Women’s political participation is often seen as a benchmark for democracy, especially since the passing of Resolution 1990/15 of the UN Economic and Social Council. The number of women in Arab legislatures has increased dramatically since the start of the new millennium, reaching a high of close to 18 percent in 2020, up from a low of 3.5 percent in 2000. What explains this great increase in female representation? In her 2019 book, political scientist Aili Mari Tripp argues that most Arab regimes adopt women’s rights as a way to seek legitimacy, and especially to counter Islamist groups that often advocate a conservative approach to women’s role in society. These Arab regimes often position women (especially middle-class urban women) as a counterbalance to conservative and extremist tendencies in society. In other words, Arab regimes instrumentalize women’s rights and use them strategically to achieve stability. This strategy has been called “gender-washing,” and can be compared to Israel’s practice of pinkwashing, wherein the Israeli government attempts to hide its oppression of the Palestinians by presenting a progressive face to the world through the exploitation of LGBTQ+ concerns.
These Arab regimes also have an external audience in mind when they use gender as an instrument of state legitimacy. That audience is the international community, which has often included women’s rights in its call for democracy in the Global South; indeed, the two have increasingly become “bundled.” This bundling of women’s rights with calls for democracy is manifest in policies such as the Hillary Clinton Doctrine, which linked women’s rights to US national security. Packaging women’s rights with democracy was apparent not only in the European Union’s Gender Action Plans, especially as Europe positions itself as a “norm entrepreneur,” but also more recently in the Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) that was first proposed by Sweden in 2014 and that became defunct in 2022 with the election of that country’s right-wing government. Nonetheless, Sweden acted as an inspiration and FFP has recently been implemented by other countries from the Global North, including Canada, France, and Germany. Developing countries such as Mexico also seem to be adopting this policy, demonstrating its widespread appeal.
Arab regimes’ gender strategies have been implemented through what some have called “state feminism,” which is the top-down use of state power to further a women’s rights agenda.
Arab regimes’ gender strategies have been implemented through what some have called “state feminism,” which is the top-down use of state power to further a women’s rights agenda. Arab state feminism uses four instruments to further its women’s agenda: implicit or explicit gender quotas in parliaments, the appointment of women to positions in the executive, the creation of national women’s machineries to conform to the requirements of international agreements such as the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995, and progressive legislation that aims at projecting a modernizing view of the regimes. This paper will elaborate on all of the above mechanisms, apart from national women’s machineries.
Implementing gender quotas is an easy instrument for Arab regimes to promote women’s rights. It was a favorite tool of autocrats such as former Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In Tunisia in 1999, then president Ben Ali’s regime passed a gender quota of 20 percent, which was increased to 30 percent in 2009. Therefore, before the revolution, women’s political representation was the highest in the region at 27.6 percent. After the 2010–2011 revolution that toppled Ben Ali, Tunisia implemented a parity law. Despite this “zipper” law, which also alternated between male and female candidates, the number of women in the Tunisian Parliament did not reach 50 percent. As a result of the zipper system, women comprised 27 percent of the 2011 legislature and 31 percent of the 2014 legislature. Following Tunisia’s 2019 elections, the percentage of women dropped to 22 percent, and then fell even further to 16 percent following the 2022–2023 elections, as President Kais Saied had eliminated the parity law.
In Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, women and minorities were represented in parliament, especially after 2009 when a women’s parliamentary quota was passed, adding 64 new seats dedicated to women in the 454 seat parliament. Yet the percentage of women in the chamber fell to less than 2 percent when the quota law was briefly dropped after the overthrow of Mubarak. This led some to argue that women were doing better under authoritarianism. The number of female parliamentarians increased to 15 percent in 2015 when 73 women were elected on a gender quota and 14 additional women were appointed by the parliament in a return to the Mubarak system. A study found these women to be younger, more educated, and less partisan than their male counterparts; they were also almost as active as male MPs in proportion to their total number in parliament. Since that date, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has maintained a gender quota, and the 2020 elections saw the highest number of female representatives in the Egyptian Parliament when 148 women were elected. Indeed, a few months earlier in June 2020, the parliament had approved a 25 percent gender quota for women, formalizing female parliamentary representation. This move, combined with the suppression of Islamists, demonstrated the Sisi regime’s attempts to cater to a middle-class urban population that wants to separate religion from politics.
Following the parliamentary elections of 2012, which instituted a gender quota, the number of women in the Algerian Parliament jumped from 7.7 percent to 31.6 percent, making Algeria a trailblazer in the Arab world with the highest proportion of women in parliament.
Nevertheless, the most interesting case is that of Algeria, one of the countries relatively untouched by the first wave of the Arab uprisings, and one that is understudied in English language scholarship. Following the parliamentary elections of 2012, which instituted a gender quota, the number of women in the Algerian Parliament jumped from 7.7 percent to 31.6 percent, making Algeria a trailblazer in the Arab world with the highest proportion of women in parliament. In the official discourse of the Algerian state at the time, emphasis was put on the numerical representation of women. This large number of female representatives led a prominent male politician to describe the 2013 legislature as a “parliament of hairdressers.” He then outdid himself by describing female politicians in the 2021 legislature as well-selected “strawberries,” despite the fact that female representation dropped to just over 8 percent as the gender quota was abandoned. This misogynistic discourse by a politician and constitutional law professor demonstrates the sexism and lack of respect most Algerian politicians hold regarding their female colleagues. It also illustrates the intellectual mediocrity of the politicians and the legislative campaign itself. The use of quotas in 2012, followed by its abandonment in 2020, reveals the instrumentalization of this implement by the Algerian regime. It also reveals the disillusionment of Algerians with women representatives, after the poor performance of the female parliamentarians in the 2013 legislature negatively shaped Algerians’ perception of women in politics.
Gender quotas in legislatures work, as they force populations to vote women into office even when they do not trust female politicians. If a representative chamber does not exist, women can be appointed to a consultative chamber, as is the case in Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, which has had 20 percent women appointments since 2013, one of multiple state-led reform efforts the government undertook in the wake of the Arab uprisings that swept the region in 2011.
However, regimes do not need to engage in such strategies when they want to increase the number of women in the executive. They can simply appoint women to the cabinet by granting them ministerial portfolios.
Female Appointments to the Executive
In October 2021, a woman prime minister was appointed for the first time in the Arab world: Najla Bouden Romdhane of Tunisia. This first was preceded by a couple of important events in the region that took place in another “small republic,” namely Lebanon. These were the appointment of Raya Haffar El Hassan as the Arab world’s first female minister of finance (2009–2011) and then as its first female minister of interior (2019–2020). Then Lebanon appointed the first female minister of defense, Zeina Akar (2020–2021). At first glance these appointments look impressive. After years of appointing women to “soft” or unimportant portfolios as a concession and gesture to female citizens, women were suddenly receiving sovereign portfolios. But how significant were these appointments?
They are ultimately meaningless from a policy perspective, but important at the symbolic level. For example, El Hassan is a technocrat and a client of former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, with whom she worked in a technical capacity for years in the Ministry of Finance. It is through her connection with him that she became minister of finance. She has no popular backing in her hometown of Tripoli, and could not get elected if she ran for parliament. The case of Zeina Akar is more interesting. She was a total unknown who was parachuted into politics and became not only minister of defense but also deputy prime minister because of her Orthodox Christian background, as mandated by the Lebanese system of power-sharing. Rumors at the time of her appointment pointed to the desire of politicians to appoint her husband, Sunni Muslim businessman Jawad Adra, but his candidacy was rejected by other political players. Akar bumbled while in office and is today outside the political sphere. She and her husband are currently being pursued by Interpol for acquiring illegal antiquities for the Nabu Museum, which they established in northern Lebanon.
Romdhane’s case is also quite remarkable, but an examination of recent Tunisian history is necessary to understand her appointment to the premiership. Tunisia was initially heralded as the success story of the Arab uprisings, at least until the election of Kais Saied to the presidency in October 2019. Saied soon started chipping away at the achievements of the Jasmine Revolution, and in July 2021 he conducted a self-coup that allowed him to gather the legislative and executive powers in his person. Soon thereafter he appointed Romdhane as prime minister in a cabinet that comprised 10 female ministers out of a total of 24. She is a geologist and an academic with no experience in politics, and was an unknown before her appointment. According to press reports, her cabinet likely has less power than previous governments, as Saied declared her government to be responsible to him during the period of emergency. Saied is known for his conservative views when it comes to women. This appointment therefore gave him an opportunity to present a façade of female empowerment while simultaneously weakening women’s rights. Indeed, Saied’s regime abrogated gender parity in high office, passed a new electoral law that abandoned candidate quotas and led to an almost exclusively male parliament, and failed to ratify international agreements that protect women from violence, such as the Istanbul Convention on violence against women.
Saied’s regime abrogated gender parity in high office, passed a new electoral law that abandoned candidate quotas and led to an almost exclusively male parliament, and failed to ratify international agreements that protect women from violence, such as the Istanbul Convention on violence against women.
These three female politicians have no political constituency and are completely beholden to the men who brought them to power. Once in office, they did not promote or implement any laws that could benefit women. However, they represent an important symbolic gain for Arab women. They demonstrate that women can attain such important positions and also show that women’s participation in politics is not forbidden by religion or local mores. They also show local populations that women can be political leaders and act as “role models.” Indeed, a recent study by the Arab Barometer found that support for women political leaders has “dramatically increased in most MENA countries.” The study also showed that there has been a drastic change in Tunisian citizens’ opinions regarding the superiority of male politicians following the appointment of the country’s first female prime minister.
While gender quotas and appointments to the executive increase female political participation, they mostly do not affect the daily lives of Arab women. To impact women’s lives and project an image of reform that does not affect their hold on power, Arab governments thus often resort to the promulgation of progressive legislation that targets women, and especially personal status codes.
Most countries in the Arab world have personal status laws that are inspired by patriarchal interpretations of Sharia (religious law). The only historical exceptions are Lebanon, which has separate personal status laws for each of its many recognized sects, and Tunisia, which saw a push for secularization from the top down under its first president Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba implemented unprecedented laws in the Arab world that forbade polygamy, eliminated men’s unilateral right to repudiation, and gave women an equal right to divorce, thereby becoming known as the “liberator” of Tunisian women. His policies were continued by his successor Ben Ali, who also wanted to project an image of himself as a champion of women. Ben Ali amended the personal status code in 1993 to allow women to transfer their patrimony and their citizenship to their children and to institute and enforce alimony payments in case of divorce. The new code also gave women greater protection in cases of domestic violence. Secular women thus became the shield of the regime against Islamists and provided Ben Ali with a loyal support base.
Most countries in the Arab world have personal status laws that are inspired by patriarchal interpretations of Sharia (religious law). The only historical exceptions are Lebanon, which has separate personal status laws for each of its many recognized sects, and Tunisia, which saw a push for secularization from the top down under its first president Habib Bourguiba.
More recent attempts at changing patriarchal personal status laws have arrived in the region in piecemeal fashion. In the early 2000s, a slew of laws were passed in Egypt under the regime of Hosni Mubarak with the support of his wife, Suzanne Mubarak. These laws included allowing women to divorce their husband through the practice of khula (Law 1/2000) and allowing women to pass their citizenship to their children and to foreign spouses (Law 154/2004).
However, the most important recent legislation in this regard was the 2004 Moroccan Moudawana. This is perhaps the most systematic recent revision of personal status codes in the region, and the most progressive. The new code instituted laws covering a broad swath of family issues, including marriage, divorce, polygamy, inheritance, and child custody. For example, the legal age of marriage was raised from 15 to 18 and restrictions were placed on polygamy. The Moudawana was a response by King Mohammed VI, who assumed the throne in 1999, to popular demands by feminist organizations. There are still demands for further changes in Morocco, especially when public opinion is riled up by specific events. For example, in 2012 there was pressure to change a law that encouraged women to marry their rapists to restore their honor after a young girl who was forced to do so committed suicide by swallowing rat poison. More recently, March 2023 saw calls to amend the Moudawana to make it more compatible with the realities of modern Moroccan life. In addition, there is a realization that implementation of the Moudawana is lagging and that new mechanisms for its execution need to be put in place.
Further Progress Is Needed
Inspired by both an international push for gender equality and changes in international gender norms, Arab regimes have adopted a specific form of state feminism. Their use of state bodies and policies to promote gender equality and reform the status of women has allowed them to present a modernizing face to the world. They have thus instrumentalized gender equality policies for their own legitimizing purposes.
Does this mean that the international community (especially the Global North) should stop encouraging the Arab world to give women more rights? Of course not. Even if these policies have been instrumentalized by Arab regimes, they have still concretely improved the lives of women (albeit mainly urban and middle-class women). They have also allowed for incremental, if slow, change. Constant pressure is needed to maintain these forms of progress, and they need to be left in place for a substantial period of time for these new social norms to penetrate society so deeply that their continued presence becomes expected and normalized.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Présidence du Gouvernement Tunisien