For decades, the Arab states have had the lowest rate of female parliamentary representation of any region in the world, writes Dr. Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations, introducing a Fikra Forum on women’s quotas.
In an effort to include more women in politics, some Arab governments have adopted quotas to boost female participation. That trend has expanded in recent years, but with mixed results. The concept behind quotas is that reserving seats for women helps overcome structural challenges that depress female participation. Over time, this should give female politicians more experience and draw talented women into the political pipeline; as voters come to appreciate their contributions, women should be able to win elections on their own merits and quotas can be eased; in the meantime, quotas at least ensure that women’s perspectives are represented in government.
Tunisia’s electoral parity system has been dubbed a “zipper” system, meaning that party lists must consist of 50% female candidates, placed in an alternating pattern with male candidates, Voters choose a party and its associated list rather than voting for particular candidates and each party is assigned seats based on the percentage of votes won. Parties must then place candidates in office based on their position on the list.
In the final draft of Libya’s new electoral law, issued January 28th, the zipper system was put into place, resulting in women winning 33 out of the 200 seats in the July elections, writes Khadija Ali.
The zipper list system on its own has opened many opportunities for women, whether we agree with its use or not. What is certain is that women’s political participation in newly forming democracies needs to be engrained through other means as well. More than anything, women must be empowered and must develop a new set of skills to accommodate the demand for their presence in politics.
Lebanon prides itself in having one of the political systems in the Arab world closest to democracy, says Zeina Daher. Yet, in a country where women are actively involved in the economy, the number of women in parliament does not exceed 5%. The idea of determining quotas for women is debated in Lebanon each and every time a reform of the electoral law is discussed. However, none of the electoral laws providing for quotas for women has been passed.
…Quota systems alone are not enough. They may be necessary for the time being, but they are definitely not sufficient. The ideal solution lies not only in reforming the law, but also in reforming the minds. Such a reform would require working on two fronts: political parties — the vehicles for power in Lebanon — and the media.
After 2003, with the change toward democracy in Iraq, women took significant steps to participate in political life, says Nahla Arif.
The position of the newly formed political parties at that time varied, while women’s movements reacted early and pushed for an equal percentage of participation since women represent more than 50% of the population in Iraq. The long struggle ended with a quota as an achievement on the national level.
[But] the women’s movement in Iraq is still fighting to make use of the opportunity to amend the constitution to adopt the same quota in other elected councils on the provincial, districts, and sub-districts levels, as well as in all leading positions in the government and independent commissions. Elected women may play a greater role in changing both public attitude, especially women’s, as well as the attitude of their political leaders toward women. Those women as leaders with diverse political affiliation should come together around issues of concern to all Iraqis, thus sending a message to all of society that women are as capable as men in leading the country.
While each of the participants acknowledge that the concept of quotas for women in government is controversial in their home countries, they support their use as a necessary – although not sufficient – measure to get more women into politics, CFR’s Coleman concludes.
Each urges other investments to build women’s capacity and make them more effective leaders. They also propose other reforms to encourage greater involvement from women, including improvements in how women are portrayed in the media; the implementation of quotas at more regional and local levels to get women into the pipeline; and structural changes in the ways political parties operate.
…As quotas spread across the region, the U.S. should help women make the most of them. It should invest in training women to be more effective politicians – as it has done to some extent through both the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), but also through local NGOs.
The above extracts are taken from a longer analysis at the Fikra Forum. RTWT.
NDI and IRI are two of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.