Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Women in parliament: are quotas the only solution?

They all stood together men and women in Tahrir Square and brought down a powerful dictator and put Egypt on the pedestal of people’s liberation. They prayed together at Tahrir square and gave Egypt a hope for a new beginning. Yet, what happened yesterday in the very same place was nothing but shameful.

A few hundred women and their even fewer male supporters gathered at Tahrir Square on International Women’s Day to ask for an extended if not equal rights for women in post revolutionary Egypt. A demand only fair, in a new Egypt that promised to break through old traditions and emerge as a truly ‘liberalized’ identity.

Yet, what did they get in return? Men, at least three times their number, broke through the human chain protecting these women and verbally abused and sexually assaulted them. Chants like ‘a man is a man and the woman is a woman, you are the children of Suzan Mubarak, a woman can never be a President, Go home women!’ were ringing through Tahrir Square. There was a fierce objection to women’s demands of having a role in the new constitution.
Many women were groped; some were beaten and sexually assaulted. Apparently, this is a commonplace in Egypt with men often intimidating and harassing women on the streets in a similar fashion.
I was shocked to find that even today the conservative Egyptian are so hostile to women wanting more rights. Women in Egypt have always held prominent positions in media, literature and even civil society. However the constitution is still based on patriarchal laws and the economic migration to Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, where women cannot even drive cars, has definitely played into the mindset of some.

Tahany Al Gebaly, Egypt’s first female judge

Egypt elected the first Arab woman to parliament in 1957. But even half a century later, in the 2005 elections, only four women were elected to the Parliament, rest were appointed by the President. So women secured just nine of 454 seats.  

If Hosni Mubarak did anything right; it was the appointment of Egypt's first female judge, a female university president, and some female cabinet ministers in an effort to kickstart women’s political participation.  

But the dismal number of women in parliament is not just an Egyptian issue but something that faces most countries in the world. It is important to have an increased representation of women in parliament to give them a greater say in the constitution and policies of the country.
While democracy is new to Egypt and other countries in the Middle East who are still struggling to achieve, understand and implement it; this is the right time for women to be welcomed into decision making processes and given due recognition. One way to introduce women into parliament is through the quota system. Egypt had introduced a 30-seat quota for female MPs in 1979, following which it had the maximum number of women in parliament, but repealed it in1988 after its constitutionality was challenged.
Yesterday, on twitter, Shadi Hamid, a prominent Middle East researcher, wrote: ‘Quota systems don't solve the gender problem. Quotas are a top-down imposition - and don't change attitudes on the ground’. My argument to him was: ‘I agree to an extent. But attitude rarely change unless they are force fed. Quotas are just the catalyst to introduce the numbers.’ Hamid replied ‘if quotas are the solution then how come they haven't worked in, say, Jordan?’
But they have worked very successfully in Rwanda, a country embroiled in conflict and deprivation, yet 56.3% women made it into Parliament making it the only country in the world with more women than men in Parliament!
Hamid has a far better understanding of the Middle East than I do and I understand when he says that ‘legally, there are equal rights for women in many Arab countries. But public attitudes are whole different problem.’ 

Public attitude is definitely a problem everywhere. But I think to change that is to introduce quotas and get more women in parliament. When you see women in parliament making important decisions, fighting for your rights and safeguarding your interests, it helps inculcate trust and respect. I don’t think public attitude will change overnight; it would take decades perhaps even a generation, but I think it’s important to put women in powerful positions to bring that change. 

Feminists argue that women don’t need patronizing and can stand up on their own merit. I’m sure they can but in today’s circumstances they just need that that bit of influx into politics and then their future is defined on their merit.

Even for countries like the UK, that prides itself on ‘equal’ rights for men and women; in reality the gap still exists! The income disparity is obvious and the number of women in parliament is still a measly 21%. Before last year’s elections I had written that women’s representation bill was important to get more women representatives in parliament (WRP).
The May 2010 elections, which boasted of Herculean efforts to increase the number of WRP (but without any quotas), did achieve a record number of women in parliament (144 compared to 128 in 2005) but failed to narrow the gap much; its just 144 women out of a total 650 members of parliament.

The Centre for Women and Democracy predicts it will take at least another 15 years for UK to achieve 30% WRP and maybe it will get a 50% by 2065. 

This just reinforces my point that perhaps quotas are the only solution.

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