Political power: where do women stand today?
Fatima Sadiqi participated in the KVINFO conference ‘Women in a Changing Middle East and North Africa - Facing Challenges and Seizing Opportunities’ 16 April 2012.
Fatima Sadiqi is also keynote speaker at the 8th European Feminist Research Conference.
Read more about Fatima Sadiqi here.
No less than 98 percent – that is how many seats in Egypt’s new parliament are now held by men. In the recent January 2012 elections, which were held in the wake of The Arab Spring, you have to look very hard indeed to spot one of the few women elected to the parliament.
These figures have been a disappointment to many, both inside and outside Egypt. Fatima Sadiqi, professor of linguistics and gender at Fez University, Morocco, is one of those who are disappointed.
“For a country that founded its feminism almost 100 years ago in the 1920s, this latest result is nothing less than a mockery”, tells Fatima Sadiqi.
Two conflicting answers
Fatima Sadiqi is participating in the current KVINFO conference focussing on the question of where women stand today one and a half years after the Arab Spring. It is a question to which there are two conflicting answers: for women in the Maghreb countries (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauretania and Libya), the situation has improved; however, in Egypt, Yemen and Kuwait, the situation for women has taken a turn for the worse.
Islamic parties achieved great election successes in both Tunisia and in Egypt. But here is where the similarity ends.
In Tunisia, women were represented in the constitutional committee prior to the election. In the election, gender quotas had been established stipulating that a certain percentage of candidates fielded by the parties must be women. This contributed to the fact that 27 percent of the seats in the Tunisian parliament were won by women.
“In our culture, the patriarchy is different to that in the West. In the West, there’s a lot of focus on how women are portrayed the media, for example. For us, it’s all about the ‘space’ – the physical space, the symbolic space and the social space. And this space is the domain of men and of boys."
In Egypt, however, there were no women on the constitutional committee. The women’s quotas that had existed prior to the election were abolished, and in the elections, a meagre 2 percent of the parliamentary seats were won by women.
So, what is the explanation? When it comes to women and power, what is really going on? It is an issue that Fatima Sadiqi has studied intensely.
According to her, the reason can only be found deep inside the political engine rooms of these countries – or within “the nature of politics”, as she herself calls it. In straightforward terms, this means looking at how the form of government is defined and practiced in each different society. It is an issue of how authority (not least the authority of women) – both political and religious – is distributed and how this manifests itself in the public space.
The patriarchal ‘arena’
In order to understand in political terms what is happening to women in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), it is first necessary to provide a backdrop, explains Fatima Sadiqi.
In both the Middle East and in North Africa, gender power structures are very much associated with the concept of the ‘space’.
“In our culture, the patriarchy is different to that in the West. In the West, there’s a lot of focus on how women are portrayed in the media, for example. For us, it’s all about the ‘space’ – the physical space, the symbolic space and the social space. And this space is the domain of men and of boys. That’s why you’ll see so much sexual harassment going on in the streets. Even I, at my age, don’t feel safe on the streets. It’s not a space where I can feel comfortable. No one forces me to do things I don’t want to do. But I do what I have to do. And I always hurry back home”, tells Fatima Sadiqi.
"Gender became a very strong theme. It was used as an instrument in the public debate. It became so important that the Islamists themselves began using it in their own strategy. They started proclaiming, ‘we, too, have feminists. Look, here they are!’"
So, by default, this ‘space’ is the domain of the men. Women, therefore, – also by default – have no authority within this space. It is frowned upon for a woman to sit alone at a café. People say that only prostitutes sit alone at cafés. And women walking alone down a street are usually heckled – but answering back is not an option. If a woman does answer back, and she then ends up with three or four men trailing after her, people think that she was just asking for it and that it is her own fault.
But this space is much more than just the physical environment of the street. It is also the symbolic and political space – a place where certain elements can be discussed and others not, and where some themes are given the status of being important social issues and some are not.
In some countries, a public space exists in which gender and equality are legitimate themes embraced by both political and religious authorities. But in others, the situation is very different.
Feminism as a power strategy
In her own homeland of Morocco, no one who wants to get ahead in politics can avoid the theme of gender, tells Fatima Sadiqi. The reason for this is political.
“Morocco has the world’s oldest reigning monarchy, and the form of government has outlived both colonialism and communism. What is special about the monarchy is the fact that both the political and the religious authority are held by one and the same person: the monarch, i.e. the king. Another characteristic is the fact that Moroccan monarchs have always been ‘modern’, also when it comes to the position of women in society”, she explains.
“You could call it state feminism. The message has always been that we cannot develop ourselves as society, both economically and socially, without the women”, tells Fatima Sadiqi.
Gender acquired yet another socially important dimension in 1980 when political Islam came to Morocco.
“At that time, political Islam was a threat to the monarchy – and to women – so feminism was used strategically. Both the monarchy and the feminists had their own agendas. But they collaborated against political Islam. Gender became a very strong theme. It was used as an instrument in the public debate. It became so important that the Islamists themselves began using it in their own strategy. They started proclaiming, ‘we, too, have feminists. Look, here they are!’ Since that time, gender has been used as a tool gauging public opinion. How much or how little feminism can you offer? That is a test that needs to be passed. Everyone needs to address that issue”, tells Fatima Sadiqi.
“Throughout the history of the region, women have played a key role in mobilising people; for example, during the fight for independence. They have always played an active role during these crises. But once the crisis is over, the women disappear. This is nothing new. It’s always been like that”
She sees the same phenomenon in Tunisia. Gender, equality and women’s rights are issues there, too. This became evident when Tunisia began to reform the country’s family law. Here, gender was an important point on the political agenda. Consequently, women gained more authority in the public arena. This happened because the issue of the position of women in society was suddenly endorsed and recognised as an important and valid concern. This, however, was not the case in Egypt
Politics without power
The biggest winners in the recent Egyptian election were the Islamist parties. They ended up taking 75 percent the seats in the Egyptian parliament. Even though Morocco, Tunisia and other countries in the region have also seen increased support for Islamist, Fatima Sadiqi believes that there is a significant difference. She believes that the difference is the fact that the whole question of women plays no role in Egypt at the moment. In the Maghreb countries, this question is a prominent issue and therefore the parties – including the Islamist parties – instate women ministers and include issues of equality in their policies.
“Despite Morocco having a higher rate of illiteracy than Egypt, women are in a better position. For me, it’s hard to understand why there was not one single woman on the committee that was given the task of writing a new Egyptian constitution. Not a single one! There are a few strong Islamic feminists in Egypt. But where are they? We see the Muslim Brotherhood; we see the Salafists – but where are the women?” she asks.
The irony is that it was the women of Egypt in particular who became the symbol of the Arab Spring. The young, rebellious women who stood in Cairo’s Tahrir Square tweeting live from the demonstrations have, according to Fatima Sadiqi, disappeared. Nevertheless, some did hit international headlines when they were forced to undergo violating virginity tests upon their arrest and detention.
“Women can become visible in the public space as mobilisers. But they’re not wanted as decision makers – because society and culture doesn’t want them taking on that role. This is something we’ve got to realise."
Fatima Sadiqi’s analysis is that Egypt’s women are a symptom of a political culture where the patriarchy’s dominance of the space, the women’s lack of authority, and the overall political character combine to make a particularly unfortunate cocktail. Unlike Morocco, Egypt is not one country which, in terms of the distribution of power, is anywhere near as homogenous.
“In Egypt, they have al-Azhar – a religious institution that is in charge of religion. Politics are taken care of by the president. Presidents come and go, whereas al-Azhar is there all the time. The ideology is more conservative and it’s gained strength from the fact that Mubarak massacred the public religion”, she explains.
“As an Egyptian, you’re split by the two: president and religion. And this has an effect on gender and equality. No matter what the official state political line on gender may be, it never trickles down into society. It has no authority and no legitimacy. Mubarak’s wife, Susanne Mubarak, was a leading campaigner for women’s rights, and under the Mubarak government, there were quotas for women in politics. Now, with the toppling of that regime, only two percent of the members of parliament are women. And that’s a picture that speaks for itself.”
Women with limitations
So what has the Arab Spring really done for women? In the international media, women have long been hailed as the victors in the uprisings – in spite of the election statistics.
When it came to mobilising people, many of the frontrunners were young women. These were women who could be found on the Internet, in cyberspace and out on the streets – for example, in the legendary Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Enthusiastic talk about these young, blogging activists flourished. There was talk of how they stood shoulder to shoulder with the men in the protests against unfair and undemocratic regimes demanding freedom, rights and democracy. It seemed as though women had taken up a new place within the previously male-dominated space. But was this talk just empty words?
“Throughout the history of the region, women have played a key role in mobilising people; for example, during the fight for independence. They have always played an active role during these crises. But once the crisis is over, the women disappear. This is nothing new. It’s always been like that”, stresses Fatima Sadiqi.
"There’s no doubt that the Internet has indeed provided women with new freedoms – it democratises by means of communication. But who has access to the Internet? Not everyone – and certainly not those women who can’t read and write. It’s an urban phenomenon."
“Women can become visible in the public space as mobilisers. But they’re not wanted as decision makers – because society and culture doesn’t want them taking on that role. This is something we’ve got to realise. A woman’s position socially is not in the public space. Sure enough, she can get an education, yes. And we also want her to be active religiously. But how many take notice when a woman issues a fatwa? None! Not even other women listen. A fatwa – from a woman!?” she explains.
“I’ve tried to find an explanation why this should be the case. It’s not Islam that’s the problem, but rather the interpretation of Islam. I’ve interviewed a number of religious ‘experts’, and they all say the same things: ‘according to Sharia, a woman may not lead Friday prayers. She cannot be given the opportunity to talk in public. She lacks the qualifications because she is a woman. And if she may not lead Friday prayers or speak in public, then she shouldn’t be the head of the family either – or the nation. She cannot become head of state’.”
But Fatima Sadiqi also points out that the situation is not as clear cut as this. After all, there are indeed women who are elected into parliament, become ministers and hold high-level political positions.
Her analysis becomes particularly interesting when studying the example of training religious guides. In her home country of Morocco, the Ministry of Religion educated women to become religious guides. The initiative proved to be a success, so the same thing was also tried out in Egypt. There, however, the initiative was met with brutal protests. So, why is it that Moroccan Islamists are willing to accept women religious guides, whereas Egyptian Islamists are not? And in the same vain, why can Tunisians elect women to over a quarter of the parliamentary seats following the revolts, yet the Egyptians cannot?
Cyberspace – a means of liberation?
The Arab Spring opened the world’s eyes to the extremely important role that the Internet and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, played in the people’s revolt – particularly in the case of women.
The young female bloggers became international superheroes. And in a society where the political and social spaces and access to these are at the heart of the patriarchy, it makes sense to ask whether or not cyberspace – which is a completely new space – can provide revolutionary opportunities for those denied access and influence in the old ones – i.e. the women.
“I was almost prepared to go along with that theory”, tells Fatima Sadiqi. Here, she is referring to how the feminists theorised that cyberspace would liberate women once the Internet had begun to spread across the MENA region. Women who could neither read nor write could sell rugs and other handmade products on the Internet, thereby freeing themselves, both economically and in practical terms, from the normal social structure. Taboo issues, such as sexuality, could be freely and anonymously discussed, without fear of reprisals. Young people could meet each other. And women could answer back if they were heckled.
“But I no longer agree with this. There’s no doubt that the Internet has indeed provided women with new freedoms – it democratises by means of communication. But who has access to the Internet? Not everyone – and certainly not those women who can’t read and write. It’s an urban phenomenon. And cyberspace has yet to break the fundamental patriarchal structure of the space. It hasn’t stopped the sexual harassment of women on the street in the in the open, physical space. That space remains the domain of the men and boys. They have no apprehensions like the ones I feel when it gets dark and I have to go home”, concludes Fatima Sadiqi.