The barriers to women’s political participation in the Middle East have long preoccupied scholars and analysts. The Arab uprisings of early 2011 disrupted virtually every dimension of Arab politics and societies, forcing a systematic reevaluation of many long-held political science theories and assumptions. The place of women in politics and the public sphere was no exception.

The divergent experiences of the Arab uprisings and their aftermath have allowed political scientists to take a fresh look at many of these important questions. New data sources and a diversity of cases have energized the community of scholars focused on women’s public political participation. A workshop of the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) brought together an interdisciplinary group of more than a dozen such scholars in March to critically examine these questions. The complete collection is available to be downloaded free here.

Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch was a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program where his work focuses on the politics of the Arab world.
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Women were highly visible participants in the Arab uprisings of 2011, from the demonstrators on the front lines of Tahrir Square in Cairo to Nobel Peace Prize-winner Tawakkol Karman, the face of the revolution in Yemen. Women’s physical participation in those protests, as Sherine Hafez has observed, became a major point of contention, with narratives of emancipation clashing with experiences of mass public sexual harassment and the gendered exercise of state violence in the form of “virginity tests.”

The transitions that followed those uprisings posed particularly fierce challenges to women. The early electoral successes of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia drove many feminists, liberals and Western media platforms to voice concern that the new governments would diminish women’s rights and limit political freedoms. Those fears, as Ellen McLarney documents, escalated with the bitterly contentious negotiations over new constitutions.

Many advocates feared that other laws protecting women’s rights, particularly within the family, might also be changed. Autocratic regimes strategically supported certain initiatives that – at least superficially – advanced women’s rights. In Egypt, as Mervat Hatem notes, former first lady Suzanne Mubarak formed the National Council for Women in 2000 that helped pass several laws increasing women’s and girls’ rights in the following decade. Tunisia under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was often held up as a beacon for Western-style women’s empowerment in the region, as the regime focused international attention on women’s rights legislation and away from its systematic repression – which, as Hind Ahmed Zaki documents, included large-scale sexual abuse of female activists.

Some women’s rights activists therefore worried that the democratic empowerment of conservative Islamists would come at the expense of their hard-won progress. Many were concerned that the new constitution created under the leadership of former president Mohamed Morsi in 2012 would roll back some of these advances. They were not reassured that, as Ellen McLarney describes, many of the contested sections describing women’s role in the family and society actually originate – some verbatim – in Nasser-era “secular” constitutions and even have roots in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Such politicization of women’s rights was nothing new, of course. As Sherine Hafez describes, both autocratic regimes and democratically elected Islamist governments alike have manipulated the language of women’s rights and utilized female bodies to justify and promote their political goals.

But women’s activism, like most other forms of political mobilization in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, could not be as easily contained and appropriated as before. Samira Ibrahim sued the military for the sexual assault of its “virginity tests” and, although she was dismissed by Egyptian military leadership as “not like your daughter or mine,” eventually succeeded in revoking the practice.

Despite regional authoritarian backsliding as some of the former ruling elite regain power, women’s social organization and political mobilization continue to have an impact in the region. Vickie Langohr illustrates how new forms of activism and large-scale expansion of satellite media have begun to change the public discourse concerning sexual violence in Egypt. Hind Ahmed Zaki describes the Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia, which has given women the opportunity to tell their stories of systematic state sexual violence under the Ben Ali regime – although not, as yet, to win prosecution of their abusers.

wide-ranging political science literature on the challenges facing women’s political participation has highlighted variables such as Islamist movements, discourses on nationalism and citizenship, patterns of state development and cultural norms of patriarchy. But these broad discussions often fail to account for disparities in women’s experiences, not only among different states, but also sub-nationally. The scholars in the POMEPS workshop have taken advantage of new data sources, new organizations and campaigns and variation to highlight the diversity of the experience of women across the region.

For instance, as Lindsay Benstead points out, countries with almost identical – and relatively high – proportions of women in the formal labor force (such as Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco) have personal-status laws that range from the most progressive to some of the most conservative in the region.

As performance on various indicators of gender equity differs dramatically even within individual countries, suggesting  undifferentiated arguments about patriarchy as an explanatory variable without considering intersections of class, privilege or ethnicity is of limited value. Similarly, Scott Weiner’s examination of patriarchy and tribal relations in Kuwait and Oman finds that while kinship relations are highly politically salient in Kuwait, and probably have facilitated the country’s very low levels of female representation in parliament, it actually was the highest-ranked Arab country in the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report.

In contrast, Morocco has one of the most progressive personal-status laws in the region and boasts one of the largest percentages of women in parliament, but the gap between male and female literacy in Morocco is second only to that of Yemen among 20 Arab countries. Zakia Salime’s examination of rural women known as the Sulaliyyates fighting for access to tribal land in Morocco illuminates how specific links in tribal communities between women’s subordination in the family and the public sphere work in a country with wide variations in performance on typical indicators of patriarchy.

This lack of congruence among different indicators of discrimination leads Benstead to suggest that instead of using patriarchy as a blanket term, political scientists would be better served by learning from feminist theory, particularly Deniz Kandiyoti’s conception of a “patriarchal bargain.” In such a bargain, women’s status across a variety of fields is dependent on the outcome of their negotiations with men, and thus, in the same society, outcomes on various indicators of discrimination can vary widely.

While more research is needed to determine how these indicators affect political discrimination, there is consensus about how to improve political representation. Broad cross-national research, such as that by Aili Marie Tripp and Alice Kang, has demonstrated the efficacy of gender quotas. Not only do quotas increase political representation, but, per Benstead’s argument, they also improve female citizens’ access to governmental resources. And although some argue that Western pressure for such quotas would only undermine their prospects, Sarah Bush and Amaney Jamal found little evidence for such an effect on popular perceptions.

Although cynics might assume that women in Arab parliaments are merely a form of window dressing, Marwa Shalaby notes that while women make up 17 percent of the Moroccan parliament, they asked 58 percent of the total questions there. However, female MPs in Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco focused very little attention on issues explicitly related to women’s and children’s rights, instead prioritizing issues such as the economy and education. Given the significant limitations on women’s rights within the family, especially in Jordan and Kuwait, how do we explain female MPs’ relative lack of attention to this issue?

Perhaps female MPs, like their male colleagues, have made a rational decision that they are best served by using their positions to work in areas where they can deliver services to their constituents. Mona Tajali shows how – often despite rather than because of their leaders’ intentions – Islamic parties in Iran and Turkey have actually created space for women, who may not otherwise be politically engaged, to rise to political office. In Iran, the political networks established by women during the 2009 Green Movement contributed to their electoral success in the 2016parliamentary elections. There are now more women than clerics in the Iranian parliament, and it will be interesting to track how these representatives’ agendas compare with their Arab counterparts.

Women’s rights and political aspirations are inextricably interwoven with other political struggles, shaped by local context more than by supposedly immutable cultural patterns. The research highlighted in POMEPS Studies 19 demonstrates the vibrancy of new scholarly efforts to examine the changing political horizons of women in the Middle East.

This article was originally published at the Washington Post