Women’s Electoral Rights Must be a Priority in the Middle East

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.

Going Forward

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:

  • Quotas: Gender quotas are a popular tool to fast track women’s equal representation in government. Although controversial, quota systems have been effective at increasing women’s representation in Rwanda to 56.3%, and Sweden’s to 47.3% - the two highest in the world. Quota systems may be tailored to a country’s political structure. For example, it may be that the political parties must submit a minimum number of women on their candidate lists; or the representative body has a minimum number of seats reserved for women. Afghanistan, for example, has a reserved seats system in place; there, 28% of House of Representatives members are women.

  • Political Finance: Worldwide, women remain economically inferior to men in terms of income and networks for financial support. This makes the high cost of running an election campaign a primary deterrent for women considering whether to pursue office. Laws and regulations governing how campaign funds may be raised, spent and used can be crafted to neutralize this burden. For example, expenditure limits will benefit women candidates by mitigating the impact of very wealthy contenders, frequently men, who otherwise reach a broader audience by virtue of their ready access to more resources. Similarly, campaign conduct codes should strictly prohibit the practice of vote buying. Permissible vote-buying creates an environment in which voters expect to be rewarded through financial incentives in exchange for their vote. This not only compromises the integrity of the system, it disfavors women who less likely have the capital and resources to dole out rewards to voters.

  • Election Administration: A barrier unique to women who wear face-covering veils, a prominent practice in the Middle East, is overcoming voter identification laws without violating a religious or social tenet. There are a number of implementing measures that can assist women in the voting process. For example, in Yemen, women and men vote in segregated polling stations. Women may then lift their veils for identification purposes to women polling station workers. Palestine does not require segregated polling stations, and instead allows the elector to present her identifying document and unveil to any female working in the station.

These are simply a few of the legal and regulatory measures that may serve to bring greater parity to women’s representation in the political process. The world will be a better place for women when they are positioned to make decisions about their own lives. A comprehensive gendered approach to electoral reform looks beyond the threshold requirements that women be allowed to vote and run for office. True reform will take into account the array of barriers women uniquely face when attempting to vote and gain nomination as a candidate, such as lack of financial resources; logistical challenges such as polling place location and burdensome voter identification requirements; and targeted electoral violence against women. The rapid changes taking place in the Middle East provide an opportunity to embrace this concept and incorporate it into genuine legislative and policy reforms for women’s ability to participate in democracy.

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.

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