Arab Women in the Legislative Process

Women continue to face challenges in accessing the higher echelons of political power, but also in playing a more substantive role in the policymaking process.

n May 4, Algeria will hold its second legislative election since the introduction of women’s quota system in 2012. Many are set to see whether female legislators will be able to play a more pivotal role in the political realm. Over the past decade, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has witnessed a consistent, though slow, increase in the presence of women in legislative bodies. While the introduction of quota mechanisms in many Arab countries—mainly Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—has opened the door for increased levels of female representation, quota mechanisms do not appear to have a significant immediate impact on the appointment of female politicians to influential legislative committees in Arab parliaments. Even after gaining access to the political realm, women continue to be marginalized from the bodies where important policy deliberations and concessions occur.

Committee work involves the most significant law-making deliberations in the legislative body, and assignments to them are crucial for both male and female legislators in terms of career advancement and access to resources. Since women are often considered “newcomers” in the political arena, committee assignments are especially important because they can help build necessary reputations and political expertise. In developing democracies, legislative bodies are increasingly becoming an invaluable space for interaction between incumbents, legislators, and citizens; thus, prominent committee assignments also play a substantive role in facilitating access to resources and members of the ruling elite.

Previous studies have classified legislative committees across the world into four main types. Power committees—such as finance and the budget, legislative issues, national defense, and internal affairs—typically hold the most prominence, granting members status and special authority. Economic and foreign affairs committees deal with development, planning, and foreign policy issues. Social issues committees address health, education, housing, and youth. Finally, women’s issues committees deal with women, children, and the family. Of the three countries examined, Tunisia is the only country with a committee that addresses “women’s affairs” explicitly. In Algeria and Morocco, women’s issues are included in social issues committees that also address such topics as children, rights of the disabled, the elderly, labor, and health.

Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia are interesting cases for better understanding the relationship between the introduction of quotas and the role of women in parliamentary committees. Compared to the rest of the Arab world, these three countries have similar historical experiences, strong political party structures, and remarkable growth in female representation. Since independence from France, Algeria’s and Tunisia’s political systems became presidential systems with recurrent elections—dominated by the ruling regime’s party—while Morocco has been a parliamentary monarchy with multi-party electoral competition.

In response to the Arab uprisings, each of these countries implemented various political reforms, including ones concerning women’s political representation. Algeria introduced Law 12-03 of 2012, which required political parties to include female candidates on their party lists, with higher quotas set for larger constituencies. As a result, women’s presence in the Algerian parliament leaped from a mere 7.7 percent in 2007 to 31.6 percent in 2012. Morocco’s Law 59-11 of 2011 doubled women’s reserved seats from 30 out of 325 seats (as seen in the 2002 and 2007 parliaments) to 60 out of 395 seats. As for Tunisia, the 2014 constitution enshrined equal political representation by introducing a gender parity clause that stipulated electoral lists alternate male and female candidates. Though Tunisia’s post-revolution Assembly of Representatives did not witness such a dramatic increase in female representation (currently 31.3 percent, up from 27.6 percent in 2009), this can be attributed to both Tunisia’s role as a pioneer in women’s rights since independence and the former regime’s state feminism policies, including support for a voluntary party quota.

A cursory look at the committee assignments in these three countries shows that the most influential committees are generally dominated by male legislators, even though these countries have greater overall female representation in parliament than most of the MENA region. While this pattern can be attributed to women’s decisions to join social issues committees, it may also mask a general trend of discrimination in which women are consistently denied access to influential committees. Interestingly, although women’s numerical representation in Algeria’s and Tunisia’s lower chambers is almost identical, there are stark differences in their committee assignments.

In Algeria, female representatives make up 22.6 percent and 21.9 percent of the power committees and the economic and foreign affairs committees, respectively (Figure 1), despite the fact that women constitute 31.6 percent of the Algerian parliament.1 Of all women who are on any committee, only about 20 percent participate on one of these committees, compared to nearly 60 percent who are concentrated in social issues committees.

Carnegie Endowment For International Peace

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