New initiative aims to empower Arab women

A group of organizations throughout the Arab world, in cooperation with Oxfam Novib, has launched a project to increase women’s participation in politics.

al-monitor An Egyptian woman casts her ballot on the first day of voting in the presidential elections inside a polling station in Cairo, May 26, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.

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women’s rights, women in society, women's issues, politics, arab world, arab women, arab revolutions

Jun 15, 2014

Where are Arab women when it comes to participation in decision-making within political parties and trade unions? This question provokes many negative ideas linked to the political status of women. They are marginalized and excluded from decision-making, although they represent half of the community.

These are not merely stereotypes; rather, a number of studies confirm this reality. Is it acceptable, for instance, in Egypt, where women alongside men have “made” the January 25 revolution, that the rate of women’s participation in political parties is only 1%, according to the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research? In Jordan, the rate is up to 7.5%, according to the Department of Statistics, including their participation in trade unions. In Lebanon, the broad participation of women in political parties specifically has not turned into a breakthrough when it comes to higher levels and key positions. The situation is not much different in Tunisia, where women have strived to prove themselves during the uprising that ousted the regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Yet, with the repeated political changes, there is a growing concern that women will lose the [rights] acquired during the revolution with the return of the traditional gender roles and re-emergence of stereotypical figures, according to a study by the National Democratic Institute.

These statistics and studies indicate that there are several obstacles to the active participation of women in decision-making processes within political parties and trade unions. This is what a group of organizations in the Arab countries — namely the Women's Studies Center (WSC), the Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (Egypt), the Arab Institute for Human Rights (Tunisia and Morocco) and the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering (Lebanon) — is trying to do as part of a project funded by the European Union, in partnership with Oxfam Novib, under the title of “the promotion of the role of political parties and trade unions in enhancing women's political participation.”

The lack of consideration for women’s concerns

Manar Zaiter, coordinator for the regional project, explained to Al-Hayat the timing of this movement and the reasons behind prompting the organizations to unite to implement it. Following the Arab Spring, new trade unions and political movements have emerged. If there is no movement in these countries to safeguard women's right of political participation at this time, then it will be difficult to gain these rights in the coming years. This issue applies to Egypt and Tunisia in particular. In Lebanon, Palestine and Morocco — which are covered by the project and have not witnessed the Arab Spring revolutions — women are present in political parties and trade unions, yet without any real participation in decision-making.

The female members of parties themselves lack the consideration for women’s issues and do not claim their rights as they should. The several studies that were conducted in the concerned countries prior to the project concluded that it is important to stimulate women who are already in the political parties and trade unions, to help them assume their roles. In parallel, work should also focus on women who are not affiliated with any parties or trade unions, in order to promote their political participation.

Zaiter noted that the studies observed that women affiliated with parties and trade unions have a high level of political awareness, yet they do not meet the required level of awareness of the problems suffered by women and the causes that need to be fought for. This issue directly affects their performance within the organizations in which they are active. Thus, the project focuses on training seminars and workshops with women, in partnership with the parties and the unions themselves, regarding personal status [laws], women's work and other issues. The independent women have their share in the project through training workshops on political participation, where efforts focus on women who desire to participate in the municipal and parliamentary elections or who have already had experience in this area, so that they can overcome the obstacles facing them because of the male-dominated mentality in Arab societies.

Stimulation of youth groups

This regional project is trying to break the stereotype that women’s political participation is limited to a specific age group or a particular professional tendency and to address other criteria that could pose real challenges to the presence of women in the political scene. It stimulates the youth groups through a direct campaign on social networking sites under the title “we struggled together … we decide together,” in reference to the role of women in decision-making, not only their presence within political parties and trade unions.

In Lebanon, in particular, this campaign has expanded to include billboards on the roads and television and radio ads. It is interesting that women who raised the slogan of the campaign are young and hail from various Lebanese parties, in addition to female and male journalists and civil activists. The campaign has assumed its role in terms of drawing attention to the idea that political participation of women should not be neglected and marginalized, although there are other priorities. It must continue through steps taken by every woman, whether she is a member of a party or a trade union or independent, to prove herself and her potential and to serve as a loud female voice in an environment that has been dominated by patriarchy for decades.

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