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Mideast and African Women Make Strides in Political Life - 2002-12-04

A U.S.-based non-governmental organization says women in the Middle East and north Africa are becoming more involved in politics. But they have yet to catch up to the levels in other parts of the Islamic world. However, the National Democratic Institute warns much work remains in many Arab countries to ensure women get fair access to the political process.

Robin Madrid runs the National Democratic Institute's Yemen office, which works with that country's government and local groups to help them organize campaigns, elections and advocacy efforts. During a short visit to Washington this week, she said women continue to play a limited role in Yemen's public life. She says that is especially true if compared with Southeast Asian countries with predominantly Islamic populations like Indonesia, which has a female president.

"Traditionally, women have played a role in the family, within the local economy, for example, but they haven't been the ones outside, generally, doing the selling, running businesses," Ms. Madrid said. "They have a much more 'behind-the-scenes' role. They weren't really involved in local or tribal decision-making. If you talk to them,on how they will vote, for example, they'll say: 'I'll vote as my husband or my father tells me.'"

Once, there were two rival, authoritarian Yemeni states, each of which gave women the right to vote some 20 years before unifying into a single republic in 1990. Since then, Yemen has taken some steps toward establishing a functioning democracy with a multi-party system.

The National Democratic Institute says a wave of democratization that swept through much of the world in the 1980s and 1990s has had a ripple effect on Yemen, even if it has not yet turned the country into a full-fledged democracy.

Robin Madrid says Islah, the country's major Islamist party, is even debating whether to run women as candidates for upcoming parliamentary elections next April.

"It's an issue under debate between the modernists, those who want to do it, who believe that it is within Islam that women can lead and those who have a more fundamentalist, more rigid vision that women are not allowed to lead men," she said. "There are dramatic changes going on in terms of what men think women can do and should do and what the women themselves think they should do."

Ms. Madrid is not certain those she calls "modernists" will carry the day in time for next April's poll, but says the Islamist party may run female candidates in local elections now scheduled for 2006.

Heba Al-Shazli, a deputy director of the National Democratic Institute says much work remains to enhance not only the rights of women, but political liberties for all and the general understanding of democracy.

"There's a lot of work ahead and I think the majority of it lay in the issue of civic education, starting with even young children in school, the whole idea of citizenship, responsibility, duty. Deconstructing that wonderful word, 'democracy.' Deconstructing it, meaning taking it apart and truly understanding what it means."

In the meantime, Ms. Al-Shazli can point out to remarkable successes for women's political participation in some Arab countries. She specifically mentions Morocco, where she says women's groups have been remarkably active in recent years and where 35 women won election to the country's parliament in last September's election.