When Iraq's parliament approved 32 cabinet ministers to form that country's new government last week, six of these top-ranking bureaucrats were women. Kurds, Christians, and Sunnis, they were among the first females to ever hold such positions of power in Iraq.
Those six, and the 89 other women who occupy one-third of the seats in Iraq's parliament, are part of a growing number of women in the Arab world entering the political arena. While some hold elected office, others are pressing for female voting rights where none exist.
Governments in the Middle East are beginning to heed demands for greater political participation for women, who are encouraged and emboldened by democratic changes rippling through the region. In Kuwait, women may soon win the right to vote. In Egypt, they're pushing for seats in parliament.
"The subject is on the stage," says Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the Alliance for Arab Women, a Cairo-based woman's rights organization. "This is a step, an achievement. It can't be ignored anymore."
While women are making gradual political gains, governments in the region are far behind the rest of the world. In 2003, the United Nations' Arab Human Development Report ranked the Arab world the lowest in terms of women's political participation. In Saudi Arabia, women still cannot vote, or even drive, and while Arab governments may realize the importance of involving more women in politics, the will to genuinely give them more power remains low.
Scholars and activists generally agree that several factors contribute to the region's poor level of female political representation, including the lack of education among women and conservative Islamic teachings that often urge women to stick to more traditional roles.
Despite the obstacles, however, women are fighting their way into politics. Last month, Kuwaiti lawmakers approved a bill allowing women to vote and run in local council elections. A second vote is needed, followed by the Kuwaiti ruling emir's signature, but this is generally a formality. Morocco has increased its female MPs from 1 percent in 1995 to 11 percent in 2003.
To be sure, the path for women in politics is treacherous, at least for the moment. The death of a female Iraqi legislator last Wednesday was a stark reminder of the forces in the Arab world opposed to women's involvement in politics. Sheikha Lamea Khaddouri was killed by three gunmen outside her Baghdad home.
Elsewhere the problem is more a lack of will. Egypt has one of the region's lowest rates of female participation, with the number of MPs a mere 2.4 percent.
This wasn't always the case. In 1979, Egypt was a regional leader in promoting women in politics when it passed a law establishing a quota that allocated 30 parliamentary seats (nearly 10 percent) to women. But in 1987, the country's conservatives deemed the quota system unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, Egypt's women's rights organizations have stepped up efforts to get more women involved in public life. In preparation for parliamentary elections this fall, they are training potential candidates and urging political parties to include more women on their party lists.
Efforts like these are needed to increase political representation for women in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, women's rights activists and scholars say. They also call for better education for girls and programs to encourage them to take leadership roles at younger ages.
"Improve access to education for women, improve healthcare, reduce poverty ... integrate Arab women into the labor market, and reduce all forms of violence against Arab women," says Nawal Ammar, assistant professor of justice studies at Kent State University in Ohio. "Once these conditions prevail, greater political participation by women will follow."
Women's rights activists and scholars also maintain that mechanisms, such as quotas, are essential in a patriarchal Arab world for women's greater political involvement. Egyptian activists are pressing the government to change the country's laws and reestablish quotas.
"I expect more women to run as candidates for parliament this year, but without a mechanism, the number who get elected will remain under 10," says Nehad Abu El Komsan, chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.
The governmental National Council of Women (NCW) has submitted a memorandum to Egypt's Ministry of Justice, suggesting several mechanisms to increase women's political involvement, says Salwa Sharawi Gomaa, a political science professor and NCW member. These suggestions include quotas for political party lists of candidates running for election or changing the law, or even constitution, to include quotas for women in parliament.
Some parliamentary members are optimistic some form of quota will become law. "We have discussed this in parliament and I see that a good percentage of MPs accept this idea," says Georgette Kalliny, an MP and NCW member.
Still there remains substantial opposition. "I'm against quotas, because they make a distinction between men and women," says Abd El Moaty Bayoumy, an MP, and Islamic scholar. "A woman's political rights are equal to a man's right .... Is there a quota for men?"
While proponents of greater female participation have much work ahead of them, many seem up for the challenge. "I'm optimistic," says NCW member Dr. Gomaa. "You will always have your ups and downs, but if you believe in something you can't lose track of your goals."