Debate Magazine

Do Gender Quotas Add up for Arab Women?

Posted on the 24 March 2011 by Center For International Private Enterprise @CIPEglobal
Do gender quotas add up for Arab women?

Parliamentarians look on as King Mohammed VI opens a session of the Moroccan parliament, which includes 30 spots for women through a quota system. (Photo: Reuters)

Those interested in the debate over parliamentary quotas and women’s political empowerment have just received an excellent resource. The Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at Lebanese American University just released its latest issue of Al-Raida, dedicated to “Gender Quotas and Parliamentary Representation.”

The issue features contributions from ten authors on the experience of parliamentary quotas for women in the Arab world, with case studies covering Lebanon, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco. After summarizing contributors’ arguments both for and against the use of parliamentary quotas, guest editor, Marguerite El-Helou, poses two fundamental questions that must be raised when considering such an approach to women’s political empowerment:

  • Are we having higher expectations of women than they possibly can or want to fulfill, as they, just like men, are guarding the interests and survival of the regimes that brought them to power?
  • Why do we always tend to judge such women outside of the social, political, and cultural context of which they are part?

In my contribution, “Gender Quotas in Clientelist Systems: The Case of Morocco’s National List,” I devote much of my analysis to these two paramount questions. Elevating the role of political, cultural and social context in this case means looking first at how political institutions function before implementing development initiatives that too often rely on the ways political parties and nationally elected officials behave in advanced democracies. In a recent critique of democracy and governance programs in the Middle East, Anne Mariel Peters argues:

In their primary focus on elections monitoring, party building, and grassroots civil society activism, these programs are supposed to remedy two important obstacles to democracy: 1) the disorganization, resource depravity, and political passiveness of non-regime collectives, and 2) the local population’s disaffected attitude toward the democratic process. Yet these “obstacles” are rational responses of society to the real problem: authoritarian machinations, repression, and electoral manipulation.

In Morocco’s absolute monarchy, electoral politics are popularly viewed as a game whose struggles are largely separated from the concerns of average people. Parties act as reservoirs for intra-elite competition dominated by patron-client relations favoring consensus over initiative. Because most parties lack internal democracy, candidate selection is often opaque and favors the well-connected, not most qualified or “best trained.”

Through this system, many of the women who gain seats in Morocco’s national list quota system – just like men – owe them to their family connections, personal wealth, or the strength of their alliance groupings. If the strength of patron-client networks (and not necessarily merit) increases the likelihood of “empowerment,” then why wouldn’t women parliamentarians be primarily concerned with preserving those same networks which brought them to power instead of pursuing other causes, such as women’s rights?

One of the most problematic assumptions behind quotas is that having more women in parliament somehow represents a de facto gain for women’s causes. This assumes that issues held dear by Morocco’s most organized (leftist, secular-oriented and urban) women’s organizations are the primary concerns of all women. As the protests over reforming the family code (moudawana) have made clear, consensus on women’s rights issues among Moroccan women cannot be taken for granted.

Part of this assumption is based on the false notion that gender determines agency under all conditions, and that men and women’s behavior is untethered to the local political context in which “representation” is acted out. Although ideology plays little role in contemporary Moroccan politics, women members of parliament (MPs) are certainly not immune to partisan squabbling and competition among political clans and alliance groupings. The Moroccan Women’s Parliamentary Forum set up in 2005 remained largely ineffective – unable to take unified action on certain issues due to clashing egos and mutually held suspicions of partisan agendas.

As a result of the shaky assumptions in some of the gender quota literature, it is not surprising to find contradictory messages weaving throughout the work of Moroccan women’s groups and the UN Arab Human Development Report. Both describe parliamentary quotas as an indicator of gender empowerment and simultaneously as a potential smoke screen put up by Arab rulers to stave off pressure for greater women’s rights by Western governments.

There is no doubt that the National List parliamentary quota system in Morocco has raised the profile of some female leaders, with further reforms encouraging other women to get more involved in local civic life. However, no evaluation of women’s empowerment programs is sufficient if it’s not grounded in the context in which it is implemented.

In talking about women’s political empowerment, it is important to keep in mind that the goal is to ensure that all women have real agency within the institutions they serve, not to capture success stories from donor-supported initiatives or provide bait for authoritarian governments eager to please the West.

Editors’ note: For more on this topic, read James Liddell’s full article in Al-Raida.

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