Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman

Civil Society, Constitutions, Elections, Featured, Human Rights, Lebanon, Libya, Parliaments, Political Reform, Tunisia

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For decades, the Arab states have had the lowest rate of female parliamentary representation of any region in the world. While that rate has more than doubled in the past 15 years, from 4.3 percent in 1995 to 10.7 percent today, the Arab world still ranks at the bottom.[1] During the same time period, women in the rest of world expanded their participation from 11.3 percent to 19.5 percent.[2]

In an effort to include more women in politics, some Arab governments have adopted quotas to boost female participation. That trend has expanded in recent years, but with mixed results. The concept behind quotas is that reserving seats for women helps overcome structural challenges that depress female participation. Over time, this should give female politicians more experience and draw talented women into the political pipeline; as voters come to appreciate their contributions, women should be able to win elections on their own merits and quotas can be eased; in the meantime, quotas at least ensure that women’s perspectives are represented in government.

In practice, quotas do not always play out that way. They can be manipulated by political parties to their advantage, and as with any affirmative action program, the very nature of the quota can tarnish the whole group of beneficiaries as second class.

The Mubarak government in Egypt, for example, reserved 12 percent of seats in parliament for women in its last election, but this benefited mostly women representing the regime’s National Democratic Party. As a result, female parliamentarians were seen as doubly illegitimate - first, for being appointed to their positions rather than competitively elected, and then for being complicit with the regime. The post-Mubarak government declined to continue a quota for women and women won only ten seats in the new parliament, a meager 2 percent.[3]

In Tunisia, the ruling party under Ben Ali had a voluntary female quota that resulted in women holding close to 30 percent of seats in parliament[4], drawing accolades from the international community for gender inclusiveness.  Despite the close association of quotas with the previous regime, the new government in Tunisia continued a preference for women, requiring parties to alternate male and female candidates on their electoral lists; as a result, women won nearly 27 percent of seats in the new parliament.[5]

In Iraqi parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2009, women benefited from a quota guaranteeing them at least 25 percent of seats. It has been a challenge finding sufficient numbers of women to run for election, and some female candidates had to be strong-armed into running by political parties needing to fulfill their quota.[6] Once in parliament, Iraqi women have largely been relegated to working on “women’s” issues, and otherwise marginalized. A low point for them occurred in 2008 when the speaker of parliament mocked the women as incapable leaders distracted by worries about their husbands taking a second wife.[7]

Morocco has also used quotas to expand women’s political participation, at the national and perhaps more significantly, at the local level. In the 2009 local council elections, a 12% quota for women drew tens of thousands of first-time female candidates into politics, and the number of women elected rose from 127 to more than 3300. These women are now in the political pipeline with the potential to rise to national leadership roles over time.

Clearly, quotas are not a silver bullet for expanding women’s political participation. While they undoubtedly increase numbers, this comes at a cost of credibility. How much of a difference women’s increased participation in government makes for legislative outcomes is also unclear. Many Arab women activists and politicians I have spoken with over the years acknowledge the limitations of quotas but see them as a necessary first step just to get women in the system. As the following essays from civil society leaders across the region make clear, women activists struggle with how best to increase female political participation. Generally, they recognize quotas as a necessary, but insufficient, answer to a complicated problem that requires attention on multiple levels – including building women’s capacity and addressing biases in the media.


Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she directs the Council’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy initiative and the Women and Foreign Policy program.

[1] Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was an outlier in the region with notably higher levels of female parliamentary participation – as high as 15 percent in the 1980s, but for many reasons, Iraq was not a model to follow.

[2] “Women in Politics: 1945 - 2005.” Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2005. And “Women in Parliament in 2011, 2011.” Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2011.

[3] “Women in Parliament in 2011, 2011.” Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2011.

[4] The Quandary of Gender Quotas in Tunisia: Representations and Perceptions at the Local Level." (CAWTAR/UN-INSTRAW: Tunis, Tunisia, 2010)




5 Responses to Women’s Electoral Quotas: Filled but empty seats?

  1. Nahla Arif says:
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    After 2003, with the change toward democracy in Iraq, women took significant steps to participate in political life. The position of the newly formed political parties at that time varied, while women’s movements reacted early and pushed for an equal percentage of participation since women represent more than 50% of the population in Iraq. The long struggle ended with a quota as an achievement on the national level.

    The Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) — which regulated the political life in Iraq before the ratification of the 2005 constitution — set a quota of one third of the seats for women in the Iraqi National Assembly, but the 2005 constitution set a quota for women of 25% representation in the council of representatives. And since then it has never passed 25%.

    The reaction of the public towards a quota for women varies. The closed list electoral system of 2005 provided a space for the conservative parties to bring members of their families to fill the needed percentage. But changing the electoral system to an open list system forced them to change their attitude. Today, the most conservative parties are seeking to empower their women candidates in preparation for the coming national election in 2014.

    Unfortunately, one of the facts of elections in Iraq is that the majority votes for men rather than women candidates. Women have also struggled in parliament because few have their own power bases. Only 5 of the 86 female lawmakers actually got enough votes to win seats without the quota. The remaining 81 were put there by party leaders because of the constitution’s mandate.

    At the executive level, women enjoyed good participation in high governmental positions, as ministers and deputy ministers, but the real surprise was during the formation of the current government in 2010. Only one position was granted to a woman and it was for the State Ministry for Women Affairs, which is a non portfolio ministry. On the day the cabinet members were announced, the single female lawmaker declined to accept an appointment to be the minister of women’s affairs because she was outraged that so few women held such positions. In her place, Mr. Maliki appointed a man on an interim basis and eventually appointed a woman.

    In the previous government from 2006 to 2010, four women led ministries, and in the government from 2005 to 2006, there were six women ministers, including the influential ministries governing public works, refugees, and communications.

    From this brief summary on the status of women’s participation in political life in Iraq after 2003, it is clear that setting a quota for women in the constitution appears to be effective at the national level in Iraq, representing the insurance for continuous participation of women in political life and in the legislative process.

    The women’s movement in Iraq is still fighting to make use of the opportunity to amend the constitution to adopt the same quota in other elected councils on the provincial, districts, and sub-districts levels, as well as in all leading positions in the government and independent commissions. Elected women may play a greater role in changing both public attitude, especially women’s, as well as the attitude of their political leaders toward women. Those women as leaders with diverse political affiliation should come together around issues of concern to all Iraqis, thus sending a message to all of society that women are as capable as men in leading the country.

    **Nahla Alaulddin Arif is a civic rights activist and the vice president of Iraq’s Association of Women Entrepreneurs.

  2. Isobel Coleman says:
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    Over the course of this week on Fikra Forum, several women leaders from across the Middle East – from Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Tunisia – have commented on the issue of using quotas to promote female representation in government.
    While all of them acknowledge that the concept of quotas for women in government is controversial in their home countries, they support their use as a necessary – although not sufficient – measure to get more women into politics. Each urges other investments to build women’s capacity and make them more effective leaders. They also propose other reforms to encourage greater involvement from women, including improvements in how women are portrayed in the media; the implementation of quotas at more regional and local levels to get women into the pipeline; and structural changes in the ways political parties operate.
    The reality is that the Middle East lags behind the rest of the world in terms of female political representation. As Zeina Daher, an attorney-at-law in Lebanon, notes, even in her relatively progressive country, where women have achieved considerable success in the private sector, their number in parliament has not exceeded 5 percent (whereas the rest of the world averages close to 20 percent). As Daher insists, “if women can lead revolutions, surely they can govern in times of peace.” Although Lebanon has debated a quota for women, it has opted not to implement one.
    Women in Middle Eastern countries without some type of quota have struggled to gain more than a few seats in parliament. In Egypt, where the post-Mubarak government declined to use a quota, women won less than 2 percent of the seats in the new government. In Libya’s new government, which did implement a preference, women won 16.5 percent of seats, although only one of the 33 women elected qualified on her own. In Iraq, only 5 of the 86 women in parliament would have been elected without a quota.
    Voters across the Middle East remain skeptical about women’s capabilities as political leaders. Nabila Hamza, president of the Foundation for the Future in Tunisia, notes that recent polls in her country show that “75 percent of Tunisians believe men make better political leaders than women.” This is despite the fact that Tunisian women have long benefited from some of the most progressive laws in the region, and have had political preferences for some time.
    Can quotas, by bringing more women into politics, begin to chip away at the mentality – among men and women – that women are not capable leaders? Or do they reinforce the notion that women cannot cut it on their own? Khadija Ali, a Libyan journalist, praises her government for taking the time to explain through mass media the reasoning behind the quota and how it was to be implemented. This resulted in “giving the general public insight into something that was previously unknown.” She credits the quota with forcing parties to reach out to educated, competent women in Libyan society, and with encouraging women to run for office who otherwise would not have.
    Both Hamza in Tunisia and Ali in Libya praise the use of the “zippered list” – the requirement of parties to alternate male and female candidates on their lists – as a softer but still effective way to implement a preference for women.
    U.S. policy makers have encouraged women’s empowerment throughout the Middle East, but have remained notably reluctant on the issue of quotas. Both the Iraqi and the Afghan constitutions, midwifed by the United States, include significant (25 percent) quotas for women in parliament, but this was the result of local women’s groups demanding the provision. While some American policy makers were sympathetic to the women’s demands, Washington did not publicly champion the idea; not only are quotas politically anathema in the U.S., but American officials were unwilling to anger conservative Iraqi and Afghan religious leaders.
    Nevertheless, as quotas spread across the region, the U.S. should help women make the most of them. It should invest in training women to be more effective politicians – as it has done to some extent through both the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute – but also through local NGOs. U.S. embassies can also create positive media opportunities for women leaders through official meetings and press events.
    Quotas will not solve women’s political challenges in the Middle East, but a larger presence of women in government will begin to break down stereotypes and expand the female talent pool. Over time, as attitudes change, women’s competence will convince voters that they should be elected on their own merits, as is increasingly happening around the world.