As Laura mentioned in her most recent post, this week I got the chance to hear Dr. Dalia Mogahed speak at Goucher College to present some of Gallup’s findings in their recent Poll of the Muslim World. While some of her presentation simply seemed to reinforce what I already knew (or believed), other points took me more by surprise.

When she mentioned poll results which showed statistics like 75% of Saudi men believe that a woman should be allowed to hold any job for which she is qualified, I was a little bit skeptical – remember, in Saudi Arabia it is currently against the law for a woman to drive a car. It reminded me of reading recent media speculation on the “Bradley Effect,”  the tendency of (white) American voters to tell a pollster that sure, they have no problem voting for an African-American candidate…when, in fact, they really do, and it affects their decision on election day.  Americans don’t want to appear racist. Isn’t it fair to believe that Saudis don’t want to appear sexist? And when that’s the case, how can you trust these numbers?

I put this question to Dr. Mogahed during the Q&A session of her presentation, and her answer was: well, you can’t completely. There are a certain number of people who are giving the answer they think they should, rather than the one that’s true. But, even if the numbers aren’t completely accurate, the responses at least indicate the number of people who believe that that’s the desirable answer. It’s called an espoused value: the positions or beliefs that a society aspires to, even if we’re not yet there.

In my mind, then, numbers like these become a way to measure society’s potential. Our hope for the future. If 3 out of 4 men in Saudi Arabia at least feel that they ought to feel that women should have equal opportunities to men, then it paves the way for progress.

(Although how we’ll get an accurate measure of that progress, I certainly don’t know.)