Statistics Aren’t Enough: Women’s Political Representation in MENA

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal,” said Emma Goldman, the courageous and infamous anarchist from the late 19th century.  A staunch feminist, Goldman was strongly opposed to women’s suffrage, arguing that the right to participate in a system that was inherently corrupt was no right at all.  Only women’s economic and bodily autonomy, “and not the ballot, will set woman free, will maker her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life-giving; a creator of free men and women.”

A century later, we have witnessed a wave of elections across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and 2012, both in countries with governments toppled by revolution and countries untouched by, or studiously avoiding, unrest.  The results for women’s representation in parliaments have been mixed, ranging from 32% in Algeria and 25% in Tunisia, to 2% in Egypt, 2% in the UAE, 1% in Oman, and 0% in Kuwait.

Tunisian candidate Thurayya Sithum going door-to-door on the last day of campaigning in October, 2011. Credit: Jamel Haouas/UND

As Islamist parties are coming into power across the region, women’s representation in government should be crucial to push forward women’s rights or just avoid new restrictions to personal status laws. However, even in Tunisia and Algeria, where women’s representation percentage-wise is better than in the US, numbers don’t necessarily ensure that the representation is meaningful beyond a statistic.  Factors like the electoral system, party representation, perceptions of women in parliament, and the very legitimacy of the parliament will affect women’s abilities to legislate and lead on matters of women’s rights.

On the surface, we can group these countries into broad categories: Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt all have electoral policies that attempt to ensure women’s representation, some more half-hearted than others.  The UAE, Oman, and Kuwait, unsurprisingly, have no such policies.  Tunisia and Egypt both used the electoral list system as a means to ensure some level of gender parity, though Tunisia, with a good track record on women’s rights, made a much more sincere effort than Egypt.  With a list system, parties put forward lists of candidates for each district, and the number of members on the list to receive a seat was proportional to the percentage of the vote that party received in that district.  In Tunisia, half of the names on the lists had to be women, and names had to alternate by gender.  This zipper strategy was meant to ensure that women would be about equally represented.  The practical result was that 49 women were elected to a 217-member parliament.  In Egypt, on the other hand, one woman had to be present on each list, but there were no requirements for where on the list they had to appear, so that parties could place their one woman on the bottom of the list with no chance of ever holding a parliament seat.  In the January election, 8 women were elected to a 508 member parliament.

Algeria’s high yield of female legislators is the result of a new law passed this year after a hard-fought advocacy campaign by women activists.  The law imposed direct quotas on various districts ranging from 20% to 50%.  Women won 45 of 152 seats in the parliament.  This is similar to Iraq, where constitutionally women must make up 25% of parliamentary seats.  But with either of these systems, increased representation does not ensure an increase in political power or influence.  For one thing, the quota system creates the impression among male politicians that women did not necessarily deserve their seats.  Some Algerian parties protested that women who weren’t qualified would be bumped up on the lists just to meet the quota, and women’s activists complained that male politicians have fill the lists with their female family members.  Women in Iraq still struggle to make significant inroads, saying that they are not taken seriously either by male colleagues or by constituents.

Tunisia’s more indirect system has its own disadvantages.  Even though the zipper rule promised almost equal representation, most parties still chose to start their lists with men.  This means two things:  first, that smaller, less popular parties that only won one seat would automatically fill that seat with a man, and second, that the vast majority of women elected (42 out of 49) came from the moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, that currently leads the parliament and won the most seats.  Secular women are not proportionately represented, as the vast majority of seats in secular parties went to men.  This is a crucial factor to take into account, when secular women fear that Islamic parties may seek to roll back women’s equal rights to divorce, inheritance, free public dress, and other social and personal status issues.

In the Gulf elections that took place this year, in Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE, it is likely that even if a quota system did exist, women’s representation would not have any effect on women’s lives, for the simple reason that the legislatures in those countries are little more than a joke.  In the UAE’s elections, only 130,000 people were eligible to vote, and only 28% of those actually voted to elect members to the FNC, a legislative body that is half-elected, half-appointed, and has no power whatsoever.  Of these twenty elected members, one was a woman.  In Oman, the Sultan pledged to give the Majlis Al-Shura, a consultative council, some real power, but the results of those promises remain to be seen.  One woman was elected to the 84-member council.  Kuwait is an exception, with a parliament that has some teeth and has shown that it isn’t afraid to stand up to the monarch.

Perhaps to be fair, we should take into account that women in Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE just won the right to vote in 2003, 2005, and 2006, respectively, and some patience might be in order.  But in governments where democracy is mostly a meaningless exercise and elected bodies hold no actual power, talking about getting women elected is a bit ludicrous.  In the same vein, it’s difficult to celebrating that Algerian women make up one third of parliament when Algerians view the parliament, and the recent vote itself, with very little legitimacy in the first place.

Obtaining the right to participate in powerless or corrupt institutions is not affording women any real power to change their situation.  In countries like Oman and the UAE, we won’t be able to say women have the right to participate in their democracy until there are actually functioning democratic systems.  On the other hand, in Tunisia and Egypt, where women fought alongside men to bring the corrupt system to the ground, and countries like Kuwait, where the parliament does have some influence, women are still denied representation proportionate to their percentage in the population or ideological stances.

Moving forward, it is essential that election laws account for the loopholes that have led to such disproportionate representation, but also that women are placed in positions of senior, executive power.  Most essentially, women need to be economically empowered so that cultural perceptions shift and their male colleagues view them with respect.  As Emma Goldman argued, participation in democracy is meaningless if the representative you vote for is powerless.  This last reform, of course, is the most difficult and lengthy to accomplish, but it is the most vital.  In short, for women’s representation on government to truly mean something, change must happen from two ends.  First, democratic reforms must take place so that governments are fair and just, and all citizens, men and women, will be empowered to participate in government.  Second, women’s status in society must be improved, through efforts of civil society and educational institutions, so that when they take their place in government they are viewed with respect and more than just token seats.


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