What Place for Women?

Women's participation in politics has increased greatly in the past few decades, as governments, interest groups, and United Nations agencies pushed for various national measures. Even some Arab countries, which generally bear the world's lowest percentages of female representation, have achieved impressive numerical leaps. Behind these improvements are measures such as quotas for women legislators and targets set by international treaties. Some argue, however, quota systems discriminate against men and are unconstitutional. As a result of similar arguments, Egypt now lags behind, according to this Al-Ahram Weekly analysis. As more voices call for social and political reform, the author writes, "There is a need for the legislature to move from espousing an abstract equality to affirmative action." – YaleGlobal

What Place for Women?

Mona Makram Ebeid examines strategies to ensure better female representation in politics
Mona Makram Ebeid
Friday, January 14, 2005

Following conferences in Mexico City and in Copenhagen, Nairobi, Vienna, Cairo and Beijing women's participation in development has become a recurrent issue, as has their access to decision-making positions. Women's full participation in public affairs is now recognised as a fundamental condition for democracy and for achieving sustainable development. True democracy is characterised by the full and equal participation of women in both formulating and implementing decisions in all spheres of public life. No country can call itself democratic if half of the population is excluded from the decision-making process.

In 1995 the parties that agreed the Beijing Platform for Action committed themselves to taking steps to increase the number of women in decision-making positions and legislative bodies. More and more countries are taking steps to implement institutional mechanisms to promote women within the political arena. The time is now ripe for Egypt to move on from simply recognising the contribution of women to actually challenging those factors in communities, in society and in the country as a whole, that make it difficult for women to play a full role in democracy and development.

The level of representation of women in legislative bodies around the world varies greatly. The uneven political playing field on which women compete has led to a number of reforms to increase their numbers in parliament: quotas and proportional representation are generally seen as positive contributions to this end.

It is in this context that I attended Enhancing Women's Participation through Special Measures in the Arab Region, a workshop convened in Cairo by UNDP, UNIFEM, International IDEA and the Egyptian National Council for Women. The workshop aimed to stimulate debate on measures that might increase the participation of women. One of the most salient aspects of the workshop was the incredible advances made in Africa over the past decade. Africa has now achieved the highest rate of female representation in the world, surpassing Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Sweden, traditional leaders in the area of gender equality.

In Rwanda 48.8 per cent of parliamentarians are women. In South Africa the first democratic elections in 1994 resulted in an astounding jump in female representation, up to 27 per cent compared to 2.7 per cent under apartheid. Both Nelson Mandela, and South Africa's incumbent President Thabo Mbeki, demonstrated the political will essential to ensuring women's participation in decision-making.

The 13 countries with the highest percentage of women in parliament have either a proportional representation (PR) system or one that mixes PR with constituency elections.

There is no doubt that the nature of the electoral system is an important factor in explaining levels of female political representation. Nordic countries, as well as Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa, all have PR and high levels of female representation, while Botswana and Tanzania are close to achieving 30 per cent female representation in their legislative bodies.

What are the reasons behind these spectacular changes? The importance of political parties, the political will exhibited by the leadership and the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, together with the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, have all been important.

The convention, ratified by most states, Egypt included, commits signatories to use "whatever methods available to increase the participation of women at all levels of decision making to 30 per cent by 2005". The convention's recommendations have served as a powerful lobbying mechanism and contributed to a fast track approach to increasing women's access to parliament.

But what about women in Arab parliaments? Arab states have the world's lowest levels of female representation, averaging just six per cent, though some Arab states, in a relatively short space of time, achieved a dramatic numerical jump. Morocco is one such country. From 0.66 per cent of deputies in 1993, the percentage of women legislators increased to 10.77 per cent (335 women in parliament) in 2002. Morocco now ranks 69th in the world, having jumped from 118th, in terms of female representation in politics. In the Arab world it is surpassed only by Tunisia, where 14 per cent of legislators are women. Why did this happen? It happened, initially, because coordinating committees of women's associations drafted a series of proposals to review the electoral code including the introduction of proportional lists with a 20 per cent quota of 20 women.

So why is Egypt, which as early as 1979 reserved parliamentary seats for women, now lagging so far behind?

The momentum created by the First World Conference on Women in 1975 and the conclusion of CEDAW in 1979 (Egypt ratified the CEDAW with reservations about the articles regarding personal status but not those concerning political rights) led to the passing of a presidential decree reserving 30 out of 360 seats in parliament for women. It resulted in 30 - i.e. almost ten per cent - of parliamentary seats being occupied by women.

In 1987 the system of reserved seats was cancelled but a proportional representation system remained, resulting in 18 seats being held by women. Subsequently, and on the basis of constitutionality, the law promoting the participation of women was overturned and the earlier system resurrected, with the result that the representation of women in parliament dropped to 2.2 per cent.

The law allocating quotas for women also had an impact on local councils. During elections when the quota was in effect female representation rose to between 10 and 20 per cent. It subsequently fell to 2.11 per cent, and by 1997 had declined to 1.2 per cent.

Most people, and their governments, support the promotion of gender balance in political life. Quotas are considered a legitimate means to securing this end in a great many countries.

The exclusion of women from the political arena is a fact. It happens for a great many reasons - financial, traditional, cultural and political. Accepting the fact, and the reasons that have made it so, implies that quotas should not be seen as discriminatory towards men and cannot, as a consequence, be branded unconstitutional.

There are many types of quota systems. In Latin America, for example, quota provisions are formulated on a gender-neutral basis: the law provides for a maximum of 60 per cent or a minimum of 40 per cent representation of either sex. This type of formulation is important in overcoming resistance to quotas on the grounds that they are discriminatory and consequently unconstitutional.

Successful implementation is influenced by a range of factors including the type of electoral system. Quotas have, on the whole, been most successful in countries with PR systems. The constituency-based system in operation in Egypt since 1990 is viewed by many as an insurmountable barrier for women who must, as a consequence, compete directly against men in a society with conservative and traditional views. While quotas alone will not solve the problem of patriarchal attitudes and stereotyping the presence of women changes the face of decision-making and provides opportunities for substantive input.

Women in Egypt are now trying to align themselves with other voices calling for social and political reform. There is a need for the legislature to move from espousing an abstract equality to affirmative action. Quotas and PR will contribute to improving the level of female representation only when institutionalised and accompanied by measures ensuring certain positions on lists.

The review of the law on political parties presents an opportunity for the National Council for Women and other women NGOs to press for the introduction of affirmative action mechanisms and the introduction of incentives tied to the financing of electoral campaigns, most significantly the enforcement of a ceiling.

The promised constitutional review, meanwhile, affords the opportunity for a wide-ranging debate on mechanisms that will facilitate greater participation by women.

Egypt has come a long way since the beginning of the 1980s. Women have managed to use the opportunities afforded by the Mubarak regime and the National Council for Women, under the leadership of the first lady, to achieve results on issues as diverse as the law of nationality (women are now able to pass on their nationality to their children) and divorce. Yet attention must still be paid to strategies ensuring the real empowerment of women rather than providing a space that will not allow for real and substantive gains. Governments and political parties need to play a leading role in changing gender biases and attitudes while quotas (which are certainly not an ideal system) can go a long way towards influencing the situation. Increased participation of women in politics requires intervention at different levels and the employment of multiple strategies. Above all else, though, it requires political will and commitment.

The writer is a former member of parliament and secretary-general of Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party.

Copyright 2005 Al-Ahram Weekly