Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 11:07 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 11:07 | SYDNEY

Women in Arab politics (part 1)


Rodger Shanahan


2 June 2009 21:11

There is no doubt that women are radically under-represented in (and in many instances, practically excluded from) the world of Arab politics. The reasons are many — systemic, cultural, religious — and vary in intensity between regions of the Arab world.

It's important to emphasise that I speak of political leadership in the Arab world rather than the Muslim world, where the leadership of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, Turkey's Tansu Ciller, Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri and Bangladesh's Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed show that culture and political systems rather than religion per se make the Arab world a tough gig for female political advancement.
The UNDP's 2005 Arab Human Development Report highlighted the difficulties facing women seeking political empowerment in the Arab world, when it stated that '(i)n all cases...real decisions in the Arab world are, at all levels, in the hands of men.'

This short statement illustrates the nub of the problem facing Arab women's attempts to achieve political advancement — patriarchal political systems are wont to see the achievement of meaningful reforms for women as coming at the expense of their own vested interests, and they resist such moves accordingly, or acquiesce to them only when they feel such changes are cosmetic or that the female interlopers will be easily controlled.
The cultural and societal barriers to women's entry into politics are the most difficult to overcome and the least likely to change quickly. But purely on the basis of numerical representation, the parlous state of Arab women is readily seen. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the global average of women in lower house (or unicameral) positions is 18.5%. The Arab world has the lowest representation in the world at 9.7%.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar have no women, while others such as Egypt, Bahrain and Lebanon have less than 5% representation. Post-invasion Iraq tops the list of the Arab world with 25% lower house representation by women (by contrast, Israel has 17.5% and Australia 26.7% — ranked 32nd).
One of the ways women have made some political strides has been when governments have adopted a top-down approach to changing the system and established quotas for female parliamentary participation, but even then it has been less than wholeheartedly implemented. In 1979 Egypt reserved 30 seats for women (out of 360) but this was stopped in 1986 — there is talk of moving towards a revised quota system for elections in 2010. Jordan reserves 6 seats in its 110-member elected lower house for women. 

Even though article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) encourages the use of the quota system to increase female political representation, quotas are not in and of themselves a panacaea for under representation ,as this article points out. Laid over this is the fact that representation does not necessarily equate to influence. Afghanistan ranks 28th in percentage representation of women in lower houses of parliament (4 places above Australia), but I would argue that female Australian politicians are more influential than their Afghan counterparts.

Regardless of percentage representations it is obvious that Arab women are woefully under-represented and lack political influence. In future posts I will address the region more specifically to illustrate the differing challenges facing women, as well as the steps that have been taken in some Arab countries to try to increase representation (and in some cases influence, if not power).

Photo by Flickr user madmonk, used under a Creative Commons license.