Arab women demand quotas

This week, hundreds of Arab women from 18 nations met in Jordan for the second Women's Summit.

Across the Arab world, it's beginning to look a lot like the 1960s US civil rights movement.

Arab suffragettes attending this week's Women's Summit in Jordan have launched a campaign that would push Arab governments to adopt a civil rights tool to help the disenfranchised: quotas – in this case, for women seeking to enter Parliament.

"We are calling for quotas for Arab deputies," says Rima Khalaf, director of the United Nations Development Program Regional Bureau for Arab States, who read the final declaration at the Women's Summit. "It is too difficult to wait for incremental changes – we need affirmative action to leapfrog women to power."

But like African-Americans 40 years ago, Arab women face a history of high cultural hurdles. And the controversial campaign will likely be even more difficult, following a series of election gains for Islamists, whose recourse to tradition may subjugate the role of women even further.

The hundreds of delegates from 18 Arab states called on Arab regimes to follow Morocco, which guaranteed 10 percent of its 325 parliamentary seats to women. In last month's Moroccan elections, the number of elected female parliamentarians soared from two to an Arab-world record 35 – a level of representation akin to France. The ballot also saw Islamists increase their number of seats to 37 from 14.

"Governments must enable women to represent their needs and facilitate the entry of women to public life," recommended the summit's final declaration, in a tacit approval of Morocco's quota. The second biennial summit was hosted by Jordan's Queen Rania, the world's youngest queen at age 32, and attended by the wives of four other Arab rulers.

The quota campaign has strong backing among women activists in Jordan after only one of the 30 women to run in the kingdom's past three elections won her seat. But fearing a backlash from increasingly strident Islamist and tribal lobbies, King Abdullah has, so far, shied away from adopting a female quota. And at headquarters of the kingdom's largest party, male leaders of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) vow they will resist any attempt to "rig" future elections.

"People should be elected on merit," says Jamil Abu Bakr, the deputy head of the IAF, which represents the Muslim Brotherhood that advocates turning secular Arab regimes into Islamist states. "The state should not use quotas to interfere with the political process."

Mr. Abu Bakr's statements heightened fears that the debate over equality for women has become a political football in the struggle between elitist pro-Western Arab regimes and their popular Islamist opposition. Most of the women's delegates at the summit were unveiled, Westernized, and polyglot. At a lavish invitation-only banquet hosted by Jordan's king and queen under a vast tent, jewelry and sequined ballgowns shimmered in a haze of purple and orange spotlights.

"Governments are realizing the importance of women's status," says Suzanne Afanah, the summit's spokeswoman. But she worries that by addressing the Westernized elite rather than engaging the poorer mass of society, the authorities are failing to change traditional attitudes. "The problem is that [the government's] campaign is much more top-down, than down-up."

In recent months, a spate of electoral setbacks has left women grappling with the dilemma that without quotas, their struggle for empowerment may be incompatible with greater democracy.

Last month all eight female candidates in Bahrain's elections – the first democratic poll on the Gulf island in 30 years – lost to male rivals, even though over half the voters were women. And in Kuwait to the north, the Islamist-led Parliament voted outright against granting women political rights. Even in Lebanon, arguably the Arab world's most democratically mature society, Parliament has only three female deputies, of whom two are closely related to the prime minister and president. And in its 10-year existence, the IAF has fielded no female candidates, though it attracts a raft of female support.

"The problem is not the law, it's the culture," says Alia Abu Tayeh, one of three women appointed to Jordan's upper house. "Women don't vote for each other. Last election, they didn't elect a single woman in Jordan. Women want men to rule."

She blames the results on a culture of aib, Arabic for shame, which brands women who forsake the home for the workplace as immoral outcasts. The culture survived, she says, despite creeping legal reforms promoting female equality and a rapidly increasing literacy rate among women. Since 1970 the number of Arabs girls enrolled in primary and secondary classes has more than doubled, and literacy rates have tripled.

Delegates cautioned against singling out traditionalists alone for blame. According to the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research in Tunis, seven of the 22 Arab states have no female ministers, among them Lebanon and Iraq, states that pride themselves on their women's equality. The state of militarization and conflict prevailing in the Middle East was keeping power in the hands of males, says an Iraqi delegate who did not want to give her name.

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