Aug. 2, 2011, 6:50 p.m.
In the Spring of 2011, the world watched with excitement as decades old dictatorships toppled to popular uprisings in the Middle East. Women were at the forefront of these movements, often leading protests, marches, and social media campaigns to change course and resist the old regimes. In Tunisia and Egypt, old governments crumbled and now, new constitutions are being drafted. Across the rest of the Arab world, elections are being scheduled on candidates and issues to accommodate protester’s demands. Beginning in September, at least half a dozen countries in the region will host elections, including Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Morocco. Egypt in particular will host parliamentary elections in November.
If the Arab Spring was a referendum on the dictator style of governing, then the series of elections this Fall may well be a referendum of this region’s ability to incorporate women’s electoral rights into their nascent democracies. This offers an unprecedented opportunity to apply a gender sensitive approach as new laws and regulations governing political parties, election administration, and processes of governance are adopted.
Developments So Far
The struggle for women in Egypt to be accepted into serious decision making roles as the country transitions to a democracy is a testament to how precarious gender equality is as a priority. Within just days of the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak from his 30 year rule of Egypt, concerns were being raised about the impact of democratization on the rights of women. Legal and advocacy groups voiced repeated warnings that without vigilance by the international community, women and women’s rights would largely be marginalized from the new democracy.
In many ways, the process by which Egypt’s governing bodies amended the Law on Exercising Political Rights and the Law on Political Parties should serve as a warning in the region lurching toward genuine democratic reform.
First, women were excluded from the Constitutional Committee assembled to formulate amendments to Egypt’s constitution, including laws effecting eligibility for president and the supervision of elections. ((http://liberal-life.tumblr.com/post/3407246738/no-women-on-egypts-constitutional-committee))This was decried by dozens of Egyptian organizations. ((Hanan Rabbani, Open Society Institute)) Yet the March referendum passed, approving constitutional amendments affecting political rights that were written exclusively by men, and which make no mention of equality for women. ((Egypt: Ensure Women Equal Role in Elections, Reform. Human Rights Watch, 2010)) Indeed, Article 7, which prohibits discrimination, is silent on gender: “All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination on grounds of race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed.” ((http://www.sis.gov.eg/en/LastPage.aspx?Category_ID=1155)) Women stood side by side with men and saw their own blood spill in the popular uprising, only to be sidelined by those male counterparts in the post-Revolution rebuilding.
Subsequent to the constitutional referendum, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf sacked 20 governors; in response, he said, to popular demands to rout corruption. Not a single female replacement was appointed and once again, women’s rights groups issued outraged responses. ((Women's rights group condemns recent governor appointments. Safaa Abdoun / Daily News Egypt, April 18, 2011))
The most recent move that may marginalize women from the political process comes out of the amendment of the Exercise of Political Rights Law, which will regulate Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since the revolution. As amended, the law abolished the women’s quota – a system which allocated 64 seats – or 12% - of Parliament to women. Instead, each political party will be required to include one woman on their candidate list. However, there is no requirement that the woman candidate from each party be placed in a “winnable” slot - each party has the freedom to decide where to allocate the name of the female candidate, such as the end of the list. This will make it more difficult for women to be elected to the Parliament.
As a threshold matter, women must be at the table as these reforms are ushered in. With this in mind, Middle East and Arab countries seeking to write and amend their laws governing elections can incorporate a host of gender neutralizing rules and practices:
Amber Rose Maltbie is a California based political attorney specializing in gender and elections. Her publications on the impact of election administration and campaign finance laws on women are available at http://www.ambermaltbie.com/our-work.html.