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Are fast-track quotas necessary and sufficient for gender equality in the Middle East & North Africa?

Nina Bhatt's picture
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Dana SmilieAs I write from Sana’a, I am thinking “ten percent is not enough.”  Few would disagree that more women should be represented in legislatures across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet the best ways to achieve improved outcomes is still being debated. The Arab Spring emerged through revolutionary demands for representation by women, young people and groups whose voices had been unheard for too long. Parliamentary quota systems are increasingly discussed as a means for creating an equality of outcome for underrepresented constituents by removing structural barriers on the road to better political participation.

Since 1997, there has been a six-fold increase in the number of women parliamentarians in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco; women’s share of seats has increased from 6 to 25 percent in Iraq. How has this been possible? All four countries have used quotas to boost women’s representation. Djibouti and Sudan have implemented similar programs; Tunisia and Yemen may as well.

Do quota systems conflict with the ideal of equal opportunity? Or is the equality of outcome more important? While the United States does not have quota systems, in France, women are guaranteed half of electoral candidates in political parties. Do quotas homogenize the variety of individual experiences of being a woman? Do they unintentionally reinforce a perception of subordination in their attempt to overcome inequalities?

Nina Bhatt at launch of March 4 "Six Month Women's Leadership Training Program" led by Imam Shawki Qadi (on far left).In the Middle East region, where male-dominated regimes remain entrenched, legally mandated quotas may be a necessary – while not sufficient ­­­– path ahead. Gender quotas are not just tokens of symbolic equality: they do more than merely guarantee seats in legislative bodies. Feminists in Egypt in the 1980s were initially against quota systems. Many later supported them, as the visibility of female Parliamentarians illuminated new possibilities of women’s roles in social and political life. In the United States, a newly elected 113th Congress in the United States contains 81 women, the highest number ever represented. According to Nancy Pelosi “[t]he more diversity of opinion at the table, the more consensus you can build, the more sustainability of the solutions, and the more respect it commands.”

A strong signal for the future

If desire for quotas exists among local constituents and is heeded by the political elite, perhaps such reforms can have positive results. For example, some type of quota mechanism for improved representation of women in Yemen is likely to be an integral part of the upcoming National Dialogue. A more equitable distribution within parties and in office there would send a strong signal across the region about government’s willingness to be more inclusive in settling complex grievances. It would be based in recognition of the need for a different form of participation that includes everyone, not merely the entrenched interests. People in Yemen, and across the Middle East, are hoping that their demands are heard and acted on, soon.