Women in Politics Stand Up & Be Counted!

The Middle East, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Women in Politics Stand Up & Be Counted!


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There are a number of arbitrary measures taken by an outsider looking in on a foreign country to judge just what sort of a place it is. One of those measures is the number of women who succeed in politics and reach the highest levels of power.

Of all the preconceptions the West, in general, holds about the Middle East, the belief that women are oppressed is, perhaps, the most common. But do the numbers, at least as regards politics, bear this out?

It is true there are few high-profile female politicians in the region, but female representation in the various political structures from country to country tells a healthier story.

Take Iraq, as an example. Among the stream of bad news that comes out of the country on a daily basis, the fact that 25% of national assembly members are women bucks the pessimistic trend. No other country in the Arab world can boast such a high proportion. Nor can many other countries in the rest of the world. In the United Kingdom, only around 20% of members of parliament are women while Tunisia has more with 23%. And in the United States, the proportion is even less than in the UK with women making up just 16% of Congress. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the global average is 17% participation.

The greater proportion of female politicians in Iraq is largely down to the fact that the new constitution, drawn up in the aftermath of the US-led invasion, demanded it. But there are concerns that while this is positive news for the women of Iraq, they are still not trusted with real power.

In the UK, the only woman prime minister has been Margaret Thatcher who took over the role in 1979; since then women have held a number of important ministerial positions including health, education, foreign affairs, and the current Home Secretary is a woman. In the US, Hillary Clinton ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination and, had Republican John McCain been successful in his bid for the White House, Sarah Palin would have been the country's first female vice-president. In the meantime, Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House of Representatives and until January, Condoleezza Rice is Secretary of State.

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To date, no women have reached such levels of power in Iraq, but it is, admittedly, early days. Azhar Al Sheikhly, the Iraqi state minister for women's affairs, bemoans the fact that too many women MPs were selected on the basis of their political and religious affiliations and not necessarily for their competency. But this is harsh criticism. In these early years of post-Saddam Iraq, the political landscape is a rocky one where many male politicians, too, were picked for their loyalties. However, despite the high levels of female political participation in countries like Iraq and Tunisia, the region-wide average remains the lowest in the world and currently stands at around half those in North America and Europe. (So disproportionately high is female representation in the Nordic countries that Europe's figures are expressed with and also without their contribution.) What causes the attitudes that hold women back is culture; and in this respect, the difficulties women face are not exclusive to the Middle East but universal. This year, there are only 55 female heads of government in the world. This reflects the continuing gender bias in politics which is still considered a largely male domain. …

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