Arab Women in the Legislative Process

Women continue to face challenges in accessing the higher echelons of political power, but also in playing a more substantive role in the policymaking process.

On May 4, Algeria will hold its second legislative election since the introduction of women’s quota system in 2012. Many are set to see whether female legislators will be able to play a more pivotal role in the political realm. Over the past decade, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has witnessed a consistent, though slow, increase in the presence of women in legislative bodies. While the introduction of quota mechanisms in many Arab countries—mainly Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—has opened the door for increased levels of female representation, quota mechanisms do not appear to have a significant immediate impact on the appointment of female politicians to influential legislative committees in Arab parliaments. Even after gaining access to the political realm, women continue to be marginalized from the bodies where important policy deliberations and concessions occur.

Committee work involves the most significant law-making deliberations in the legislative body, and assignments to them are crucial for both male and female legislators in terms of career advancement and access to resources. Since women are often considered “newcomers” in the political arena, committee assignments are especially important because they can help build necessary reputations and political expertise. In developing democracies, legislative bodies are increasingly becoming an invaluable space for interaction between incumbents, legislators, and citizens; thus, prominent committee assignments also play a substantive role in facilitating access to resources and members of the ruling elite.

Previous studies have classified legislative committees across the world into four main types. Power committees—such as finance and the budget, legislative issues, national defense, and internal affairs—typically hold the most prominence, granting members status and special authority. Economic and foreign affairs committees deal with development, planning, and foreign policy issues. Social issues committees address health, education, housing, and youth. Finally, women’s issues committees deal with women, children, and the family. Of the three countries examined, Tunisia is the only country with a committee that addresses “women’s affairs” explicitly. In Algeria and Morocco, women’s issues are included in social issues committees that also address such topics as children, rights of the disabled, the elderly, labor, and health.

Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia are interesting cases for better understanding the relationship between the introduction of quotas and the role of women in parliamentary committees. Compared to the rest of the Arab World, these three countries have similar historical experiences, strong political party structures, and remarkable growth in female representation. Since independence from France, Algeria’s and Tunisia’s political systems became presidential systems with recurrent elections—dominated by the ruling regime’s party—while Morocco has been a parliamentary monarchy with multi-party electoral competition.

In response to the Arab uprisings, each of these countries implemented various political reforms, including ones concerning women’s political representation. Algeria introduced Law 12-03 of 2012, which required political parties to include female candidates on their party lists, with higher quotas set for larger constituencies. As a result, women’s presence in the Algerian parliament leaped from a mere 7.7 percent in 2007 to 31.6 percent in 2012. Morocco’s Law 59-11 of 2011 doubled women’s reserved seats from 30 out of 325 seats (as seen in the 2002 and 2007 parliaments) to 60 out of 395 seats. As for Tunisia, the 2014 constitution enshrined equal political representation by introducing a gender parity clause that stipulated electoral lists alternate male and female candidates. Though Tunisia’s post-revolution Assembly of Representatives did not witness such a dramatic increase in female representation (currently 31.3 percent, up from 27.6 percent in 2009), this can be attributed to both Tunisia’s role as a pioneer in women’s rights since independence and the former regime’s state feminism policies, including support for a voluntary party quota.

A cursory look at the committee assignments in these three countries shows that the most influential committees are generally dominated by male legislators, even though these countries have greater overall female representation in parliament than most of the MENA region. While this pattern can be attributed to women’s decisions to join social issues committees, it may also mask a general trend of discrimination in which women are consistently denied access to influential committees. Interestingly, although women’s numerical representation in Algeria’s and Tunisia’s lower chambers is almost identical, there are stark differences in their committee assignments.

In Algeria, female representatives make up 22.6 percent and 21.9 percent of the power committees and the economic and foreign affairs committees, respectively (Figure 1), despite the fact that women constitute 31.6 percent of the Algerian parliament.1 Of all women who are on any committee, only about 20 percent participate on one of these committees, compared to nearly 60 percent who are concentrated in social issues committees.

In Tunisia, there is a more balanced distribution across legislative committees (Figure 2). For instance, women account for about 33.7 percent and 31.4 percent of the power committees and the economic and foreign affairs committees—much closer to the overall proportion of women in the Tunisian parliament, which like the Algerian parliament is about 31 percent female. Tellingly, 31.0 percent of all women on any committee are on a power committee, compared to only 14.4 percent on the women’s issues committee.

These findings are consistent with previous work on women’s committee appointments in developing democracies. While the initial introduction of quota systems may not lead to an immediate increase in women’s presence in influential committees, this effect tends to diminish over time. Tunisia first introduced a voluntary quota system among political parties in 2004, and women’s representation has steadily increased, which can partially explain the more equitable distribution of female politicians in power committees. In contrast, the 30 percent quota that was recently implemented in Algeria in 2012 has not yet resulted in greater female incorporation in such committees.

This pattern is also evident in Morocco. Acknowledging the fact that Morocco has lower female representation in the legislature than Algeria and Tunisia, our data show that female politicians were largely marginalized in 2002, when the “gentlemen’s agreement” among political parties toreserve 10 percent of the seats for women was first implemented (Figure 3). Female MPs were least represented in the power committees and heavily concentrated in social issues and economic and foreign affairs committees. Yet women’s presence in the power committees has incrementally increased over the past decade from 4.7 percent in 2002 to 9.9 percent in 2007. In 2012, the proportion of power committee members who were women continued to grow to 14.6 percent which is much closer to their proportional presence in the legislature (aided by the increased quota, which brought women’s overall parliamentary representation to 16.8 percent). Morocco’s 2016 legislative election witnessed a further increase in female representatives, who now hold 20.5 percent of seats, suggesting this trend may continue to increase once a coalition government is formed and committee appointments are finalized.

These findings provide further evidence that promoting women’s descriptive representation may not lead immediately to more influence and political power for women. Traditionally, politics in the MENA region has been a male-dominated arena because most political parties and incumbent male legislators have viewed quotas with disdain and offered few or no opportunities to train or integrate women. Yet women’s presence in more prominent committees may increase as quota systems and female representation become more widely accepted, as in Tunisia. In Algeria, women still have a long way to go to catch up with their Tunisian neighbors; nonetheless, the fact that a quarter of the women in parliament managed to acquire seats in power and economic and foreign affairs committees immediately after the quota was introduced in 2012 points to the potential gains that women can achieve in the legislative elections in May 2017.

This article is reprinted with permission of Sada. It can be accessed online here.

Marwa Shalaby is the fellow for the Middle East and director of the Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program at the Baker Institute at Rice University. 

Laila Elimam is a research associate at the Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program at the Baker Institute at Rice University.