The empowerment of women and the establishment of gender equality are crucial to democracy. Democracy is as much about citizenship rights, participation and inclusion as it is about political parties, elections, and checks and balances. The quality of democracy is determined not only by the form of institutions, but also by the extent that different social groups participate in these institutions. In this regard, the gender of democracy matters profoundly. The absence of women from political life results in democratization with a male face or in a "male democracy"—an incomplete and very biased form of democracy.
In the United States and in European countries such as Britain, democratic rights initially were enjoyed exclusively by property-owning white males, and only extended to women and to the rest of the male population much later. In other parts of the world, the expansion of women's rights has gone hand-in-hand with the establishment of democracy, and women have played a key role in the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The Latin American experience is a leading example, especially the cases of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. In Turkey in the 1980s, when civil society was under tight military control, the new Turkish feminist movement helped to usher in democratization through campaigns for women's rights, participation, and personal freedom.
And today, across the Arab world and in Iran, modernizing women are principal agents of democratization and cultural change. Democratization and women's rights movements have emerged more or less in tandem. These processes are closely intertwined and indeed mutually dependent: the fate of democratization is bound to the fate of women's rights and vice versa. Separating the two is conceptually muddled as well as politically dangerous. This is because women can pay a high price when a democratic process is launched without strong institutions and without firmly-established principles of equality and the rights of all citizens. In such situations, a party based on patriarchal norms can come to power through free elections and then move to relegate women to second-class citizenship.
In fact, this was the Algerian feminists' nightmare. It is the reason why many educated Algerian women who wanted democratic change opposed the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) after it burst on the scene in 1989 with its rhetoric of 'democracy' but with an agenda of rolling back women's rights. (The FIS's complicity in violence against women during the insurrection that occurred after the military nullified the 1991 elections cast further doubt on the FIS's dubious commitment to women's rights). To prevent "democracy without democrats," therefore, policies to protect women's rights and to increase women's participation in parties, in the judiciary, and in civil society are essential.
Many of the calls for reform emanating from Arab countries appear to be gender-blind and inattentive to issues of women's rights. These calls seem to be trapped in formalistic rhetoric without being conscious of the importance of the quality and gender of democracy. The recent reform manifesto of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, extols the laudable goals of forming political parties and establishing an independent judiciary, but it also calls for "conformity to Islamic Sharia," a goal that is incompatible with gender equality.
The U.S. government has made numerous and profound mistakes in its Middle East policy. U.S. efforts to promote women's rights and women's empowerment as part of a broader policy of democracy promotion, however, are not among them. More important, it behooves Middle Eastern intellectuals and activists working for political reform to understand the interconnections among women's rights, political rights, and democracy, and to acknowledge that a democratic system without women's human rights and gender equality is an inferior form of democracy.
Women may need democracy in order to flourish, but the converse is also true: democracy needs women if it is to be an inclusive, representative, and enduring system of government.
Valentine M. Moghadam is currently the chief of the section for Gender Equality and Development in the sector of Social and Human Sciences at UNESCO in Paris. She is on leave from her position as director of women's studies and professor of sociology at Illinois State University. Dr. Moghadam is the author of Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003, 2nd ed.).