A growing number of Arab women are carving a name for themselves in the Arab world, and bringing about a true change, not only to their community or country, but to the wider region as well. Whether it is 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for Tawakkul Karman or the naming of Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE’s Minister of Foreign Trade, as ‘The Most Powerful Arab Women 2012’ by Arabian Business magazine, the ground-breaking developments are a reminder of how the world is changing for women in the Middle Eastern region.
However, despite the number of businesswomen and activists on the rise, the representation of women in Arab parliaments seems to be in decline.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s “Women in Parliament 2011” study, the Arab region was the only area in the world where women had a representation of less than 30% in legislative forums. The study underlined the fact that women made up 10.7% of parliamentarians in 2011, unchanged from 2010.
An incredible number of women took part in street protests and campaigning for justice, freedom and human rights during the Arab Uprising in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. But how did women fail to translate their street power into democratic representation by turning up in election rallies, polling booths, or getting elected as members of the parliament remains a mystery.
Abdelwahed Radi, president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, believes countries in transition can very effectively take advantage of reforms to guarantee strong participation of women in politics. However, he expressed his dismay at the recent polls that took place in Tunisia and Egypt where number of women in respective parliaments actually declined instead of gaining strength.
“On the contrary, we can even see setbacks have occurred, particularly in Egypt where the percentage of women parliamentarians has fallen from 12 to 2 percent,” Radi said.
Many people accuse the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia behind the lack of women’s participation in politics, citing the fact that female representation in Egyptian parliament fell from 12% to just two per cent. Parties affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood won the majority of seats in both houses of Egyptian parliament and abandoned a quota that reserved 64 seats for women.
Furthermore, according to an AFP report, Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party which is closely affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood, has openly declared that it will not allow women to run for presidency.
“Women are now confronting attempts to exclude them from public life, as well as acts of discrimination and violence, perpetrated with impunity by extremist groups and security forces,” the International Federation for Human Rights said in its report.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s dominant Islamist Al Nahda party claimed that they plan for a new basic law which bans polygamy and grants Tunisian women unmatched rights in the region. However, this pledge was contradicted by news that some teachers were intimidated by authorities for not wearing the hijab in schools and universities.
According to Kuwaiti women’s rights activist Ebtehal Al Khateeb, the rise of Islamists following the Arab uprisings will “first and foremost negatively affect the role of women” in the Arab world.
“When religious groups rise to positions of power… the first to be affected negatively are women… their issues and concerns and rights will be the first thing to be shelved as Islamist-oriented parliaments take hold in the Middle East,” she said.
While many Islamists argue that they are not seeking measures that hurt the women’s rights movement, many observers are questioning the fact that the rise of Islamists in the wake of Arab Spring is discouraging women from voting and their representation in legislature bodies dropping gradually.
The Inter-parliamentary Union’s study suggests women won 21.8% of seats up for renewal last year in 69 legislative chambers across 59 countries, a similar proportion to previous years, in stark contrast with the Middle East where representation has gone down.
Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, which focuses on gender equality, noted that adding transitional measures such as quotas acts as an accelerator to women’s participation in politics. According to former Chilean president, the number of female heads of states and government around the world doubled to 17 since 2005. The number of women ministers also enjoyed an increase by 2.5 points, taking it up to 16.7%.
“Challenges for women candidates include insufficient funds to run a campaign, high expectations from the electorate and the antagonistic nature of competitive political parties,” the report highlighted.
“In addition, women tend to have fewer resources at their disposal, less experience in running for office and in public speaking, and a lack of support from spouses and family,” it added. “Women also have multiple roles, and balancing them all can very difficult.”
(By Arwad Khalifeh with input from Reuters; Edited by Moign Khawaja)