Women are at a crossroads in the Middle East and North Africa. This is widely reflected in the current battles over the adoption of quotas aimed at improving women's chances of being elected into parliaments. Although women's quotas were introduced as early as 1979 in Egypt, there are new efforts underway in the Middle East to implement them. Last year, Tunisia adopted a law requiring that party lists alternate between men and women. In a more restrained manner, Libya recently drafted an election law that gives women only 10 percent of the seats. However, the struggle for quotas has also met with resistance as in Egypt, which abandoned a 2010 quota law altogether that would have ensured the presence of 64 women in the parliament.
Quotas are not only being adopted in the legislative arena in the Middle East, they are being entertained in government as well. Recently, the Iraqi cabinet approved a quota system that requires women to make up half of all hires in the ministries of health and education and to account for 30 percent of hires at all other ministries.
Although Middle East parties and governments trail other world regions in the adoption of quotas and in female legislative representation more generally, where they have adopted quotas, they are beginning to experience modest rates of success. Middle East countries that have quotas, in effect, have over twice the rates of representation (19 percent) when compared with countries where women are permitted to run for office but do not have quotas (8 percent). In fact, five Middle Eastern countries even have higher rates of female legislative representation than in the United States, where women hold 16.5 percent of Congressional seats (See Table).
Having participated in the movements for political reform in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iran, and elsewhere, many women's rights activists have seized on this moment to demand broader political, economic, and social rights. Conservative and Islamist forces have also been energized by recent developments, as is evident in the recent elections in Egypt, and they are among those forces pushing back against such an agenda promoting women's participation.
While women continue to confront serious challenges to their advancement in the Middle East and North Africa, there are some profound changes underway that are forcing radical transformations in women's status. The percentage of women in universities in the region increased from 9 percent to 27 percent between 1991 and 2009. There are considerably more women than men enrolled in universities in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Iran, Israel, Jordan, and Kuwait. In Egypt, women make up half the university students. It is not surprising, therefore, that women are now demanding a greater role in key political and economic institutions. Women are already visible in a number of public arenas. They make up a quarter of the judges and prosecution staff in the region. Although some of the lowest rates of female labor force participation in the world are found in the Middle East and North Africa (26 percent), the number of women in the public sector is increasing. In the United Arab Emirates, the proportion of women in the public sector increased from 12 percent in 1995 to 66 percent in 2007.
The benefits of these changes extend broadly to other arenas as well. As the 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development indicates, fertility rates are declining dramatically in the region. In Morocco, they fell from 4 to 2.5 children per woman between 1992 and 2004. Maternal mortality rates have experienced the largest declines worldwide in this region with a 59 percent drop between 1990 and 2008.
Today, women in the Middle East and around the globe are finding that the adoption of quotas offers some of the best possibilities for women to gain legislative seats. Reserved seats that only women compete for are found in approximately 17 countries. Large numbers of reserved seats can be particularly effective in contexts in which parties can't be trusted to adopt strategies to ensure female legislative representation. In roughly 33 countries, constitutional reforms and legislative changes have been used to encourage all political parties to include women on party lists. Parties have voluntarily adopted quotas in about 50 countries. The success of legislative and party driven quotas depends on such factors as how high women are placed on the party list and whether they are alternated with men on that list. Parties often make these determinations based on ideology, but also on such considerations as the number of seats they expect to win in a district and the number of contested positions in a district. The use of proportional representation electoral systems also strongly support relatively high levels of female representation, but to a lesser degree as quotas have come into play.
The reasons for adopting quotas in the Middle East and North Africa are similar to those found in other parts of the world. Women's organizations, movements, or party women have pushed for quotas because they see them as a means of increasing women's political representation where cultural, economic, or institutional factors pose particular challenges to women. They see them as a way to advance gender equality, justice, and fairness, and ensure that women's interests are represented in the political arena. For activists, quotas may take on powerful symbolic significance because they represent an acknowledgment of and attempt to redress women's exclusion from the political arena. But, advocates for quotas reach well beyond women's rights activists. Party elites often argue for quotas in order to gain political advantage or be seen as forces of modernization and moderation. Quotas are also a means of appealing to women voters. For left-leaning parties quotas are a means of advancing an ideological stance regarding equality.
Not all feminists support quotas. Many worry that quotas will lead to the election of unqualified token women or that the women elected will not be concerned about advancing women's rights. Some believe that quotas reinforce stereotypes about women as being apolitical. Also, many are concerned that reserved seats, in particular, create a ceiling for women's representation.
Changes in international norms, advanced by the United Nations, the African Union, and other such organizations, especially after the 1995 U.N. Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing have also resulted in the adoption of quotas. In Iraq, international and U.S. women's organizations together with Iraqi women's organizations exerted pressure that resulted in a 25 percent quota for women.
Social unrest itself can stir up changes in gender relations that also lead to the adoption of quotas. This has been most evident in Sub-Saharan Africa, where post-conflict countries have been the most open to adopting quotas. This has resulted in post-conflict countries having double the rates of female legislative representation when compared with countries in Africa that have not experience conflict.
The introduction of quotas challenges older explanations for why women in the Middle East have been so slow to gain political, economic, and social ground relative to other world regions. The most common arguments point to Islam as creating special cultural barriers for women. However, with the emergence of quotas, Islam no longer appears to be a particular impediment to women's legislative representation in countries like Tanzania, Sudan, Mauritania, Senegal, Pakistan, or many other countries with large or predominantly Muslim populations. Michael Ross has argued that oil production is mostly to blame for the lag in women's rights because it reduces the number of women in the workforce, which impacts fertility rates, educational levels of females, and ultimately women's political representation and participation. Others like Mounira Charrad claim that strong patriarchal kinship based networks predate the discovery of oil and have their own independent impact on women's status. However, with the introduction of quotas, we may be now witnessing an important turning point in the struggle for women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, the adoption of quotas appears to trump explanations that pertain to Islam, culture, kinship, and oil and is increasingly proving to be a force for women's advancement in the political arena. How far women will be able to use their emerging positions of political power to advance women's rights remains to be seen.