Beyond a seat at the table: Women’s political participation and representation in the MENA region

  • Lina Abou-Habib

    Director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut

    ديرة معهد الأصفري للمجتمع المدني والمواطنة في الجامعة الامريكية ببيروت

The way to achieve inclusive political participation and representation in the MENA region is through intersectional feminist voices with a transformative agenda.

The abysmal participation and representation of women in political spaces in the MENA region is the result of a complex patriarchal system that is reinforced by discriminatory laws and social institutions as well as ingrained oppressive gender norms. This complex problem cannot be properly addressed, let alone challenged, simply by a few seats at the proverbial table. In countries across the region, women may be elected to parliament but the political space remains a place where the subordinate position of women, non-binary people, and other vulnerable groups is not allowed to be discussed. The path towards inclusive political participation and representation is through intersectional feminist voices. 

Cosmetic reforms

In September 1995, most Arab governments participated in the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing1 and endorsed the conference’s output document, the Beijing Platform of Action. This document stipulated, among other things, that signatories commit to achieving 30 per cent female representation in all elected and nominated political bodies by 2015.2 In the 1990s, the percentage of women in parliaments in the MENA region ranged from 0 per cent in Saudi Arabia3 to 12 per cent in Tunisia4. The modest but visible level of participation of women in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt was due to autocratic regimes using women to leverage their international image and posing as supporters of women’s rights, despite their disregard for democracy and human rights.

By 2015, five years into the various Arab uprisings, the region was not yet making any significant efforts to challenge the legal, societal, and other obstacles that curb women’s effective and significant political participation. A handful of Arab countries introduced a political quota system to ensure reserved parliamentary seats for women but they failed to take into consideration the structural challenges that women face in seeking and maintaining public office.5 Women often face restrictive personal status laws, whereby they need access to strong patriarchal connections and their attendant financial and other resources.6 Women in the public domain also face sexual and other forms of harassment, and there are social gender norms that undermine women’s potential as leaders and decision-makers.7

Despite the eruption of the various Arab uprisings, including the protests of 2019, the situation for women, non-binary and queer people, vulnerable groups such as migrant and refugee women, and women with special needs is largely left out of public policy debate. As attacks on women, girls, and queer people continue unabated, regimes in the region seem to pose as obstacles to the protection of women and non-binary persons from violence8,along with any demands for freedom, safety, and dignity.9

The importance of intersectionality 

For decades, feminist activists in the region have used various strategies to engage and communicate with the system in order to influence and change it. The lack of any real progress clearly indicates that existing reforms are simply insufficient in bringing about a transformation of laws, societies, and mindsets in the Arab region. While having a seat at the table is a right, a matter of contention in the MENA region is that access to that table, its shape, and its agenda serves to reinforce a patriarchal, heteronormative, and conservative system where substantive equality, inclusion, and diversity are not matters of public debate.

Following the May 2022 parliamentary elections in Lebanon, many celebrate the entry into parliament of a handful of women with a transformative agenda who have made public statements about their commitment to the rights of women. However, it is important to remember that other women were also elected or re-elected who are in fact cronies of the patriarchal political system and actually work to maintain the status quo this system has imposed.10 This explains, for instance, their deafening silence when attacks on queer groups take place or on the rare occasions when there are discussions around the violent and discriminatory nature of personal status laws.

Since the start of the latest uprisings in 2019, the MENA region has witnessed the emergence of new and powerful intersectional feminist voices. These voices are set to bring in a new inclusive agenda that moves away from the focus on women’s rights and on so-called reform towards a transformative, bold, and inclusive agenda which seeks a systemic change based on equality, inclusion, and diversity. It is the emergence and amplification of feminist voices in the political sphere that will create a significant shift in the MENA region, one that might finally shake existing and coercive social gender norms.

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[1] United Nations. (1995). Fourth World Conference on Women. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/fwcwn.html 

[2] United Nations. (1995). Women in power and decision-making. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/decision.htm 

[3] The World Bank. (n.d.). Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments (%) – Saudi Arabia. Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SG.GEN.PARL.ZS?end=2021&locations=SA&name_desc=false&start=2003 

[4] The World Bank. (n.d.). Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments (%) – Tunisia. Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SG.GEN.PARL.ZS?end=1999&locations=TN&name_desc=false&start=1997 

[5] Nazra for Feminist Studies. (2013). The quota and its different forms. Retrieved from https://nazra.org/en/2013/04/quota-and-its-different-forms

[6] Daibes, F. (2020). Family laws in the MENA Region a tool for subordination. Retrieved from https://connect.fes.de/reading-picks/family-laws-in-the-mena-region-a-tool-for-subordination 

[7] Kiwan, D., Farah, M., Annan, R., & Jaber, H. (2016). Women’s participation and leadership in Lebanon, Jordan and Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Moving from individual to collective change. Oxfam. Retrieved from https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/main/rr-womens-leadership-lebanon-jordan-kri-250416-en.pdf 

[8] Plan International. (2020). The protection of young women and girls in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA). Retrieved from https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/protection-young-women-and-girls-middle-east-and-northern-africa-mena 

[9] Dunne, C. W. (2022). A bleak landscape for democracy and human rights in the MENA region in 2022. Arab Center Washington DC. Retrieved from https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/a-bleak-landscape-for-democracy-and-human-rights-in-the-mena-region-in-2022/ 

[10] El Chamaa, M. (2022). Meet the eight women elected to Parliament in 2022. L’Orient-Le Jour. Retrieved from https://today.lorientlejour.com/article/1300011/-25.html