Date: Feb 7, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Women MPs from region talk quotas, barriers
Abby Sewell| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: A first-of-its-kind conference this week brought together women parliamentarians from around the Middle East and North Africa to talk about the challenges to and opportunities for greater female political representation.

FemParl, hosted by the Canadian embassies in Beirut and Cairo, convened delegates from 11 countries in the region in a series of meetings in the two cities. The Beirut portion of the events kicked off Wednesday, with Future Movement MP Dima Jamali representing Lebanon.

“The active participation of women in a country’s public life is a right and a necessity,” Jamali, who also attended the events in Cairo held earlier in the week, told the delegates at Wednesday’s opening session. “Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the society as a whole.”

Although Lebanon’s six female MPs elected last year represent a slight increase from the four in the previous Parliament, Jamali said the number was still insufficient and pointed to the need for a quota for female representation. “Women may have witnessed an incremental rise in the number of women serving in Parliament in May 2018,” she said. “However, Lebanese women continue to face numerous challenges in entering government.”

Jamali told The Daily Star that the Future Movement was considering introducing legislation to impose a gender-based parliamentary quota system and that her resolve to push for it had been strengthened after she spoke with female MPs from other MENA countries that have successfully imposed quotas.

MP Ferida Abidi of Tunisia, where 31 percent of parliamentarians are now women, told The Daily Star that she hoped her country’s experiences would help women elsewhere in the region. “Honestly I am proud of where the Tunisian woman has arrived, and especially after the revolution,” she said.

Algeria, where a quota system adopted in 2012 requires that women constitute about 30 percent of candidate lists, has also seen significant gains in female participation in Parliament in the years since, although the percentage of women in Parliament, after jumping to 31 percent in 2012, dropped to 26 percent in 2017.

Algerian MP Noura Boudaoud said the quota system had nevertheless succeeded in making women an accepted part of the political sphere. “The presence of women became normal,” she said. “When the community gets accustomed to the presence of women, that’s it. Afterward, after 10 years or 20 years, you can get rid of the quota, because the woman has arrived.”

While her country surpasses Lebanon in female parliamentary representation, Boudaoud said Lebanon’s recent appointment of the first woman interior minister in the Arab world had inspired her to keep pushing for female representation in not only numbers but the appointment of women to key policymaking positions.

“I studied finance. Why shouldn’t I be minister of finance?” she said. “Why should I be assigned to the Ministry of Health or Education or Culture?”

Jamila Ali Raja, a political analyst and former diplomat from Yemen, told The Daily Star that the conference presented an important opportunity for countries with vastly divergent situations to exchange experiences. “We have different situations in the Arab countries,” she said. “I come from a country that is in conflict, so it’s interesting to see what other countries are doing.”

Before the war, Yemen had one woman in Parliament. She died in early 2015, leaving the country without any female representatives, although Ali Raja noted that women had been strongly represented in the National Dialogue Conference, a reconciliation body that met from 2013 to 2014. The committee called for a quota of 30 percent of women among all government positions.

Jordanian MP Wafa Bani Mustafa said she was pushing to raise her country’s female representation quota. At present, just 20 of the 130 legislators in the lower house are female, and only 15 seats are reserved for women.

Obstacles to women’s participation also extend into the workplace, Mustafa said, and she expressed belief that greater female representation in Parliament would help remove the barriers in other fields.

“The biggest problem for women in Jordan is the ability to share in the economic and political fields,” she said. “Unemployment of educated women is a big challenge that hurts our girls.”

The FemParl concept began as a project of Canada’s diplomatic missions in South Asia, Canadian Ambassador to Lebanon Emmanuelle Lamoureux said, and this year was replicated for the first time in MENA.

“Positive steps have been taken toward advancing women’s rights in the region,” Lamoureux told the assembled delegates. “Thanks to increasing numbers of women parliamentarians, more countries are passing laws to protect and empower women.”

But, she added, “laws and quotas only go so far. Women have to present themselves as candidates, and once they’re elected they have to support each other across party lines, across borders. Change will only come working together.”