Women are at a crossroads in the Middle East and North Africa. This is widely reflected in the current battles over the adoption of quotas aimed at improving women’s chances of being elected into parliaments. Although women’s quotas were introduced as early as 1979 in Egypt, there are new efforts underway in the Middle East to implement them. Last year, Tunisia adopted a law requiring that party lists alternate between men and women. In a more restrained manner, Libya recently drafted an election law that gives women only 10 percent of the seats. However, the struggle for quotas has also met with resistance as in Egypt, which abandoned a 2010 quota law altogether that would have ensured the presence of 64 women in the parliament.
Quotas are not only being adopted in the legislative arena in the Middle East, they are being entertained in government as well. Recently, the Iraqi cabinet approved a quota system that requires women to make up half of all hires in the ministries of health and education and to account for 30 percent of hires at all other ministries.
Although Middle East parties and governments trail other world regions in the adoption of quotas and in female legislative representation more generally, where they have adopted quotas, they are beginning to experience modest rates of success. Middle East countries that have quotas, in effect, have over twice the rates of representation (19 percent) when compared with countries where women are permitted to run for office but do not have quotas (8 percent). In fact, five Middle Eastern countries even have higher rates of female legislative representation than in the United States, where women hold 16.5 percent of Congressional seats.
Having participated in the movements for political reform in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iran, and elsewhere, many women’s rights activists have seized on this moment to demand broader political, economic, and social rights. Conservative and Islamist forces have also been energized by recent developments, as is evident in the recent elections in Egypt, and they are among those forces pushing back against such an agenda promoting women’s participation.