories of men and women in Qatar. Both sexes were asked to describe a typical life for both a boy and a girl, and their answers showed that men and women have very different expectations to life.

In Denmark there is hardly any difference between genders when it comes to our perception about what a normal life constitutes, i.e. a so-called normative life. Danish men and women have the same conception of the episodes that a normal person goes through in his or her life; such as going to school, confirmation, education, marriage, having children, and so on. And this conception is quite consistent with reality.

“In Qatar, children are raised according to gender roles, and the daily life of a boy and a girl is very different. Therefore, what was surprising about these results was not that there was a difference between men and women’s perception of life, but where those differences lie,” explains PhD Christina Lundsgaard Ottsen from Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences.

Differences between the life stories of men and women
In the study of the life stories of Qatari men and women, all participants, men and women alike, were asked to describe what they believe to be a typical life for both a boy and a girl. The men and women included different events in their descriptions of a normative life, which clearly suggests that men and women have different perceptions of what constitutes a normal life. 

Men had a more culturally contingent view of what it means to be from Qatar and grow up there, whereas the women displayed a broader, more universal perception of life in Qatar. The men referred to a number of significant religious events – for instance, the Islamic birth ritual, learning to pray, the Islamic doctrine of morality and going to mosque for the first time. The women, on the other hand, focused on only one religious aspect, namely the Islamic birth ritual.  In addition, the men referred to fewer cross-cultural events than the women; such as starting in preschool, getting your first job and so on.

“Religious events play a major role in the lives of the men in Qatar, simply because it is primarily the men who participate in them. But their answers are still surprising, because the participants were asked to describe the life of both a boy and a girl,” says Christina Lundsgaard Ottsen.

Islamic men practice religion to a greater extent than women. They have to go to Mosque for Friday prayer, there are several rituals involved in relation to childbirth and so on. There are simply more events that apply to men than to women. And men therefore have a special role to bear in passing cultural events on to the next generation. 

However, the gender gap only is only evident in the participants’ general perception of a normative life. When the participants were asked to account for important events in their own lives, they had less focus on religious events, and there were no significant differences in terms of gender. There was, however, a significant overlap between cultural events and personal events.

The cultural life script is a concept that refers to these events and experiences that we expect from life.  The cultural life script is handed down from generation to generation and can also be described as a society’s collective memory. A person’s individual life story, on the other hand, belongs to no one but that person and is a unique part of one’s autobiographic memory.

In the study, both the men and women expressed the view that they expect their lives to be filled with mostly positive events, and that the majority of these positive events take place between the age of 15-30. This age range is often referred to as “the memory bump.” Adults past the age of 40 tend to recall events mostly from this period in their lives, and these memories are positive to an extent that is not entirely consistent with reality.

The events inherent in the life script of the people of Qatar show a tendency similar to the memory bump. It indicates that the collective knowledge that we have about our own culture is significant for the process of recalling events that have or will come to shape our lives. It is clear, therefore, that the cultural life script helps structure a person’s autobiographical memory.

A follow-up study will be conducted, examining the extent to which our memories and cultural expectations help us plan for the future and set personal goals.

Facts
No similar research project has ever dealt with a country where there is so little influence from the West and so little development in terms of education, industrialisation, prosperity and democracy.

The study was conducted through the use of a questionnaire, which was distributed to both men and women in Qatar. The participants were asked to list the seven most important events in the life of both a boy and a girl respectively. They were also asked to state when these events take place and what are the positive and negative aspects of these events.

55 university students from four classes at the Qatar University participated in the study. 31 participants were female and 24 were male.

Further information

Christina K. Ottsen

PhD Christina Ottesen
Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences
Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences - Con Amore
Email: col@psy.au.dk
Tel.: 87165291



Research news