Political Participation of Women in the Middle East
In this paper, I intend to show the trends in the political participation of women in the Middle East. I understand that the Middle East is a vast territory, and I divided it into regions, such as Turkey, Arab Middle East; Israel, and Iran, to address each accordingly. In this way, I researched on the political participation of women in the grounds of parliamentary presence, and voting power. I also aim to show how religion and patriarchy are main issues to be overcome in order for women to really understand their political power and use it to generate change.
Keywords. Middle East, Patriarchy, Women political Participation, Women suffrage.
In this essay, I intend to measure and assess us to the extent of the political participation of women in the Middle East. Understand that this is a broad subject, which might arise controversy that is why, I will approach it in the most unbiased way. I do not intend to write an apologetic or pamphlet-like essay, instead, I aim to find the facts and use them in order to construct a comprehensive essay that shows us how the Middle Eastern women have gained the right to participate in their countries political decisions.
To do that, first have to delimitate our field of study. When I speak of the Middle East, I am referring to all the countries in the eastern part of the Arab world (Egypt; Lebanon; Syria; Palestine; Iraq; and Jordan); the countries in the Arabic peninsula; Turkey, Iran, and Israel. In this way, in order to avoid generalizations, we are going to separate our research in this way: Political Participation of Women in the Eastern Arab World; In Turkey; in Iran, and in Israel. We decided to separate our essay in those sections to avoid misconceptions regarding the Middle East and its inhabitants. For instance to think that all the people in the middle eastern is Arab, would be to completely ignore an important part of the population.
On the other hand, I shall use this introduction to explain a couple of concepts we will explore in our essay. For instance, the concept of political participation and its variants.
To most political theorists, all individuals ought to have an equal opportunity to influence in their country’s decisions; this is a requisite to advance toward a democratic society. (Lamprianou, 2013:22). Opposing to the liberal democracies that have blossomed in the Western countries, many Middle Eastern countries still have autocratic governments. Upon seeing this trend, it is natural that most Middle Eastern habitants desire a change. When referring to political participation, I am talking about being able to exert our own will regarding the political decisions in our country. In this way, countries with old democracies have seen their voting levels decreasing with the years. This is not the Middle Eastern’s case, where people tend to participate, but their decisions are largely hindered. However, political participation does not only refer to being a member of a politic party. Participation is also linked to being a community active person, someone who is interested in take an active role in their city’s life, someone who poses suggestions, signs petitions. Something as small as sharing our ideas could turn us into politically active individuals.
In some countries, is as simple as speaking up for what we believe on, but in some Middle Eastern countries, it is not that simple. For some of the countries I intend to speak of, these norms are not necessarily applicable, as the norms of political participation I have spoken of, are not uniform across time, or across countries. This leads to a feeling of political inadequacy since the idea of “why would I step up and defend my freedom of being politically active if that freedom is non-existent? This is the case with women, one of the most vulnerable groups in these countries. Regarding the political participation of women, we have to consider that there are several reasons why women are largely neglected when it comes to participating in their countries decisions.
Women across the world are assuming roles that were previously reserved for men. In the world, women are at their highest political power. Nevertheless, unlike the rest of the world, the Middle East has been slow to accept this paradigm shift. However, more progressive-minded countries such as Lebanon, offers us a vision of what an advanced and liberal civil society can achieve. However, even in Lebanon, women still have a long way to run before the full acceptance of women in the political decisions of the country. Compared to the rest of the world, the Middle East suffers from the lowest levels of women’s political participation. (Akande, 2007:3) This might sound bad, and it is, but also represents an opportunity, since women present an undiscovered source of talent, regarding economic, social, and political areas of the Middle Eastern regions. For the Middle Eastern woman, the path is clear, they must find the way to increase their political participation, in spite of their detractors. I understand that it would not be an either easy nor short road, but I am confident that women have the advantage in the long run.
Causes for Women’s Low Political Participation
Before starting with our subject, I consider that it is important to speak about the causes for women’s low political participation. In the Middle East, women were granted the right of suffrage at different ages. For instance, in Turkey, women suffrage was adopted in 1934, even earlier than many other western countries. However, at that time, Turkey was not a democracy, but a single-party state, so many of the decisions made by voting, were largely ignored. (Knaus :5). On the other hand, it was not until 2011 when women were granted the right of voting and running for an election in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, despite the perceived openness toward women in the Middle Eastern countries, women representation in elected political institutions is fairly low and remains below the international level. Worldwide, the proportion of women occupying political positions is of 20.3%, whereas in the Middle East is only to 13.2%. Although the proportion is the lowest in the world, it has been steadily improving from the 6.2% of the 2004. (ESCWA, 2013:2).
The causes for this low political participation include psychological, sociological and ideological barriers. Middle Eastern society, regardless of the religion is largely patriarchal, this means that the power dynamics tend to rest solely on the figure of men, keeping women subjugated or subordinated to the man’s desires. This makes highly unlikely for women to have access to academic and financial resources that could help them in breaking that stereotype. Patriarchy in the Middle Eastern has been reinforced through the centuries, and that makes men a force almost impossible to defeat. In the same way, religion has also hindered the expectation of many women who wanted to accede to the power. Also, the conservative interpretations of religious texts have become a hurdle for many women in the Middle East since in most religious texts are highly discriminatory toward women.
However, religion is not the decisive element in hindering women’s participation in political life. (ESCWA, 2013:2). The Israel’s case is not different from the Muslim countries in the Middle East. Israel is a democratic state with a western-like government, closely aligned to the U.S., but that does not mean that women’s political presence and participation is higher than the other countries in the Middle East. Israel suffers from the same lack of women presence in their political institutions. The Israeli parliament reached a historic peak in the 2003 elections, where 18 women were elected to a 120 member’s parliament. Nevertheless, even today, parity in the parliament is out of the question, and women’s issues remain out of the agenda and a marginal concern for most political parties in Israel. (Golan & Hermann :2)
Political Participation of Women in the Middle East.Political participation of the Woman in the Arab countries. Concepts such as human development and empowering of women are concepts that have started to raise awareness on the possibilities of the integration of women in the political affairs of the Arabic countries of the Middle East. Perhaps to western countries, those concepts might seem freedoms that have been already earned, but in these countries case, women’s rights are at an early stage. In terms of education, there is still a long way to go before women are ready to take a leading role in the Middle Eastern politics. For instance, the only way to grant rights to women, is through political participation, and if women are not willing to involve, due to reasons I discussed earlier in our essay, a change is needed in order to grant full integration and participation. The issue of women, and women empowering was discussed in the Arab Summit of the 2004 but it is hard to believe that a summit dominated by man, who are quite comfortable with the statu quo are willing to step up and make substantial changes. The summit could have made substantial change, I do not deny that fact, but when countries start to make changes that affect the lives of the citizens, only to improve their life quality, instead of just taking political measures to assure another term in their offices, we will see real change (Al Maaitah et al.: 9). Likewise, Arab women have had to create their own path into the public sphere. If Arab women’s participation in the labor force is low, their participation in politics is even lower. In the Arab countries, women’s participation is around 7%, less than a half of the world’s average. I cannot say that there has not been efforts to increase effective participation, but many obstacles have arisen regarding that participation (Sabagh :53)
Additionally, women participation in politics has become a priority for the Arab countries, as it is one of the most important development markers regarding equality. These decisions, taken by the Arab leaders are creating a media pressure, and Arab countries in the Middle East are forced to compel, and really do what they say they would do, not only demagogical decisions. Middle East women are not used to a voice, and these measures would grant them with that voice they were looking for. However, their idea of political participation is to influence the policy makers, by voting, or indirectly, by voicing their concerns. Sadly, the Arab public sphere is occupied by men, and it is going to remain like that for many years.
Political participation of the Woman in Turkey. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey underwent substantial political changes, among them, the women suffrage. With the start of the women suffrage in 1930, Ataturk, the Turkey’s president, intended to stave the rumor of him being a dictator. Ataturk believed in the necessity of equality among men and women. In comparison, in countries such as France, Italy and Belgium, women received the right to vote on 1944; 1945, and 1948 (Kasapoglu 2011:98). As we can see, Turkey was a rather progressive country in the world context. In 1935, 18 women became members of the parliament –Parliament members of that time were not elected, but chosen by Ataturk-. However, despite the increasing interest of Turkish women in politics and their participation in them, in the 2007 elections only 9.5% of the Parliament seats were occupied by women. That number has been the highest number in the history of Turkish democracy so far. In the same way, out of 34,777 local administrators only 834 are female, and despite running campaigns for district heads offices, the trend is not changing.
Nevertheless, in Turkey, unlike the Arab countries, a big and well-organized women’s rights movement, that can be comparable to those in European countries such as Greece; Spain, or Italy, exists. It is that movement, the one that has been fighting for changes in the last 100 years. Sadly, discrimination toward women, still runs rampant. This trend makes difficult for women to access to political parties, hence, to the power spheres (Kadic, 2014:8). On the other hand, since Turkey became a member of the European Union, the civil society has been pressuring for changes in the legislation that could grant, at least on paper, an equal representation of genres in the Turkish politics. However, many of these regulations are still being discussed, however, I expect that the EU will impose them accordingly.
Political Participation of Women in Iran. The issue of the political participation of women in Iran remains largely controversial. In today’s Iran, people have understood the importance and the dignity related to women, and they can be seen in schools; universities; factories; and government offices. In the same way, Iran is among the countries with a higher degree of women enrollment in high schools and university, with a 65% of the students being women, against a 35% of men (Sadat, 2011), this demonstrates that contemporary Iranian women are aiming for a change. However, not everything is great in Iran. Among the Iranian women, the women in the western part of the country are the most handicapped and discriminated when compared to women in the rest of Iran. In this sense, there are two levels of limitations on women’s rights in Iran, the Shari’a law, which discriminates women for her sex. Shari’a law is based on the Quran and establishes that only men are fit to occupy government positions. In the same way, the limitations on local levels that discriminate women of different Islam sects, or laws that discriminate women for not being Persian. Nevertheless, as I noted before, after almost a century of strife, the trend is changing, and women are slowly but steadily making their way to the government positions (Karimi, 2014). Regarding Iranian women political participation in their parliament, I can say that the average number of parliament seats occupied by women is less than 10%, which compared with other countries in the Middle East, is quite low. In the same way, of 17,563 managerial positions in the government, women only occupy 2% of them. This indicates that the proportion of male-female occupied positions is 30:1, a huge number. Sadly, this is also an indicator of women being at their lowest possible point of political participation, as only half of women were willing to politically participate, but to partake in political activities such as the ones I have been mentioning throughout our essay.
Political Participation of Women in Israel. Despite being a modern and highly westernized society, Israel does not have promising indications regarding the modification of patriarchal rules concerning women participation in the political life. As I stated before, the proportion of women in the parliament, is still quite low, when compared to western countries. To Israeli politicians, women are not as concern, and they do not even campaign having women in mind. This could have to be with certain aspects regarding the Israeli society. However, the obstacles for women to become politically active are not so visible in other organizations, such as environmental movements, or non-government organizations. In these organizations, women are equally or even overrepresented. This means that Israeli woman are not apathetic toward politics, nor that they are indifferent to the destinies of their nation. What it means is that there is still a high amount of discrimination toward women, and their wishes to become politically active, and occupy government positions. To Israel, a country so closely tied to the West, a country where women were granted the right to vote on the day the state was created, it is a rather retrograde position. (Golan & Hermann :2).
Another of the reasons for women to have difficulty in reaching high ranking positions in the country’s political system might stem from the nature of Israel as a highly militarized state, where security is one of the main concerns. This makes more difficult for women politicians to attain those high ranked positions, as they lack the military experience they require. And since the top part of the Israel’s political pyramid is occupied mainly by former military officers, it is comprehensible, yet not acceptable, that women can’t run successfully against men in the country’s elections. Likewise, Israeli women are more likely to vote for more progressive candidate than their male counterparts, and in a country where the need for conservative values, against the expansion desires of their Arab neighbors, is so great, it is possible that until the conflicts concerning Israel’s relations with the Arab world, are solved women will not have the representation they deserve (Golan and Hermann:3).
Every country deserves to have the best leaders possible, which means that women should be given the chance to compete. Not letting women compete or be part of the process would be like robbing ourselves a great part of human talent that should not go wasted. In this case, I consider that the only way for countries to have a democratic and sustained government is by letting women be part of the government. However, this has its own implications, as women participation should not be only on the grounds of giving opportunities to women only because they are women. No, women’s participation should be given in the grounds of an equitable system that values all the possible candidates regardless of their gender or social extraction. It is highly counter-intuitive that in a world where women comprise over 50% of the population, women are still underrepresented, as voters, political leaders, and elected officials. If these regimes call themselves democratic, they ought to deliver equity for all their citizens not just a part. In the dawn of the 21st century, women political participation has become an issue for many scholars, as they sought to mobilize women into political participation, since if those grounds are not given to them, they must take them. Activism could be the key for those women willing to participate, and a way to create a trend that could help other women to realize their importance in the political context of their nations. In the same way, is through political participation, where women will be really able to understand and assess their political power, so they become a force in their own right, not just a mass that a smart politician can use in order to achieve his goals. The only way to assess those changes in the way women are seen, by the politician and by themselves is through time. The 21st century has brought many changes to the Middle East, however, I will just have to wait and see the changes develop and unfold into real changes for women and their countries. The hurdles are many, but through participation and activism they might be overcome. Women in the Middle East should understand their position as a force to be reckoned, not just apathetic people subject to the patriarchy, and although I know it is easier said than done, I am certain that many changes will come soon
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