x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Politics is a man's game that women are ready to play

Giving women the right to participate in public life is only the first step in empowering women's role in politics.

In Oman's municipal elections last month, about half of the 46 female candidates withdrew weeks before the election date.

The question is: why? Some said they had decided to step aside because society doesn't trust women's abilities. Khadija Suleiman, a 36-year-old banker, told reporters that she had withdrawn because she was "not convinced that women are taken seriously in elections".

The example of Oman's Shura Council proved her point, she said, because only five women had won seats in the council since it was established in 1991. And this despite women's rights activists campaigning for gender quotas guaranteeing better representation in the Shura Council.

Many of the Omani candidates said that the gender bias was based on culture; others said discrimination against women extended up the government ladder, which was demonstrated by the fact that there were only two female cabinet members.

Are Gulf societies, in general, ready to trust women and their competence in the public sphere?

It's more complicated than a simple yes or no. Women have made extraordinary gains in many Arab countries. Bringing women into public life and giving them the right to participate in decision-making are among the top priorities for several Arab countries, including in the UAE. GCC governments have taken steps to engage women in politics and give them more opportunities to play a bigger role in the emerging political systems.

In 1994, Oman became the first Gulf state to give a select number of women the right to vote. At first, a small number of female citizens were selected by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said to participate in balloting. Later, Omani women were allowed to run for public office. And finally, voting rights were extended to all women in 2003. By that time Qatar had already become the first country to grant women the right to stand in elections, after a 1999 decree, although it was not until 2003 when the first woman won in municipal elections.

In Bahrain, the constitution gave women the right to vote and stand for public office in 2006. Six women were appointed to the consultative Shura Council after female candidates failed to win any elected seats. And in the same year in the UAE, 1,189 women were selected to vote - out of 6,689 eligible voters - in the UAE's first elections for the Federal National Council, an advisory body to the government. Only one woman was elected; 63 ran.

Kuwait, the only GCC country to have a legislative body, passed a law in 2005 granting women the right to vote and run for parliamentary seats, but women failed to win any seats until 2009, when four were elected.

And last year, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah announced that Saudi women would have the right to vote and stand in municipal elections starting in 2015, and to take places in the consultative body, Majlis Al Shura, in its next term.

In a long-awaited statement, King Abdullah issued a momentous affirmation: "All people know that Muslim women have had in the Islamic history, positions that cannot be marginalised, including [giving] correct opinions and advice since the era of Prophet Mohammed."

Although women's political participation remains limited, as indeed does political participation across the board, GCC governments have been heading slowly in the right direction. However, legislating is still widely seen as a man's domain in the conservative Gulf societies, although to a different degree in each country.

Societies are still in a middle ground between traditionalism and modernisation, between male domination of public life and a partnership of both genders. The changing make-up of societies has served some women, but many others are still struggling for political recognition.

Although many women have run in elections, few women have captured seats. In the latest elections in GCC states, two women won in Bahrain's 2011 parliamentary elections for the Chamber of Deputies; one woman was elected - out of 85 female candidates - in the 2011 FNC elections in the UAE; and one woman won a seat in the Qatar's 2011 municipal elections.

In Kuwait, no woman won a single seat in the most recent parliamentary elections early last year.

In Saudi Arabia, where women are waiting until 2015 to enter the political sphere, much of society doesn't seem to trust their capabilities. A 2012 survey conducted by YouGov Siraj for Al Aan TV's Nabd Al Arab (Arabs' Pulse) found that the majority of 486 Saudis surveyed were in favour of women voting, but only 21 per cent of Saudi men said women would play a major role in decision-making.

A larger percentage of Saudi women believed their role would be major, but not all that much larger. Only 35 per cent responded in the affirmative.

Even the seating arrangements are being debated, with some conservative Saudi theologians proposing segregating the Shura Council and allowing women to take part only by closed-circuit television.

Yet advocacy of women's rights is an acceptable area of political reform in GCC countries, wrote Sultan Al Qassemi, an Emirati analyst of Arab affairs, at opendemocracy.net recently. Giving women the right to participate in public life in general is only the first step in empowering women's role in politics.

The potential of GCC women will never be achieved without societies' help and support. A more comprehensive cultural shift in empowering women should go in line with government efforts to promote women's political participation. In the end, what women really need are more opportunities to become decision-makers.

Until then, the playing field will never be level.

 

aalmazrouei@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui