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After the uprisings of the Arab Spring, women in Arab countries are now seen playing critical multidimensional roles: active on the ground, they are protesters, journalists, and photographers; and in high offices, they are parliamentarians and ministers. These roles are all essential and complementary in the attempt to achieve a common goal. But in order to do so, women on the ground and in crucial government positions must work together. Women civil society activists cannot get their messages and demands across if women in decision making posts fail to champion their demands and speak on their behalf. While many have fixated on the percentage of female representation in government, the quantity of women in power is insignificant when the quality of work they produce is regressive to women’s rights.

This qualitative assessment leads us to the question: To what extent do women in positions of power and activists on the ground really work together? If female elected officials fail to vote for laws that progress the status of women, they presumably fail to represent the interests of those who elected them to these positions in the first place. As we take a look at examples of the divide between women in power and activists on the ground both through my experience in the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA) and other countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we can come to understand and question some of the issues that have caused setbacks in women’s rights, despite increased political representation.

In Kuwait, many women were disappointed when women parliamentarians did not meet their expectations of defending the struggle for women's rights. One woman activist and lawyer said, “We thought that their election to parliament meant that we would solve various problems and overcome several obstacles facing Kuwaiti women. In retrospect, what occurred was exactly the opposite. Women MPs failed to give proper attention to the civil rights laws that could have improved women’s rights across all domains. They let us down.”

Kuwaiti women have a long history of political activism, though they were only granted the right to vote on May 18, 2005, and voted for the first time in June 2006. Four years later, four women were elected to parliament. However, these women failed to use their positions to demand comprehensive freedoms and the progression of women’s rights, and in February 2012, they lost their seats in parliament. I believe this is a message for all women in the region -- not just those in Kuwait -- that at this stage of women’s political participation, women MPs are elected generally by other women to the issues most important to them. If female elected officials misrepresent women’s needs, they will be voted out in reaction to the misrepresentation and mistrust between women voters and their representatives. For this reason, I believe that efforts must be made by civil society organizations to train future female politicians in order to guarantee their effective presence in government.

In Tunisia, on the other hand, a new constitution was passed by the NCA on January 26, 2014, helping to bring about a decisive turn toward democratic and civilian rule, including a breakthrough in women's rights. Article 46 is a pioneering article that states, “The state guarantees equal opportunities between men and women in the bearing of all the various responsibilities in all fields. The state seeks to achieve equal representation for women and men in elected councils. The state takes all necessary measures to eliminate violence against women.”

This article alone is an impressive advance for women’s rights in Tunisia. It is important to note, however, that 14 women in the NCA did not vote in favor of the article. I and many Tunisian women find it incomprehensible that female parliamentarians would not vote in favor of an article that extends equal rights to women in elected office, increases gender equality, and protects women from violence. As a result, many Tunisians consider these MPs to be "women's enemies." Such women often vote with their party’s principles, even if those principles might do them a disservice in terms of equal rights.

It is essential that female leaders stress the importance of adequate training for women in elected bodies and decision making positions in order to educate and prepare women sufficiently to make informed decisions in office. Civil society has played a prominent role in spreading awareness among female candidates to ensure that, if elected, these female candidates will properly represent women’s interests. By collectively taking a stronger stance toward the adoption of issues such as full reproductive rights and productive measures to stop violence against women, candidates can greatly contribute to the progression of women’s rights.

Last month, at the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference at Arizona State University, Hillary Clinton answered a question asked by a student by saying, “It is not just who runs for office, but what they do once they get there.” Once NGOs and political parties realize their role of intensifying and uniting efforts to prepare female candidates for furthering women’s rights, we may begin to see the development of a culture of progress and equality.

Rabiaa Najlaoui is a member of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly and a member of the executive bureau of the political party Nidaa Tounes.

 
Rabiaa Najlaoui

About Rabiaa Najlaoui

Rabiaa Najlaoui is a member of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly and a member of the executive bureau of the political party Nidaa Tounes.