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American Enterprise Institute: Women as a revolutionary force in the Arab world, a European's perspective With elections in the Palestinian territories and Iraq this year and with the hope for open elections later this year in Egypt, democratic processes are on the rise across the Broader Middle East. The drumbeat of political reform is being echoed in an equally dynamic way by Muslim women who are beginning to play a critical role in reforming the democratic process. More than that, in many places women themselves are actually driving forward democracy in the Arab world. We must all recognise that women are active participants in change and that women’s political participation is one of the most critical aspects of any democracy-building project. The full participation of women in political life, decision-making and governance is not only a critical form of participation by a critical constituency, it would also bring many benefits. It is important because women have experience equal to that of men in issues affecting their lives and the lives of their family and friends, so women’s voices and experiences need to be heard. It is important is because it ensures that women’s rights and perspectives are on the table as an integral part of governance and decision-making when tackling specific problems faced by over half of the population. More than that: the exclusion of women limits unnecessarily the number of intelligent minds addressing critical and complex issues for which innovative and creative solutions are needed. Finally and crucially, as stressed in the Arab Human Development Report released by UNDP today, universal democracy and political participation is essential for economic and social development. If women are active in political life they can double the development potential of countries where women are currently unheard or under-represented. If nations continue to exclude women from the economic mainstream they will forego the economic growth that women can generate. “Political participation” can take many forms and we should have at the back of our minds that political participation, like democracy itself, means more than just voting and running for office. The Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa is punctuated with examples of how women can and should participate in political life and in decision-making, which is one reason why I have been campaigning for its ratification. The Protocol presents an integrated framework for the protection of the full spectrum of women’s human rights and provides avenues for concerted and coordinated action in the political, legal and social areas. It guarantees a range of basic rights, many of which we in the West often take for granted, like inheritance rights and zero tolerance for harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation. Political participation means taking part on an equal basis in a wide range of decision-making affecting all areas of life. Women choosing to take part in discussion and decision-making as equal partners is one of the most political choices that can be made. Women in the Arab world are making that choice and it is incumbent on us, as people who have long enjoyed the benefits of democracy, to help them make their choice become reality. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia women are fighting for the right to vote. In Saudi Arabia some women have already declared themselves ready to stand as political candidates in municipal elections. Women in the Palestinian territories have started their own democratic journey too. Of the 66 percent of registered voters who cast a vote for the president in Gaza and the West Bank, half of those were women. Earlier this year during a conference against FGM in Djibouti, an attempt by Islamic religious leaders participating in the conference to declare that some forms of FGM are legitimate ended in vain after strong protests from the floor. This was an extraordinary moment and shows very clearly that women in the Arab world want change and are becoming increasingly vocal in their attempt to get it. We all have a responsibility to do what we can to support women in those countries who are playing their own part in the progress towards democratic reform. I remember how beneficial it was for those of us fighting for basic rights and equality in Italy to receive support from women in other parts of Europe who were further ahead in the same fight in their own countries. The momentum generated in us through their support really helped to bolster our courage and our determination to keep fighting the good fight. Momentum is the key to progressive change. All nations must offer support to those seeking reform, and the international community has an important role to play by assisting the reformers. A recent initiative by the US State Department to help create a women’s network in the Broader Middle East so that women can learn from each other is a very positive move. The intention of the EU to enlarge the Barcelona process to the Middle East, building a strategic partnership across the region, will benefit this development, as would greater involvement and more focused initiatives from European civil society in general. Just as we needed support in Italy, Arabic women need to have the contact from outside the region that will support their courage and their increasing determination to discuss these issues in public. The fact that women have the right to vote and the right to stand for election in most countries of the world does not, however, mean that women are fully participating in political life. The right to vote does not mean a legal requirement to vote, except in some countries, nor does the right to stand for election mean that women will necessarily put their hands up to be candidates. The statistics reveal very clearly that in every country in the world, there is still a lot of room for women to get more involved in politics. So the question that we have to ask ourselves, once women have the right to vote and to stand for elections, is why women, who make up more than 50% of the global population, account for less than 16% of the governments and decision-makers world-wide. Its a difficult question to answer, because one of the fundamental aspects of any democracy is the freedom to choose: to choose for whom to cast your ballot, to choose whether to run for public office, to choose the best possible cabinet and so on. One method that has been proposed is the quota system, according to which a certain number or percentage of seats in Parliament are reserved for women, to the extent that some countries mandate this in their laws. It sounds like a nice idea, but legally binding gender quotas do not provide us with long-term solutions for enhancing women’s participation in political life although they can be a useful stopgap measure to help bring about a change in perception. The very fact that they are being demanded in Yemen and in Egypt demonstrates the important first step of the recognition of the need for change. Nevertheless, permanent legally binding quotas suggest that women are a “protected species”, that they are “less than”, which to be frank, is insulting not only to women but to the entire human race. Let it never be said that a woman in public office is there only because she is a woman. Women’s political careers have to be based on merit and determination, whether they are Parliamentarians, Prime Ministers or Presidents. Women’s political careers have to be fuelled by personal motivation and commitment, to put in the hard work that is needed to serve the people effectively. In an increasingly globalised world, Arab societies can no longer be places where women are kept in the shadows, denied the ability to exercise their civil and political rights. Not only does participation in a global community require that Arab men and women are treated equally, Arab women themselves are increasingly requiring it and increasingly acting on it, like the grandmother recently in Saudi Arabia, who dared to drive a car through the streets of Hail during the middle of Saudi Arabia’s traffic awareness week. Such a thing would have been unthinkable not so long ago, as discriminatory policies did not permit women to drive cars. But now not only are women going to be able to apply for driving licences, evidence of policy and legal reform, when the Saudi grandmother’s car broke down in Hail, many people came to her aid, demonstrating that societal rules are also undergoing a transformation in the Arab world. It cannot happen too soon, this amalgam of legal, political and social reform and we cannot do enough to support the courageous and dedicated Arab women who are trying to push forward democratic reform in their countries. Every inch Arab women gain towards full participation in their countries’ political, social and economic life is a step towards democratic reform that can modernise old traditions and see a society in which all people are able to exercise their rights equally.

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