RESOURCE: Women and the Arab Spring (Part 2)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Lowy Interpreter
Western Asia

One of the imponderables this early in the life of the Arab Spring is the degree to which the political upheavals will result in substantive, rather than cosmetic, improvements to women's political roles in the Arab world.

My first post on this subject argued that, while women have invested in these recent bouts of political protest, there is a widespread feeling that, for all their efforts in removing old regimes, women face a 'same horse, different jockey' scenario.

The best examples of Arab political systems being opened up for women have come when they were imposed from the top down, either through invasion (in the case of Iraq) or through government diktat (Morocco and Jordan both have parliamentary seats reserved for women). So there should be a healthy dose of scepticism about whether a bottom-up approach can force any substantive reforms.

The most common way advances in women's political influence is measured is through their access to parliamentary representation. But this alone is not going to be a sufficient indicator of influence. Increasing the number of female parliamentarians is a start, but the issue of ministerial appointments is the real test. And not appointments to what are sometimes referred to as 'pink' portfolios — social affairs, education and the like — but ministries that have been hitherto entirely male-dominated.

First indications are not particularly positive in this regard.

In Egypt, the fact that a woman, Buthaina Kamel, is a presidential candidate for the first time will be hailed by some as evidence of progress, although the fact that she has no chance of victory makes it entirely symbolic. More importantly, there were no women in the body given responsibility for putting forward constitutional amendments that were voted on by the public, and surprisingly, gender remains absent from Article 6, which outlines the criteria for non-discrimination. Only one woman was included in the transitional cabinet, a holdover from the Mubarak era, Fayza Abouelnaga, who has responsibility for planning and international cooperation.

Over in Libya, the Transitional National Council is scoring low in the inclusiveness stakes, with only two women in the forty-member body. One is in the TNC executive and has portfolio responsibilities (for what else but Women's Affairs). The TNC does say however, that it sees the future role of women in Libya as one of equality. That still leaves the present as a little more than unequal.

In Tunisia, the initial signs are positive that women will be treated equally in legal terms, particularly in personal status issues which have most often been problematic in many Muslim countries. In terms of political participation, Tunisia had been a regional leader in female parliamentary participation before the revolution. The Assembly elections to be held this month are aiming to increase the success rate for women, calling for gender parity in candidates presented by each party for election.

But even in Tunisia, the glass ceiling is alive and well, with only one woman, Lilia Labidi, out of the 22 ministers. Her portfolio? Women's Affairs.

In Yemen, for all the Western media's focus on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Tawakkul Karman as the 'Mother of the Revolution', there is still a massive gender disparity in the leadership of the political opposition. The umbrella opposition national council (admittedly somewhat fractious at the moment) included 11 women among its 143 members but only one, Horeya Mashoor, on the 17-member Executive Council.

And while the Arabian Peninsula is not renowned as a leader in gender equality, the announcement by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah that women would be allowed to run and vote in municipal elections in 2015 was hailed by some as a significant advance in female political empowerment in uber-patriarchal Saudi society. But even if this does come to fruition, the lack of substantive influence of these bodies has meant that even male voters have lost interest in the process. As with other political announcements, the reality is likely to be big on form, but short of substance.

I have some sympathy for the argument that patriarchal political systems are inherently difficult to break down, and that in the West substantive political empowerment of women is only a relatively recent phenomenon, so the Middle East should not be expected to change political and cultural systems overnight. At the same time, those in the East often use the argument for incrementalism as an excuse for maintaining patriarchal models of governance and influence.

Revolutionary changes in the Arab world offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-shape political systems. Women have never had a higher political profile than now, nor had as substantive a stake in the protests as now. I fear, however, that the new Arab leadership will argue that female political equality should be put off to some (indeterminate) time in the future and Arab women will be told to satisfy themselves with what they have been 'given'.

For all the talk of a genderless Arab Spring, the 'new dawn' is still a male one.