Envisioning a Better Future: the Importance of Arab Women in Pursuing Democracy

Envisioning a Better Future: the Importance of Arab Women in Pursuing Democracy

Police running over protesters during the 2016 garbage protests in Beirut
Police running over protesters during the 2016 garbage protests in Beirut — Image Credits

The issue of women’s involvement in decision-making in general, and in policy-making in particular, is still a controversial one, and the focus of great attention on the part of democracy, human rights, and citizenship activists. This is especially true in the Arab world, which is witnessing an exceptionally bloody political shift requiring the recruitment of all available resources to promote and entrench stability there.

This stability can only be generated by making space for women in policy-making. Women are not only participants in the popular movements across the region, but have used their voices to call for peace. Amidst the violent conflicts in the region, women have shown themselves ready to participate in securing stability. These are the very women for whom political conflict has come at the price of their honour and dignity, the breakup of their families, the loss of their ability to actively influence the events that contribute to their marginalisation, and a considerable diminishment of their role in society at the hands of extremists.

Both before and during the changes, which have swept the Arab world, one problem continues to confront us: despite all the studies of women’s political participation and the many conferences and seminars convened to discuss the issue, progress on the ground has been extremely limited. That said, we cannot overlook the developments that have taken place in some Arab countries in recent years. Societies that did not recognise any political role for women have started to appoint women to positions within elected and administrative bodies, including parliament. Albeit in a tokenistic and elitist fashion, this has begun to clear the way for their participation.

Therefore, it could be claimed that many of the obstacles which have been standing for almost two decades have been overcome. But the above does not mean that we can become complacent that women’s roles will continue to expand. Quite the opposite: it poses problems of a new kind.

Can women’s work be situated so that women come to constitute half of the electorate? Is civil society capable of mobilising men and women who support women’s rights to create a change of attitude regarding the importance of making full use of those who constitute half of society? Degrees of women’s participation, the quality and nature of their performance in these roles, their ability to influence politics, political parties, and civil society organisations, and the extent of their involvement in the ongoing struggle for freedoms and human rights in the Arab world must be at the forefront of discussions about their changing place in society.

The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, affirmed the pressing need for women to participate in decision-making processes and to hold political office. The Beijing Declaration was ratified by a number of countries, yet women in the Arab world are still far less likely to hold leadership positions or participate in the decision-making process, whether in the legislative, executive or legal branches, than elsewhere in the world.

Although differences between the various Arab states must be taken into account, the representation of women in parliamentary bodies in Arab countries is the lowest in the world. Some Arab countries do not allow women to hold positions in the judiciary; in countries where this is permitted, it is only a very recent phenomenon. Similarly, the number of women holding ministerial portfolios is very low indeed, even with some ministries being set aside specifically for women. This is not to mention the almost total lack of women occupying positions as regional governors, or as military and security officers.

Following the Beijing conference efforts may have been made to include women in the decision-making process, but they have fallen far short of what is needed to ensure their meaningful participation. There are many difficulties and obstacles to be overcome if women want to engage in public work. Some are related to the economic status of women and some with the political system itself. Other factors stem from society and prevalent cultural values.

On the subject of obstacles, we should pause to examine some basic points. It is important to be aware of the difference between women’s participation in the electoral process (parliamentary and local) and their presence in executive and judicial posts, which are filled by appointment. For would-be politicians, the electoral process - whose foundations women were involved in laying – tends to be based not only on serving the public interest, but on furthering personal ambitions. Since success in such a competition requires experience, we find that women are disadvantaged, due to the fact that they tend to be newcomers in their engagement with electoral mechanisms.

For instance, taking into account the common practice of manipulating caps on campaign, we find that women frequently find it hard to raise even the legally permitted maximum. Add to that the influence peddling and the exchange of political and material interests that women are forced to endure within non-democratic systems. Furthermore,  societies themselves are often in need of programs to raise awareness of democratic practices, beginning at the earliest educational stages, with the objective of changing stereotypical attitudes towards the role and capabilities of women within the decision-making process. Extremist religious discourse also negatively impacts the acceptance of women in the public sphere.

One phenomenon also worth mentioning here is the high proportion of women voters who do not support female candidates. This can stem from the female voter’s lack of confidence in women, perhaps due to the fact that they too are affected by extremist religious discourse. Some women may also be led by the wishes of the men in their lives, who may not accept female candidates and urge their wives, sisters and daughters not to vote for them. A form of negative competitiveness also can occur between women - regrettably often from those who claim to support women’s rights in principle.

The conclusion from the above is that a number of ideas around women’s participation in the decision-making process must be challenged. The transformation of such attitudes and obstacles is closely bound up with the process of democratic transformation, respect for human rights, and a better understanding of citizenship.

On top of changing attitudes, many Arab states also require more equitable election laws. One of the principle means of achieving this is through the introduction of quotas. Some Arab countries, such as Tunisia, Iraq and Egypt, have implemented quota systems in order to raise levels of women’s participation in politics. At the party political level these systems indisputably increase the numbers of women on local councils and in parliament. Therefore, women must work to advocate for the introduction of female quotas within their parties, as happened in Germany and some Scandinavian countries.

The quota system remains the source of much disagreement and debate between intellectuals and political activists. Divisions between those opposed to the idea and those who support it run deep, with all sides bringing their personal experience to the table. This is due to the failure to establish an environment accepting the concept of women’s political participation.

Quotas are designed to be temporary measures to redress social imbalances, and not to compensate women for electoral incompetence. The Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) treats quotas as a form of positive discrimination, but it is not clear that Arab countries will lay the necessary groundwork for adopting such systems. CEDAW states that all countries implementing quota systems must take a number of preparatory steps, including changes to social attitudes, since the quota system is by its very nature only a step on the ladder to realising full equality.

We must therefore ask whether those women who have successfully reached decision-making positions have effected any change in this regard - or whether, like men, they have simply implemented the policies of the powers that be. Have they changed men’s view of women at all, so that when the quota system is abolished, male voters will elect female candidates? To what extent is women’s political performance linked to women’s issues? What types of women have entered elected bodies under the quota system?

Another approach to bolstering women’s contributions to political life is to strengthen her role within the family. The majority of ‘personal affairs’ laws in Arab countries do not support women’s status in this regard, or afford her a role in domestic decision-making. They also restrict women’s contribution to the public sphere, where she has a diminished presence and one subordinate to men. Therefore this sectarian, partisan, and (to coin a phrase) ‘majority-ist’ legislation is a major stumbling block to increasing their contribution to politics. Preparing an environment conducive to a balanced and effective female leadership must begin with the politics of home life and the foundation provided by the institutions of political education. There is a strong connection between personal affairs laws and the issue of women’s political participation.

It is vital that all forms of discrimination against women be removed from Arab countries’ laws. Although all Arab states are signatories to the majority of international treaties that are concerned with eradicating this form of discrimination, they have failed to align national laws and legislation with these commitments. Mechanisms must be put in place to enable women to carry out and render effective the roles given them, while their ability to achieve political office and participate in democracy-building requires widespread and comprehensive reforms, not piecemeal alterations.

The reality is that in most Arab countries it is the political regimes that determine the issue of women’s participation. Non-democratic regimes will only ever allow the participation of those women of whom the regimes themselves approve. We need organisations and bodies that protect democracy, civil society, and our general rights and freedoms. Civil society groups concerned with women’s participation must therefore be better organised if they are to advocate for women’s capabilities to be sustainably built up.

Civil society is also one of the mechanisms by which women receive political experience and training. The electoral process – and the civil society organisations, activism, engagement, mobilisation, and participation it involves –remains the best way to teach the principles of democracy, especially to young people. This is despite the current prevalence of negative practices and the fact that many female candidates see their campaigns brought to an end by circumstances beyond their control.

However, as noted above, democracy is not only about elections. What is lacking in the Arab world is a culture of democracy. Women may be afforded rights by the constitution and the law, but it is only through a democratic culture that these will be upheld by our education and electoral systems, the enforcement of laws governing political parties, and an independent media.

This can only be altered through the work of civil society organizations responsible for political and social education. Through their work, democratic culture can be strengthened; curricula are changed, mechanisms for oversight are created, and organisations can continue working towards goals for governance, equality, equal opportunities and citizenship. By offering young people leading roles, and focusing attention on marginalised groups, a more inclusive society can be created.

The case of Lebanon raises an important question: why does it have one of the lowest rates of female parliamentary representation despite being one of the most democratic countries in the Arab world? Lebanon is arguably a great example of a country which is based upon democratic principles. It is one of the few Arab countries where the office of president is subject to the principle of rotation of power. There is great scope for freedom of opinion and expression, the press and other media are relatively unfettered, and women enjoy extensive social freedoms. Furthermore, Lebanon has never experienced the one-party system: its party politics are characterised by pluralism and dissent.

However, despite these advantages, Lebanon has one of the lowest rates of female parliamentary representation in the Arab world. How, then, to reconcile this tangible political freedom - something which is seen to be a major factor in expanding women’s participation in politics - with the limited participation of women in Lebanese political life? Is it that the Lebanese have created a form of consensus democracy for themselves which does not help promote the role of women? Or is it that Lebanese democracy is by definition sectarian?

At this juncture we must consider the role that civil society plays in Lebanon. In particular, questions must be raised about the work of women’s organisations in shouldering the burden of women’s issues and rights and working to bolster their participation in political life. Are Lebanese civil society organisations working in the field of rights and empowerment of women really doing enough?

In her article of June 2016, journalist Yara Nahla traced the differences between regions in Lebanon with regard to women’s participation. She observed an increase in women’s candidacies and electoral victories in the South and Mount Lebanon, and a decline in Akkar and Northern Lebanon. Beirut had the highest proportion of both female candidates and electoral victors[i].

‘These results shed light on the changing realities of women’s lives in Lebanon over time, and may also assist in comparing the status and role of women in different regions, and possibly sects as well. Given the suspension of parliamentary elections, local elections are one of the most important indicators for women’s participation in the public sphere and decision-making positions.

Looking closer at the results gives a sense of how feeble the progress is being made in women’s participation in decision-making, even at the local level. Can the concept of citizenship strengthen women’s presence in politics, given all the customs and traditions and the sectarian and religious considerations that stand in their way?

New generations of citizens must be raised and educated to value equality and competence, and to understand the principle of the separation of the branches of state. This is the key to the creation of a democratic culture which votes for candidates as intermediaries between the electorate and the executive. Politicians must help people to resolve their difficulties with the authorities, and facilitate their access to services, utilities and employment offered by the institutions of state. It is imperative that there be legal mechanisms by which the citizen can secure his rights from government and that these are upheld by elected officials.

When we talk about politics, there is often an assumption made that we are referring to decision-making in the executive, legislative and judicial branches. However, politics is first and foremost about citizenship. Democracy is defined by the various ways in which this principle is expressed, be it through involvement in civil society or through the exercise of political power. The citizen voter is the foundation of the political process; it follows that every woman voter has the right to cast their ballot and stand for office independently.

Citizenship begins with the exercise of one’s right to vote - and not just with regards to the main legislative assembly, but on all levels of the public administration. This can be within unions, the institutions of civil society, and municipal councils. To be a leader is to take responsibility for empowering as many people as possible. Effective leadership therefore means not only exercising citizenship rights, but becoming a political actor that takes on the responsibility of people’s trust in you, and championing the principles by which you secure them a life of dignity.

Women must be simultaneously conscious of not only these responsibilities as political citizens, but of how their female identity may affect their capacity to navigate the political sphere. If exercising ones citizenship means becoming involved in civil, social and public-political work, there must be organisations and bodies which grant women access to public life, so that women can join men in changing male attitudes. Women - even those who are ‘Westernised’ - standing together become a broad-based and influential voting bloc. In solidarity they can affect change amongst other women, and then society as a whole.

In addition to the importance of bringing together women’s activism in civil society and political activism (whether this involves participation in political parties, student unions, syndicates, or voting/candidacy in elections) it is vital that women give as much of their attention to public affairs as they do to women’s issues. This is a challenging balance to strike. Women cannot confine themselves to their own issues, but nor can they allow them to be erased, since women are a part of broader society and must work to create a base through pluralistic interventions. These include supporting women to achieve successful family lives which promote stability and creativity, and independence in economic, social and intellectual activities. These spheres are all vitally linked to political activism, political power, and those who exercise that power.

Enabling women’s political participation requires the comprehensive involvement of society more broadly. In order to properly understand the concept of political participation we must examine - as many studies and analyses have done - women’s political participation from three key perspectives.

The first is a gendered perspective. This acknowledges the fact that women are in general more likely to suffer from poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy, and to be underrepresented in political life. This inequality creates a structural gap between men and women that needs to be bridged. Second is a development perspective, which focuses on the need to ensure women and men are fully engaged together in the pursuit of democracy. This approach treats development as an economic issue and the equal political participation of men and women is understood from this perspective. The human rights perspective, finally, is based on the humanity of the individual and their right to all the guarantees of international human rights legislation.

Strengthening the leadership role played by women therefore requires attention being paid to the following points:

  • Supporting the democratic transformation, and the concepts of human rights and citizenship.
  • Promoting a culture of democracy and non-discrimination, as well as the right not to conform, pluralism, acceptance of the other, and concepts of gender identity.
  • Recognising international agreements concerned with women’s rights.
  • Holding free and fair elections that guarantee the peaceful rotation of power, as one of the pillars of democracy.
  • Changing the legal framework that governs political participation in general, and women’s political participation in particular.
  • Adopting the quota system as a temporary measure until such time as citizens are used to seeing women in positions of power, whether the quota is enforced by party political structures, or by the law itself.
  • Setting up a fund for electoral campaigns and female candidates. The money could come from the female elites and other rich women, or otherwise the financially challenged (women in particular) could be funded out of the public purse.
  • Providing training so that unqualified women do not reach leadership positions.
  • Bringing together civil society work and political activism, whether party political or voting/standing in elections.
  • Emphasis on the fact that woman must take the same interest in public affairs as they do in women’s issues. Women cannot confine themselves to their issues, yet at the same time, nor should they be erased as they are a part of society.
  • Bringing politics and public life together with training in political work from an early stage.
  • Women supporting women in elections.
  • Providing technical and media support to women in leadership positions or who are qualified for those positions.
  • Improving the ability of civil society organizations to defend women’s rights, by addressing their structure and work practices.
  • Readying a generation of women capable of asserting their presence and making an impact, so that they are able to make tangible achievements.
  • Bringing local and foreign skills and experience together.
  • Emphasising the importance of women’s role in peace processes, reconciliation, and conflict resolution.
  • Taking yearly measurements of the women’s progress within the general economy.

Arab states cannot establish a democratic culture or pursue development goals which benefit all members of society if women do not play a role in shaping the decisions that affect both their private and public lives. If women do not receive access to their fair share of professional, administrative or economic opportunities, or participate in the institutions of state and decision-making bodies at all levels, we cannot achieve comprehensive development and build a new society. Enabling women’s participation has become the most important challenge to realising progress based on social justice and democracy.

Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger

[i] Compare: Yara Nahla, the Independent Online Journal on www.almodon.com, June 2, 2016:

The National Council for Lebanese Women recorded a relative increase in women’s candidacies and electoral victories in the Southern Lebanon and Mount Lebanon governorates and a decline in Akkar and Northern Lebanon. Between 2010 and 2016 the number of female candidates in Southern Lebanon rose from 101 to 185, and the number of winning candidates from 59 to 80. In Mt. Lebanon, candidates rose from 164 to 367 and winners from 164 to 227. In Akkar and Northern Lebanon there was a sharp drop in women’s participation, with the number of female candidates dropping from 449 to 279 and the number of winning candidates from 229 to 138.

Out of all the provinces, Beirut had the highest proportion of both female candidates (19.3 per cent of all candidates) and female electoral victors (12.5 per cent). Unsurprisingly, therefore, the capital also has the highest levels of female representation on the municipal council, followed by Northern Lebanon (with 7.7 per cent), Mt. Lebanon (with 6.4 per cent), Southern Lebanon (with 4.8 per cent), and Bekaa (with 2.5 per cent), with Nabatieh the governorate with the lowest rates of female representation at 1.87 per cent.’


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