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Women in Arab politics (part 2)

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11 June 2009 15:13

(Part 1 here.)

For most casual observers of the Middle East, it is the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) that should provide the most fertile ground for female political participation in the Arab world. As post-WW I mandatory creations, their European colonisers (with the exception of Palestine) at least left a form of legislative participation before ceding independence.

Culture however, often trumps structure, and the dominant patriarchal systems have been hard to budge. Future advances for women's political participation may be precipitated not by parliamentary quotas but by the examples of unelected high-profile women, whose modern outlook may become a catalyst for harnessing women voters' electoral clout.
 

Lebanon is probably the most frustrating of the Levantine countries as far as women in politics is concerned, not simply because of the low level of participation but because of its unrealised potential. In a country that is the most socially liberal in the Arab world, that possesses several outstanding universities, and where women are very active in the commercial field, it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the two most famous Lebanese women are singers Fayrouz (think Dame Joan Sutherland/Edith Piaf rolled into one) and Haifa Wehbe (think Beyonce/Britney Spears).
 
For all its surface liberalism, Lebanon is a very traditional Arab society. And in politics that means a nearly exclusively patriarchal system that acknowledges women only through their connection to a notable family. Only 12 of the more than 580 candidates in last weekend's national election were women (none of whom were Shi'a, the largest of Lebanon's sects).

Women who have succeeded electorally in Lebanon did so because of their links to patriarchal political families. The 2005 election that delivered a record six women to parliament is a case in point. Bahia Hariri is the sister of assassinated former PM Rafiq Hariri; Strida Geagea is the wife of the leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir; Solange Gemayal is the widow of assassinated president-elect Bashir (she stood down for the 2009 election in favour of her son Nadim); and Nayla Mouawad is the widow of assassinated president Rene (who also stood aside this election in favour of her son Michel); Gilberte Zouein's father and grandfather were both MPs. Only Ghenwa Jalloul stood out for her lack of political pedigree.
 
Elsewhere in the Levant, women have made more numerical progress than in Lebanon, but whether it is any more substantive is open to question. The Palestinian Territory's electoral law calls for quotas for women on political parties' electoral tickets, resulting in 17 women in the 132-seat parliament (one woman has also been elected to the Israeli Knesset, representing a Palestinian party). Jordan reserves six seats in its 110-seat lower house, and an additional one was elected without quota assistance. Syria, without a quota system, saw 31 of the 250 parliamentary seats go to women in the last election in 2007 — 27 of those women are members of the ruling Ba'th Party.
 
But while numbers are one measure of political acceptance and influence, the next level of participation is in the allocation of ministerial responsibility. And it is here that the gender-based systemic limitations become even more apparent. Lebanese female MPs have headed the education and social affairs ministries, and in Syria the culture and social affairs portfolios.

Jordan first had a female minister in 1980 (yes, the social affairs portfolio, in case you were wondering) and have had 14 women hold portfolios in total, with Rima Khalaf al Hneidi variously performing the roles of minister for Trade and Industry, Planning and Deputy Premier Minister. While there are currently four women in Jordan's cabinet, they hold the portfolios of Social Development, Culture, Public Sector Reform, and Tourism and Antiquities.
 
Despite the parlous state of female political participation in the Levant, there are some female political role models of substance. Hanan Ashrawi has shown how Arab women, given the opportunity, can be articulate and able advocates for nationalist causes on the world stage and can succeed in the face of patriarchal systems and without the need for artificial advancement.

Queen Rania of Jordan is a highly educated Palestinian born in Kuwait and a former employee of Citibank and Apple Computers. Her recent YouTube initiative serves to encourage Jordanian and other Arab women to prosper through education. Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian president Bashar, provides a similar modern role model. A graduate of Kings College London and with a successful career in merchant banking behind her, she has used her position to encourage the participation of women in economic development. 

Although the systemic and cultural blockages to women's influential political participation are nearly impenetrable, it may well be through the efforts of women such as these that the patriarchal political systems of the Levant are gradually worn down.
 
The operative word here is gradual, particularly if they have to fight against self-imposed gender stereotypes. If Helen Reddy's hit 'I am Woman' served as something of an anthem for a generation of women seeking a stronger voice in the West, Haifa Wehbe's hit Ana Haifa ('I am Haifa') illustrates the difficulty Arab women in the Levant face in rallying women. While she probably didn't think it at the time, Haifa's first album, Huwa al Zaman ('It is time'), inadvertently encapsulated more of what some Levantine women would aspire to.

Photo by Flickr user khawaja, used under a Creative Commons license.

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