Women’s influence growing but more needs to be done
For two weeks last month in New York, as every year, we witnessed world leaders and officials gather at the UN General Assembly to address the international community with their messages and views on current affairs and concerns. They roamed the corridors of power, surrounded by their entourages, and met inside halls to discuss future plans that could affect not only their country but others too. Few among those leaders were women, which is not unusual, but the number has been increasing and the type of politics and issues these women leaders bring to the table is different.
According to the women in politics map released by UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as of Jan. 1, 2019, women represented 6.6 percent of all heads of state and 5.2 percent of heads of government. Although still a minority, the number of women leaders has increased from 12 to 21 over the past 20 years. Among Muslim countries, only one — Bangladesh — has a female president or prime minister, which is less than in past years.
As for parliaments, the world average of women lawmakers is 24.3 percent. This is an increase of 13 percentage points compared to two decades ago. Educational advancements and an increase in women’s participation in the labor force during this period have played a role in encouraging representation, but other factors such as the political system, laws and culture have also contributed.
Among Muslim countries, Senegal has the highest representation of women in a lower or single house with 41.8 percent. Only 15 other Muslim countries that are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have above the world average of women in parliament. In 27 OIC countries out of 57, female members of parliament make up less than 20 percent in both the lower and upper houses. Similarly, only 18 percent of government ministers are women, which means that they are still largely excluded from the executive branch. Among OIC countries, between 2014 and 2016, only 13 percent of ministerial positions were held by women.
The reasons for this under-representation include the fact that women seldom become the leaders of major political parties. In addition, gender norms and expectations also drastically reduce the pool of women putting themselves forward for selection as electoral candidates. Women in the public eye are also under constant scrutiny by the media, not only in terms of their private lives but also their fashion choices, and they are often asked about how they balance family and work responsibilities — a question seldom asked of men.
In Muslim countries, the barriers to female participation in politics include institutional factors such as discrimination and individual factors such as education. In addition, there are cultural, social and religious barriers due to the conservative and patriarchal nature of some societies, and the chauvinistic attitude that stresses on male leadership and the limited role of women in the public sphere.
Gender norms and expectations drastically reduce the pool of women putting themselves forward for selection as electoral candidates.
During the recent revolution in Sudan, women were front and center and even iconic in their mobilization of the crowds and determination to continue until achieving their objectives. The protesters were reportedly 70 percent women but, when it was time to sit down and negotiate with the military, they were extremely under-represented. Furthermore, only two women were included in the sovereign council that will lead the 39-month-long transition to democracy. And, during the signing of the Constitutional Declaration, women were completely absent.
However, having realized their power and potential, Sudanese women did not stay silent and they raised their objections to this discrimination and exclusion. The new prime minister took note and declared in his first press conference that there would be a bigger role for women in his Cabinet. The new Cabinet, which was announced in early September, has four women out of 18 members, including the first female foreign minister in Sudanese history.
Including women in legislative and executive bodies is not simply about having them represented; it is important because their participation has an impact on social development and policies that affect the family and society.
It is believed that female representatives not only advance women’s rights, but also the rights of children. In national legislatures, there is a notable trend of women advancing gender and family-friendly legislation. Furthermore, a number of studies from both industrialized and developed countries indicate that women in local government tend to advance social issues such as more equitable distribution of community resources, including more gender-sensitive spending on programs related to health, nutrition and education.
In Saudi Arabia, since women became members of the Shoura Council in 2013, they have been very vocal and active in advocating for women’s rights and ending discrimination. They have introduced recommendations that benefited divorced and widowed women, children, youth, the elderly and people with special needs. They have also been active on issues concerning education, health care and public services.
Saudi women were also allowed to vote and run in municipal elections for the first time in 2015. Whether women are able to make a difference depends on what and how much of a role the Shoura Council or municipality has but, by making women’s voices heard, Saudi Arabia is making their contribution valued. As for international affairs, by appointing its first female ambassador in February — with Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan’s move to Washington — Saudi Arabia is presenting its soft power.
The further empowerment of women in politics requires a multidimensional approach. The implementation of some form of gender quota scheme in legislatures and parliaments, as well as introducing gender-sensitive policies, would increase the participation of women at all levels of the decision-making process. This would help unleash the potential of women in achieving socioeconomic development. More efforts are also needed to involve more, and particularly young, women to train women leaders and boost women’s skills to participate actively in elections as candidates and voters.
• Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1