Increasing Female Representation in Parliaments and Governments Does not Translate into Improved Lives for Ordinary Women
A few days ago I attended a debate in London entitled, “Do Women Need Feminism”. One of the panellists – a leader of a UK political party – argued that the continuing poor levels of female representation in the country’s parliament and political system constituted one reason why feminism was still needed in the 21st century. She is not alone in her belief. Earlier this week, while addressing an event in Juba organised by South Sudan’s ruling party SPLM to mark International Women’s Day, Angelina Teny, the wife of Sudan’s vice president, called for more female representation in government to increase women’s participation in the decision-making process of the country. She argued that women in South Sudan should push for 50% affirmative action in public offices.
The push for more women to enter parliaments and government posts is the adopted agenda of many women’s rights activists, organisations, and the UN. In the Muslim world, many countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan have fixed quotas for women in legislative bodies, while in states that celebrated the Arab Spring, such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, there has also been much discussion as to how to guarantee women greater representation within new governments and parliaments. Tunisia introduced a gender parity rule in 2011 requiring political parties to run equal numbers of men and women as candidates on electoral lists for the constituent assembly, while in Egypt, women’s organisations called for a 30% female quota in electoral lists for the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for April.
However, this call to increase female representation in parliaments and public office is founded upon a fundamentally flawed and misleading assumption: the belief that more female MP’s or ministers will improve the status, political influence and economic rights of ordinary women within the state. Rwanda as an example is a country where women outnumber men within its parliament (56% of MP’s are women). However, around 45% of its population remain below the poverty line, a figure that includes millions of women. In addition, exploitation and violence against women continues to be rife within the country. Similarly, in South Africa, 42% of the representatives in its National Assembly are women, yet the country has gained world notoriety for being one of the rape capitals of the world, and according to the South African Medical Research Council, has the highest rate of violence against women ever reported in research anywhere in the world. Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda are amongst the top 20 countries in the world for female representation of women within parliaments, yet levels of poverty, repression, and abuse of rights affecting women within these states are at deplorable levels. Hence, this claimed correlation between high quotas or numbers of women in parliament and greater rights for ordinary women within society has proven to be false. It follows the same flawed belief that affirmative action and racial quotas introduced by the US in the 1960’s to tackle discrimination against African Americans and to increase their presence in senior positions would empower their black community. However, when Hurricane Katrina hit the country in 2005, the woefully inadequate response of the federal government in protecting the lives of large populations of African Americans in the South who lived in appalling poverty, illustrated to the world that very little had changed with regards to the US system’s view or treatment of their black population – who today continue to be marginalized in education, housing, and employment across the country.
In addition, even when ruled by female prime ministers or presidents, as seen in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Turkey, the status, security, and standard of living of ordinary women within such states did not improve. Under Benazir Bhutto, it was not the women of Pakistan that benefited from her leadership but she and family amassed assets of $1.5 billion from the wealth of the nation during her time in office, while millions of ordinary women struggled for basic needs. In Bangladesh, a country that has been under the rule of two women over the last 2 decades, millions of women continue to be subject to abject poverty, abuse, exploitation, and harassment which are at epidemic proportions within the society.
In truth, securing more female seats in parliaments or within government positions has in the main only aided an elite class of women to fulfill their personal political and economic ambitions, with no translation in bettering the lives of the masses of women within their societies, including in the Muslim world. Furthermore, when you have corrupt, incompetent and oppressive man-made systems and laws in our Muslim lands, primarily capitalist and secular in their basis that favour the rich and powerful over the general people; concentrate wealth in the hands of the few while impoverishing the masses; and give more value to the dollar than the dignity of women – simply increasing female quotas in parliaments or public office will have no bearing on improving the lives of ordinary women. It is clearly the system at fault in our lands that needs radical change to improve the lives of the region’s women. Indeed, it is placing the woman or the man in the position of law-maker within a state, rather than the Creator of the world, Allah (swt) that results in the confused, defective organization of society, mass poverty, and the oppression of women that we witness today. Therefore as Muslim women who wish to bring real improvement to the lives of women in the Muslim world, we should not be seduced into embracing narrow and misled political battles of fighting for female quotas in parliaments or government. Rather, we should focus our full attention to uprooting the flawed systems in our lands and establishing in their place the Khilafah that embodies sound solutions to mankind’s problems based upon the Laws of Allah (swt), the All-Knowing, the All-Aware; a state that enjoys a historical precedence of protecting women from poverty, exploitation and abuse.
Dr. Nazreen Nawaz
Member of The Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir