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Engendering Democracy: Women and the Mass Social Protests in the Middle East and North Africa

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Engendering Democracy: Women and the Mass Social Protests in the Middle East and North Africa



Valentine M. Moghadam

Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, Purdue University

Boston University, 5 March 2011

The first decade of the 21st century was an eventful one for the Middle East and North Africa region, not least because of the assaults on 11 September 2001, the U.S./U.K. invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003, and the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006.  But several other events took place that require more attention or renewed analysis: -       The launching of the Arab Human Development Report in 2002, in which the authors identified three major deficits in the region: gender inequality, authoritarian rule, and restrictions on knowledge. -       The Moroccan family law reform, 2003-04, the end result of an 11-year feminist campaign that tied national development to women’s participation and rights. -       One Million Signature Campaign, Iran, launched in 2007, which was a door-to-door grassroots movement for the repeal of discriminatory laws and a call for women’s equality through constitutional change. -       The workers strikes and protests in the Egyptian industrial city of Mahalla e-Kubra in 2008. -       The Green Protests of June 2009, the first genuinely democratic mass protests in the century, challenging the results of a rigged election and calling for an end to authoritarian rule. Here women were a large and vibrant presence. The second decade of the current century began with explosions of mass protests for regime change and democratization: most notably in Tunisia and Egypt, but also in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya and Yemen. Analysts have been discussing the causes of the protests and speculating about consequences and outcomes. Opinions have been aired about the role of young people, of the demands of “the Arab street”, and of the possible transition to a liberal or Islamist or coalition type of governance.  Middle East specialists have been long aware of the problems of authoritarian regimes, widening inequalities and income gaps, high rates of youth unemployment, deteriorating infrastructure and public services, and rising prices attenuated only by subsidies (considered by many economists to be unsustainable).  Solutions to the malaise and to the mass protests include a democratic transition, economic reform centered on the needs and rights of citizens, justice for those harmed by past policies and oppressive laws, and institutions that will enable equality as well as guarantee rights. But something has been missing from the recent discussions and analyses. Let us pose it in the form of a number of questions. Is “the Arab street” masculine? What kind of democratic governance can women’s rights groups expect?  After Tunisian women took to the streets in advance of Islamic leader Rashid Ghannouchi’s return in January 2011, will efforts be made to address their concerns and ensure their equality and rights? Will women participate in the democratic transition and the building of new institutions? Or will an outcome be – to use the terms coined by East European feminists in the early 1990s – a “male democracy” and “democracy with a male face”? What connection, if any, is there between the advancement of women’s rights and the advancement of democracy? Traditional approaches to democratization found a strong relationship between economic development and democracy, or between the presence of a large middle class and democratic development (Barrington Moore).  Today, feminist social scientists argue that a polity is not fully democratic when there is no adequate representation of women. Nonetheless, many contemporary commentators and policy-makers continue to talk and write about building and spreading democracy, or about obstacles to democratization, without taking women and gender issues into account. This is especially true of the literature on the Middle East. In this paper I make a three-fold argument.

  1. There is a strong relationship between women’s participation and rights, on the one hand, and the building and institutionalization of democracy on the other. Evidence does exist for this relationship: examples from Latin America, southern Africa, and Northern Ireland show that women’s participation was a key element in the successful transitions; that outcomes could be advantageous to women’s interests; and that women’s political participation reflects and reinforces democracy-building.
  2. Democracy is assumed by many commentators to serve women well, but the historical record shows that democratic transitions do not always bring about women’s participation and rights. We need to take seriously the “democracy paradox”, or the gender-based democracy deficit; that is, the marginalization of women from the political process in a democratic polity, or the dangers posed to gender equality of the opening up of political space to fundamentalist forces.
  3. The longstanding exclusion of women from political processes and decision-making in the Middle East and North Africa is a key factor in explaining why the region has been a “laggard”, compared with other regions, in democratization’s third wave. Attention to women’s participation and rights, including a strong presence in political parties, could speed up the democratic transition in the region.

Democracy, gender, and the state As Benjamin Barber has noted, different types of democracies and their varied practices produce similarly varied effects.  Direct, representative, participatory, deliberative, liberal, radical, and socialist democracy – these are examples of different understandings and practices of democracy. Liberal democracy is the model that is being touted in the contemporary era of globalization, as it is presumed to be most compatible with liberal capitalism.  In a liberal democracy, a high degree of political legitimacy is necessary, as is an independent judiciary and a constitution that clearly sets out the relationship between state and society, and citizen rights and obligations. Written constitutions serve as a guarantee to citizens that the government is required to act in a certain way and uphold certain rights.  Various scholars, however, point to the difference between formal and substantive democracy as well as formal political rights, on the one hand, and the material means to enjoy or exercise them, on the other (what are known as social and economic rights of citizenship). In the Middle East, states have implemented economic reforms in line with the global neoliberal agenda, but political reforms have been limited.  Most Middle Eastern states lack legitimacy, divisions of power do not exist, civil society remains incipient and its organizations controlled, and the region’s constitutions are not grounded in concepts of liberal rights.  Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan have been referred to as “liberalized autocracies” because of the power vested in the monarchs or presidents. The Islamic Republic of Iran, with its regular but controlled elections and restricted citizen rights, may be referred to as an “illiberal democracy.” Commentators emphasize these realities, along with the need to establish “the core of democracy – getting citizens the ability to choose those who hold the main levers of political power and creating checks and balances through which state institutions share power” (Carothers and Ottaway 2005: 258). Such commentators envisage a scenario in which political parties are allowed to form and compete with each other in elections. And yet, one might argue that the distribution of political resources or power through competitive elections is a narrow definition of democracy – and may in fact be risky in a fledgling democracy where parties coalesce around sectarian interests.  An over-emphasis on free elections obscures the importance of institutions and constitutional guarantees of rights that are echoed in other legal frameworks and protected by the courts.  For democracy is as much about citizen rights, participation and inclusion as it is about political parties, regular elections, and checks and balances. The quality of democracy is determined not only by the form of the political institutions in place and the regularity of elections, but also by the institutionalization of equal rights, and the extent of citizen participation in the political process – including the participation of different social groups in political parties, elections, parliaments, and decision-making bodies. Feminist scholars point out that liberal democracy has tended to posit a “public man” as political actor, and that first Marxism and then feminism challenged the assumptions and exclusions, both hidden and overt, of liberal democracy.  Despite political rights, the gap between formal and substantive equality has been large – and especially large for women. “Many states have constitutional provisions against discrimination on gender and other grounds – but to what extent are women’s interests represented when political parties neither field women candidates nor make women’s issues a fundamentalist part of their policies?” (Imam and Ibrahim 1992: 18).  To bridge this gap, feminist call for political party quotas.   Sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter noted that women need to be at least a large minority in any organizational context to have an impact, and women’s issues receive more support when women are at least a large minority. The United Nations now advocates a benchmark of at least 30% female representation in a legislative body. But certain material conditions also are needed to enable women’s full citizenship:

  • equality and justice within the family
  • security in the home and on the streets
  • freedom from sexual harassment in the workplace
  • paid maternity leaves, paternity leaves, and childcare centers.

As an Egyptian women’s rights lawyer poignantly put it: “What use is the vote to a woman who is imprisoned in her home? Who cannot initiate a divorce even if she is trapped in a miserable marriage?”  In this way, democracy may be seen not exclusively as a process and procedure that takes place at the level of the national policy, but as a multifaceted and ongoing process at different levels of social existence: in the family, in the community, at the workplace, in the economy, in civil society, and in the polity.  In other words, we need to be building a democratic society as well as a democratic polity. Women and democratic transitions: some examples In Latin America, women’s movements and organizations played an important role in the opposition to authoritarianism and made a significant contribution to the “end of fear” and the inauguration of the transition.  Here women organized as feminists and as democrats, and often allied themselves with left-wing parties. Where women were not key actors in the negotiated transitions, they nonetheless received institutional rewards when democratic governments were set up and their presence in the new parliaments increased. Argentina, for example, adopted a 30% female quota and in 2006 had a 31% female share of parliamentary seats; in 2009 the share was nearly 39%, and there was a woman president as well.  Chile saw the prominence of the women’s policy agency SERNAM, and while the female parliamentary share in 2006 was just 12% (14% today), a woman president was elected in 2006; former President Michelle Bachelet came from the feminist and social democratic wing of Chile’s political spectrum.  Brazil saw the adoption of a strong law penalizing violence against women. Even after the women’s movement lost momentum, women’s NGOs continued to advocate for women’s rights or to provide needed services for low-income women “without losing their feminist edge”, as Jane Jaquette has noted. In South Africa as well as in Burundi, and Rwanda, women’s roles in the democratic transitions were acknowledged and rewarded with political party quotas, gender budgets, and well-resourced women’s research and policy centers.  In turn, such initiatives to support and promote women’s participation and rights reinforced and institutionalized democratic institutions. In Northern Ireland, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement opened up new opportunities for women to participate in formal politics; in the first post-Agreement Assembly, 14% of those elected were women. This resulted from the activism of the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement, founded in 1975, the peace work of Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, the Belfast Women’s Collective, the Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation, and the Women’s Coalition. In contrast, East European women were not able to influence the transition and lost key rights, as well as levels of representation, when the post-communist democratic governments initially were set up.  The dramatic declines in women’s parliamentary representation in parliaments – from an average of 30% to 8-10% — is usually attributed to a reaction against communist notions of equality, when many of the institutional arrangements that had guaranteed the participation of women, workers, peasants and other groups were dismantled. The East European case – an example of the “democracy paradox” –shows that liberal democracy is not necessarily women-friendly and could in fact engender a male democracy, privileging men and limiting women’s representation and voice. Determinant factors/conditions When and where are women’s interests served by democratization, and democratization served by women’s participation?  Drawing on the gender and revolution literature (e.g., by Karen Kampwirth, Val Moghadam, Julie Shayne), as well as Georgina Waylen’s discussion of key variables shaping women’s experiences with democratic transitions, one may identify the following factors as determinant:

  • The nature of the transition; the ideology, values, and norms of the larger movement or dominant group;
  • The extent of women’s mobilizations, including the number and visibility of women’s organizations and other institutions; the role of women activists in the revolution or transition;
  • Pre-existing gender relations, women’s legal status and social positions; the nature of institutional legacy of the non-democratic regime;
  • The new government’s capacity and will to mobilize resources for rights-based development.

In addition, research has shown that party-list proportional representation systems, and those where one of the primary political parties is leftist, have significantly more women in political decision-making positions.  And across lesser-developed or non-Western states, those that have greater connections to the world polity may be more amenable to women’s participation in politics and decision-making.

The Middle East: Women as Agents and Allies of Democratization

Women in the Middle East and North Africa region – and especially the constituency of women’s rights advocates – are the chief proponents of democratic development and of its correlates of civil liberties, participation, and inclusion.  Across the region, women’s organizations self-identify as democratic as well as feminist, often issuing statements in favor of equality, participation, and rights.  The region’s feminists are among the most vocal advocates of democracy, and frequently refer to themselves as part of the “democratic” or “modernist” forces of society.  Andrea Barron argued that Palestinian women were the main agents of democratization in the building of the Palestine Authority and the future state. In Tunisia, a 2006 AFTURD statement called on democracy and human rights for all Tunisians.  A Tunisian feminist lawyer associated with the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates has said: “We recognize that, in comparison with other Arab countries, our situation is better, but still we have common problems, such as an authoritarian state. Our work on behalf of women’s empowerment is also aimed at political change and is part of the movement for democratization.”  In Iran, the growing women’s movement has become a highly visible force for change, initiating campaigns for women’s equality and rights and staging public protests against arbitrary arrests that have huge social and political ramifications. For this, they have experienced state repression and many members have received prison sentences, but their cyberactivism continues.  In Egypt, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights has monitored the social realities of women’s lives (e.g., lobbying against the problem of sexual harassment of women) while also integrating itself in the larger movement for democratization (e.g., election monitoring) and human rights.  In Turkey, political scientist Yesim Arat points out that in the 1980s, at a time when Turkey’s civil society was under tight military control, the new feminist movement helped to usher in democratization through campaigns and demands for women’s rights, participation, and autonomy.  Another positive example comes from Morocco, where women’s groups were central actors in the country’s move toward a more open society during the 1990s, primarily through their support for the new socialist government of Abdelrahman Yousefi. To secure societal understanding for and consensus around their demand for family law reform, the women’s groups framed the demand in terms of children’s rights, national development, the egalitarian spirit of Islam, and the building of democratic society.

The Gender-based Democracy Deficit in the Middle East

Women’s parliamentary participation ranges from the lows of Saudi Arabia (0%), Egypt (2%) and Iran (3%) to the respectable figure for Tunisia (23%), according to 2008 figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union.   (The Nov. 2010 elections in Egypt resulted in a higher female share: 12.7 percent.) The generally low figures for the region may be explained at least in part by the fact that political rights were granted to women relatively recently, and mostly in the 1950s and 1960s (Jordan 1974, Kuwait 2005); only Turkey granted women political rights as early as 1930.  In most of the region, the levers of political power are almost exclusively in the hands of men, and this correlates with a high degree of authoritarianism and the persistence of patriarchal laws and norms. As a result, women’s groups have been calling for greater recognition and representation for at least a decade, while also expressing caution about exclusionary political processes.  The historical record shows that women can pay a high price when a democratic process that is institutionally weak, or is not founded on principles of equality and the rights of all citizens, or is not protected by strong institutions, allows a political party bound by patriarchal norms to come to power and to immediately institute laws relegating women to second-class citizenship and controls over their mobility. The Algerian case This was the Algerian feminist nightmare, which is why so many educated Algerian women opposed the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) after its expansion in 1989. The quick transition unsupported by strong institutions did not serve women well. Algeria had been long ruled by a single party system in the “Arab socialist” style. The death of President Boumedienne in December 1978 brought about political and economic changes, including the growth of an Islamist movement that was intimidating unveiled women, and a new government intent on economic restructuring. The urban riots of 1988 were followed quickly by a new constitution and elections, without a transitional period of democracy-building. The electoral victory of the FIS – which promised (or threatened) to institute Sharia law, enforce veiling, and end competitive elections – alarmed Algeria’s educated female population. That the FIS went on to initiate an armed rebellion when it was not allowed to assume power following the 1991 elections only confirms the violent nature of that party. Turkey under the AKP: the democracy deficit While acknowledging the role of Turkey’s new feminist movement in the democratization process of the 1980s and 1990s, political scientist Yesim Arat  has more recently examined the Turkish version of the democracy paradox.  She explores the gendered implications of the intertwining of Islam and politics that took shape after the process of democratization in Turkey had brought to power the AKP, a political party with an Islamist background.  This development, she argues, revived the spectre of restrictive gender roles for women; the expansion of religious freedoms has been accompanied by potential as well as real threats to gender equality.  Despite the public and media focus on Turkey’s longstanding ban of the Islamic headscarf in universities, Arat argues that a more threatening development is the propagation of patriarchal religious values, sanctioning secondary roles for women through the public bureaucracy, the educational system, and civil society organizations. Whither Egypt? In Egypt in recent years, calls that have been issued for political reform and democracy appear to be gender-blind and inattentive to matters of inclusion, participation, and especially women’s rights. These calls seem to be trapped in a formalistic rhetoric. The Muslim Brothers, for example, want “the freedom of forming political parties” and “independence of the judiciary system”, which are laudable goals, but they also call for “conformity to Islamic Sharia Law”, which is not conducive to gender equality or the equality of Muslim and non-Muslim citizens in all domains (“the grey zones”: Brown, Hamzawy and Ottaway 2006).  Can Egypt effect a democratic transition if half the population is excluded from shaping the political process?  Egyptian feminist lawyer Mona Zulficar has stated: “We don’t want democracy to have a gender. We want it to be inclusive. Unfortunately democracy is patriarchal, because it is rooted in patriarchal culture.” The mass protests in Egypt of January-February 2011 saw participation by many Egyptian women, both veiled and unveiled. While Egypt’s social movement for political change and democratization appears much broader than that of Iran in June 2009, the most organized political group within it is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is very socially conservative.  It is worth noting that an ECWR statement released on 25 August 2010 criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for mock presidential elections held by its Youth Forum that denied the request by the Forum’s Muslim Sisters’ Group to be included in the nominations to the mock presidency. The ECWR statement criticized the Brotherhood’s decision on the basis of Egypt’s constitutional equality clause and on the basis of the gender-egalitarian spirit of Islam.  Their concern points again to the need for democratic society as well as a political democracy. Engendering Democracy I propose that the gender of democracy matters in at least four interrelated ways.  First, as Ann Phillips has explained, women have interests, experiences, values and expertise that are different from those of men, due principally to their social positions. Thus women should be represented by women, at least until parity is achieved. Second, if the “core of democracy” is about the regular redistribution of power through elections, then attention must be paid to the feminist argument that gender is itself a site and source of power, functioning to privilege men over women, and to privilege masculine traits, roles, values, and institutions over feminine equivalents in most social domains.  Here power is understood not as an individual trait but in structural terms as deriving from and inhering in social relationships.  Across history, the social relations of gender have marginalized women from political power; what is more, the neoliberal era prioritizes what may be regarded as masculine or masculinist institutions (e.g., the finance sector, large corporations, the military) over feminine one (e.g., welfare sectors). Third, if patriarchal and authoritarian regimes are to be supplanted by democratic governance, then women’s participation is key to effecting such a transition. In other words, women’s participation changes the nature of the neopatriarchal state. Fourth, women are actors and participants in the making of a democratic society and democratic politics, certainly in civil society and their own organizations, sometimes in government (as research from the Nordic countries and Latin America suggests). Successful democracies emerge from strong and healthy civil societies that include local authorities, political parties, trade unions, professional associations, and other NGOs with a commitment to citizen rights.  This paves the way for the expansion and codification of rights to women, minorities, and other excluded social actors through a rights-based model of state-building.  Eric Hobsbawm has correctly noted that the conditions for effective democratic governance are rare: a state enjoying legitimacy, consent, and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. But the way to establish those conditions – and to prevent “democracy without democrats” (Salamé 1994),  “autocracy with democrats” (Brumberg 2002), or “illiberal democracy” (Zakaria 2003) – is surely to promote programs for women’s empowerment, build institutions for gender equality, and implement policies to increase women’s political participation in government, in political parties, in the judiciary, and in civil society. This is why it behooves intellectuals and activists in the Middle East and North Africa working for political reform to understand the interconnections among women’s rights and democracy, and to acknowledge that a democratic system without women’s human rights and gender equality is an inferior form of democracy. There is evidence that those in and around the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) have understood this.  But does everyone?

Conclusion: This is What Democracy Looks Like

The era of globalization favors the expansion of democracy, but global-level and national discourses of democracy often are inattentive to the gendered nature of democratization processes (and it cannot be assumed that neoliberal capitalism is compatible with substantive democracy).  A gender analysis is needed for a deeper understanding of democracy and of democratic transitions. Democracy should not be seen exclusively as a process and procedure that takes place at the level of the national polity, but rather as a multifaceted and ongoing process at different levels of social existence: in the family, in the community, at the workplace, in the economy, in civil society, and in the polity.  Feminist demands for women’s rights in the family and in the workplace, and struggles to end domestic violence and sexual harassment at the workplace, all contribute to democratization. Many commentators have focused on the participation (and transformation) of Islamist parties as key to the transition to democracy in the Middle East.  However, they tend to overlook what are in fact a key constituency, a natural ally, and social base of a democratic politics – women and their feminist organizations. Women may need democracy in order to flourish, but the converse is also true: democracy needs women if it is to be inclusive, representative, and enduring.   MENA feminists are aware that they can be harmed by an electoral politics that occurs in the absence of a strong institutional and legal framework for women’s civil, political, and social rights of citizenship.  Hence their insistence on egalitarian family laws, criminalization of domestic violence, and nationality rights for women – along with enhanced employment and political participation. Women’s participation and rights are “good” for democracy for a number of reasons. One is that the sustained presence of a “critical mass” of women in political decision-making could help establish stable and peaceful societies.  If the Nordic model of high rates of women’s participation and rights correlates with peaceful, prosperous, and stable societies, could the expansion of women’s participation and rights in the Middle East also lead the way to stability, security, and welfare in the region, not to mention effective democratic governance?  In today’s politically turbulent region, attention to women’s participation and rights, along with alliances with women’s groups, constitutes a strategic choice available to the male advocates of democracy and human rights. A rights-based model of democracy, along with a rights-based model of economic development and growth, should be the region’s priority – and will bring about the social transformation envisaged by the events I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, as well as the protests of this year.

Table 1.  Women and Political Participation, MENA Countries

Country Year women received right to vote or stand for election Year  women first elected (E) or appointed (A) to parliament % Parliamentary Seats Occupied by Women 1995        2008                   Jan. 2011
Algeria 1962 1962 (A) 7 7.7 7.7
Bahrain 1973+ 2006 0 2.5 2.5
Egypt 1956 1957 (E) 2 1.8 12.7
Iran 1963 1963 (A) 4 2.8 2.8
Iraq 1980 1980 (E) 11 25.5 25.2
Jordan 1974 1989 (A) 1 6 10.8
Kuwait 2005 2009 (E) 0 0 7.7
Lebanon 1952 1991 (A) 2 4.7 3.1
Libya 1964 + 0 7.7 7.7
Morocco 1963 1993 (E) 1 10.5 10.5
Oman ** ** 0 0 0
Qatar ** ** 0 0 0
Saudi Arabia ** ** 0 0 0
Syria 1953 1973 (E) 10 12.4 12.4
Turkey 1930 1934 (E) 9.1 9.1
Tunisia 1959 1959 (E) 7 22.8 27.6
UAE 2006 2006 (A) 0 22.5 22.5
Yemen 1967*** 1990 (E+) 1 0 0.3

Sources: Interparliamentary Union, Women in National Parliaments http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm last accessed February 2011; and UN, The World’s Women 2000, Table 6A and its updated on-line version as of 28 June 2005. +No information or confirmation available ** Women’s right to vote and to stand for election not yet recognized. *** Refers to the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen

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