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Women Slowly Making Electoral Gains in Arab World


A woman has just taken charge of the government in Germany and another has become leader in Liberia. But in some parts of the world, women have almost no voice in politics and government.

When Sheikha Yousef Hasan Al-Gerifi was running for city council in Qatar, she encountered a problem that female candidates in other parts of the world probably would not.

"My family refused to let me put pictures of myself in my campaign advertisements," she said. "I tried to convince them that we should put my picture in newspapers and on posters, but during the entire election campaign, my photo did not appear in any ads."

The tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar is a conservative place. As in neighboring Saudi Arabia, most Qatari women cover themselves completely in public, including their faces. So it is really no surprise that Mrs. Gerifi's family would object to the idea of her photo being plastered on campaign ads.

In the end, it did not matter. She won the election anyway.

The very fact that she was able to run for, and be elected to, public office is a sign of how things are changing in the most conservative corner of the globe. But that change is coming slowly.

Political scientist Hala Mustafa of Egypt's al-Ahram Foundation says women in the Arab world have little political power, and few Arab countries have any significant number of women in parliament.

"The political representation of women in the Arab world is very low," she said. "Even if we compare the percentage of their representation in politics, they will be less than the percentage we find in Africa and Latin America. And I want to emphasize, it is 1.4 or 1.5 percent in the Arab world versus 11 and 12 percent in Africa. So something is going wrong regarding this issue in the Arab societies in general."

Although there are some exceptions, like Lebanon, Morocco and Algeria, women in much of the Arab world have a very hard time getting elected. In Bahrain, for example, 39 women ran for local and national office in 2002. Not a single woman won.

In Egypt's parliamentary election this year, only a handful of candidates were women, and four of them were elected. The president upped the overall number of women in parliament by giving them five of the 10 appointed seats after the election.

On voting day, outside one Cairo polling station, a man who refused to give his name was complaining about one of the female candidates in his district, and in the process demonstrated one reason why so few women are elected in the Arab world.

"May God curse the nation that is run by women!" he said.

He then seemed to realize that he was talking to two female journalists, and he added, "With all due respect to the two of you."

The man is not a woman-hater. He is a good-natured tailor who says his wife is a successful businesswoman and he has no problem with women in general. His discomfort with the idea of a woman in elected office is not at all unusual in the Arab world. Many people, women and men alike, say they are just not comfortable voting for a woman.

In Kuwait, women were granted the right to vote for the first time in May. Their first election will come in 2007. Women's rights activist Dana Tareq al-Mutawa is thrilled that women's voices will finally be heard at the ballot box, but she is keeping her expectations low.

"It's going to be a very long process," she explained. "As they were saying earlier, I honestly don't think anyone's going to win in the upcoming elections in 2007. No woman will win. We're still not ready. This is something new, you know? They need to get used to us being here."

Many women's rights activists acknowledge that women are not the only ones disenfranchised and underrepresented in the Arab world. They say the region's overall lack of democracy means that most of the region's citizens, both male and female, have little say in the way their countries are run.

Another young Kuwaiti activist, Shamael al-Sharikh, puts it bluntly.

"Arab politics is really not a people's game. It's kind of like polo. It's for the elite," she explained. "Right now we're a movement within a movement, and we're working to increase democracy for both men and women, and within our part, to increase the role that women play within these movements."

And change is happening. Two years ago, Jordan set a quota to ensure that at least six women were elected to parliament. Morocco and Algeria have relatively high numbers of women in parliament compared to the rest of the region. And even Saudi Arabia, which grants women fewer political rights than any other country on earth, recently had two women elected to the board of directors of the Jeddah chamber of commerce. It is a small step, but in the eyes of many Arab women, a very important one.