LAU hosts a discussion on “Women and Political Representation after the Arab Uprisings”

Regimes have resorted to “state feminism” to appease popular and grassroots agitation for more women’s rights, as well as to diffuse international pressure.

Demonstration on International Women’s Day, Cairo, March 8, 2013. Romain Beurrier/Wostok Press/Newscom

On Feb. 26th, the Department of Social Sciences and the Institute for Women’s Studies at the Lebanese American University (LAU) hosted Dr. Rola El-Husseini, senior lecturer at Lund University and director of the MA program at the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (Sweden), for a talk on the political representation of Arab women after the 2011 uprisings.

El-Husseini began her talk by explaining how Arab authoritarian regimes have practiced “state feminism”, promoting feminist causes since the advent of independence in the 1950s in a somewhat Machiavellian fashion: by portraying themselves as secular and liberal defenders of minorities and women against an imagined or real Islamist threat, Arab authoritarian regimes  managed to co-opt feminism and  maintain their grip on power. These regimes resorted to “state feminism” to appease popular and grassroots agitation for more women’s rights, as well as to diffuse international pressure. The speaker then explained how women’s conditions in several Arab countries have fluctuated over the years through a comparative perspective placing Jordan and Morocco, as non-rentier states, under the ‘Traditional Monarchies’ label, and Tunisia and Egypt under the ‘Transition’ label, given that both countries have similar experiences with ‘state feminism’ since the end of the colonial era.

Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s independence hero and long-serving first president, had strong secular credentials and had made promoting women’s rights one of the pillars of his domestic agenda. This policy was continued by his successor Zein El Abidin Ben Ali who used “state feminism”’ to consolidate his power, positioning women as a shield against Islamists and actively promoting the idea that either the regime and women’s rights remain, or Islamists with questionable views on women’s rights take over.

Egyptian “state feminism”  had a similar trajectory as its Tunisian counterpart: under both Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, women were given more rights, despite some rollbacks during the early Mubarak years. The first decade of the 21st century witnessed more rights being granted to Egyptian women, with the implementation of a women’s quota in the parliament by  the then President Hosni Mubarak as to manipulate the electoral system and consolidate his power.

The 2011 uprisings led to significant developments on this issue in both countries. In Tunisia, for instance, women’s groups successfully managed to refrain the Islamists from diminishing women’s rights, and electoral laws have mandated that women represent 50 percent of the candidates on party lists. This has generated impressive numbers, as Tunisia can boast of having the largest proportion of women parliamentarians in the Arab world. Yet, this has remained a top-down measure reminiscent of the “state feminism” policies adopted by previous regimes; these changes in Tunisian women’s conditions can be seen as largely cosmetic, as patriarchal mentalities continue to prevail.

Egyptian women, on the other hand, had initially seen a rollback following the 2011 uprisings with their quota in parliament being removed, and having a female constituency of two percent in the first post-2011 parliament.  Many women cautiously or enthusiastically supported the Abdul Fatah el-Sisi led coup against Mohammad Morsi, as they identified with the “state feminism” that had been one of the hallmarks of the Egyptian military-dominated regimes since the Nasser era. A form of loyalty bargain was made, the consequences of which we cannot yet predict.

El-Husseini then shifted the discussion to focus on the “state feminist” policies that have dominated the domestic agendas of both kings Abdallah II of Jordan and Mohammed VI of Morocco. The comparison is apt, as both monarchs came to power in 1999 at the relatively young ages of 37 and 35,respectively, received a Western education, and faced similar socioeconomic conditions in their countries. Despite the fact that both countries are constitutional monarchies, the monarchs and their  ilks continue to hold extensive powers, and the parliaments are more often than not mere “rubber stamp parliaments.”

The wives of both monarchs have played prominent roles alongside their husbands, posing as role models for the contemporary Arab woman. The tech-savvy Queen Rania of Jordan has openly championed a number of causes, such as promoting education and providing refugee aid, and has millions of followers on social media platforms. Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco also represents a break from tradition, as she is the first royal spouse given a royal title and whose husband is in a monogamous marriage. She has also taken part in numerous charitable activities.

Women have  had a prominent role  in the young monarchs’ “reform” agendas. In both Jordan and Morocco, a quota system was put in place in the parliaments, whereby 10 percent of seats in the Jordanian House of Representatives must be held by women and 18 percent of seats in the Moroccan parliament are reserved for women. Although these policies seem to be normalizing the presence of women in Jordanian politics, the same cannot be said for Morocco, and should the quotas be removed, it is more than likely that the number of women parliamentarians would greatly dwindle.

After presenting a detailed overview of the conditions of women in four different Arab countries clustered into two distinct categories (traditional monarchies versus countries in transition), El-Husseini concluded that “state feminism,” as practiced by authoritarian or hybrid Arab regimes tends to fail. Achievements such as implementing quotas for women in the legislative branch must be seen as a means through which to achieve more equality, and not an end in itself. More often than not, authoritarian regimes portray themselves as the defenders of women and minorities, thus garnering legitimacy and support from significant swathes of the population, as well as respect within international diplomatic circles.

Women’s organizations continue to push for equality and rights, and the Tunisian case shatters the long-held but unsubstantiated assumption that Islamists will rollback women’s rights through democratic means, seeing that the Islamic democratic movement Ennahda that is led by Tunisian political thinker Rached Ghannouchi, has become more moderate in its stances on social issues since becoming an active player in the democratic game. Given the dramatic sociopolitical transformations that the Arab world has been witnessing since the Arab Uprisings of 2011, El-Husseini’s research on this topic is timely, and her upcoming book, which will deal with four case studies in addition to the four presented here, is sure to be an important addition to the growing scholarly literature on Arab women’s conditions.