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Women: Revolutionaries in the Arab World

How are women in the Arab world demanding political participation?

April 14, 2005

How are women in the Arab world demanding political participation?

Participation in a global community requires that Arab men and women are treated equally — and Arab women themselves are increasingly requiring and increasingly acting on this.

Recently, a grandmother in Saudi Arabia dared to drive a car through the streets of Hail during the middle of Saudi Arabia’s traffic awareness week.

Such a thing would have been unthinkable not so long ago, as discriminatory policies did not permit women to drive cars.
But now, women at long last are going to be able to apply for driving licenses, which is welcome evidence of policy and legal reform.

When the Saudi grandmother’s car broke down in Hail, many people came to her aid, demonstrating that societal rules are also undergoing a transformation in the Arab world.

It cannot happen too soon. And we cannot do enough to support the courageous and dedicated Arab women who are trying to push forward democratic reform in their countries.

If women are active in political life, they can double the development potential of countries where women are currently unheard or under-represented.

If nations continue to exclude women from the economic mainstream they will forego the economic growth that women can generate. “Political participation” can take many forms.

That is why we should have at the back of our minds that political participation, like democracy itself, means more than just voting and running for office.

The Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa is full of examples of how women can and should participate in political life and in decision-making. The Protocol presents an integrated framework for the protection of the full spectrum of women’s human rights.

It also provides avenues for concerted and coordinated action in the political, legal and social areas. It guarantees a range of basic rights, many of which we in the West often take for granted. This includes inheritance rights and zero tolerance for harmful traditional practices, like female genital mutilation.

In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, women are fighting for the right to vote. In Saudi Arabia, some women have already declared themselves ready to stand as political candidates in municipal elections.

Women in the Palestinian territories have started their own democratic journey, too. Of the 66% of registered voters who cast a vote for the president in Gaza and the West Bank, half were women.

Earlier this year during a conference against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Djibouti, an attempt by Islamic religious leaders participating in the conference to declare that some forms of FGM are legitimate failed after strong protests from the floor.

This was an extraordinary moment — and shows very clearly that women in the Arab world want change and are becoming increasingly vocal in their attempt to get it.

Momentum is the key to progressive change. A recent initiative by the U.S. Department of State helped to create a women’s network in the Broader Middle East. It aimed at bringing women together so that each could learn from each other.

The EU also wishes to network Arab women by enlarging the Barcelona process to the Middle East — and thereby build a strategic partnership across the region.

This process will benefit this development to bring together and strengthen Arab women, as would greater involvement and more focused initiatives from European civil society in general.

Arab women need to have the contact from outside the region that will support their courage and their increasing determination to discuss these issues in public.

The fact that women have the right to vote and the right to stand for election in most countries of the world does not, however, mean that women are fully participating in political life.

The right to vote does not mean a legal requirement to vote, except in some countries. Nor does the right to stand for election mean that women will necessarily put their hands up to be candidates.

So the question that we have to ask ourselves, once women have the right to vote and to stand for elections, is why women — who make up more than 50% of the global population — account for less than 16% of the senior government officials and decision-makers worldwide.

It’s a difficult question to answer, because one of the fundamental aspects of any democracy is the freedom to choose: to choose for whom to cast your ballot, to choose whether to run for public office, to choose the best possible cabinet and so on.

One method that has been proposed is the quota system, according to which a certain number or percentage of seats in national parliament are reserved for women. Some countries even mandate this in their laws.

It sounds like a nice idea, but legally binding gender quotas do not provide us with long-term solutions for enhancing women’s participation in political life — although they can be a useful stopgap measure to help bring about a change in perception.

The very fact that this method is being demanded in Yemen and in Egypt demonstrates the important first step of the recognition of the need for change.

Nevertheless, permanent legally binding quotas suggest that women are a “protected species,” that they are “less than,” which to be frank is insulting not only to women — but to the entire human race.

Let it never be said that a woman in public office is there only because she is a woman.

Women’s political careers have to be based on merit and determination, whether they are parliamentarians, prime ministers or presidents.

Women’s political careers have to be fuelled by personal motivation and commitment, to put in the hard work that is needed to serve the people effectively.

Every inch Arab women gain towards full participation in their countries’ political, social and economic life is a step towards democratic reform.

It is a step to modernize old traditions — and toward a society in which all people are able to exercise their rights equally.