Editor’s note: this article was originally published by POMED in Arabic in January 2021.
Recent years have seen greater recognition that women’s political participation is important to development in the Arab world. There is also increasing public awareness of the need to guarantee fair rights for women, especially in the majority of Arab countries that have already ratified international treaties and conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
As the issue of women’s rights has imposed itself on national agendas in the Arab region, women’s demands have been transformed into real, actionable laws in several countries. Yet improving the status of women remains an urgent matter that demands concerted efforts from all parts of society, especially in light of the various crises through which we are living today.
Arab women have remained distant from the political sphere since they were not even allowed to vote until the 1950s and 1960s. This was also the case in some Western countries, but while those countries experienced progress in women’s political participation, Arab women were very late to gain rights such as the right to run for public office. The Arab woman was for a long time viewed as an apolitical being who was only given attention during election season to win her vote while being excluded by political parties and, in the case of female candidates, by voters. Until very recently, Arab women were not able to assume important roles or leadership positions in elected bodies or executive agencies. Some countries—Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia—have tried to overcome this problem through parity and quota systems. While these systems have allowed more women to enter the political sphere, most women are still not voting and few are being elected to office.
It is safe to say that the problem cannot be resolved by ratifying international agreements or by issuing legislation. The bigger challenge is changing the traditional behaviors and mentalities that control the foundation of Arab societies and that do not consider women’s rights deserving of study or discussion.
We are left with the procedures stipulated in constitutions, laws, or customs, such as the quota and parity systems that aim to increase representation of women in all state institutions. But gender quota and parity democracy are not goals in and of themselves. They are a means to create opportunities for women to take over decision-making positions to prove their ability and to demonstrate that they are as capable as men.
The obstacles to women’s political participation are diverse. They are reflected in social attitudes that deem women incapable of engaging in politics or making important decisions because they are “less rational” than men. They are also shown in the lack of representation in government cabinets, parliament, trade unions, and political parties.
In countries that have adopted a quota system, parties have had to prepare female leaders to represent them in parliament. Still, most parties appear to have little confidence in women holding leadership positions, as the number of women in such positions remains extremely small. Political appointments are still guided by connections and appointees usually are selected from elites who are the closest to party leadership.
Men are not the only ones in Arab societies who stereotype women. Arab women themselves place more trust in men to make decisions in the political sphere and thus often do not vote for other women.
What can be confirmed is that women’s political participation is one of the most important conditions for democracy. We must acknowledge that equality and equal opportunities without discrimination based on sex or age are required for democracy to flourish. Though equality is stipulated in Arab constitutions, we need on-the-ground implementation mechanisms and more emphasis on the principle of justice, not only equality.
Dr. Ikram Adnani is a professor of Political Science at the Ibn Zohr University in Agadir, Morocco. This article was translated from Arabic by Mariam Mahmoud.
Photo Credit: UN Women/Fatma El Zahraa Yassin