MENA Women: Opportunities and Obstacles in 2014

Farahnaz Ispahani:– Many scholars and women’s rights activists and advocates in the West do not grasp the essential importance of quotas, or reserved seats, for women in parliament, especially in Muslim-majority countries.

The presence of female bodies and voices in any parliament changes the dynamic of the body in essential ways. Critics often point to the fact that many upper class, privileged women get into parliament with reserved seats. Many do, but in Pakistan and Afghanistan I have seen political parties nominate women party workers from rural areas and the lower and middle classes as well. What is essential, however, for women in parliament to succeed is a non partisan caucus.

In Pakistan, we were able to pass more pro-women’s laws in a five year period than at any other time in our history. The power of having women from the Islamist religious parties and the liberal left parties coming together on the Harassment of Women in the Workplace Bill and the Acid Crimes Bill despite major resistance from male colleagues really demonstrated the power of women united under one roof.

In Egypt today, women’s rights seem better protected by the new draft constitution than by previous constitutions; it contains strong affirmative language such as, “The state commits to achieving equality between women and men in all civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in accordance with the provisions of this constitution. The state commits to taking the necessary measures to ensure appropriate representation of women in the houses of parliament…” (Article 11).

This article is stronger than its counterpart in the 1971 constitution, which granted women equal status but made gender equality subject to shari’a. It also goes further than its 2012 counterpart, which did not mention that women’s status is equal to men’s.

The phrase “to ensure appropriate representation of women in the houses of parliament” came after the constitutional committee demanded that a certain number of parliamentary seats be reserved for women as a form of affirmative action. However, unfortunately, the committee decided against seat reservation for women.

Egypt’s State Council, which advises the government on matters of law, reinforced this stance by recommending against quotas for women in both parliament and in judicial positions.

Former President Hosni Mubarak had supported the reservation of women’s seats in 2009. He set a minimum of 64 of the parliament’s 518 seats for women. However, the very first parliament after the revolution struck down the clause.

I see the removal of quotas for women members of parliament and judges to be a major step backward for women. And, once space is ceded, as we have seen in the example of Iran, it takes decades to move forward an inch when you have lost a foot in a matter of seconds. via Wilson Center

Farahnaz Ispahani Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; and former Member of the Pakistani Parliament and Media Advisor to Former President Asif Ali Zardari (Pakistan)

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