Democratization in Middle East Needs Women

In July, Shaima Ghassaniya was found guilty of driving in the Saudi city of Jeddah. The penalty for defying the country’s ban on female drivers has been a sentence of 10 lashes. The verdict comes only days after Saudi Arabia’s recent moves towards liberalization. A few days ago, King Abdullah decreed that by 2015, Saudi women would be allowed to vote and run in municipal elections for the first time in the country's history. Consistency is key in pushing for women’s rights within a wider scope of democratization in the Arab world.

It is too soon to say that democratization has been achieved after revolutions in the Middle East. Change does not happen overnight and will require patience. In the meantime, citizens are now relating to the government in a new way. People in the region have been introduced to the culture of demanding rights from their governments. Women, too, are expressing themselves politically. Democratization will mean the empowerment of women and will initiate them into civil society. The Arab Spring will encourage both men and women in the region to push for their political rights. 

To push for real reforms and an open political system, citizens must first understand what democratization actually entails. The essence of democracy is the participation of society as a whole. No parts can be missing. Women in the region are calling out to be a part of the process to reinvent civil society. Professor Valentine Moghadam offers a tri-part argument for what she calls “engendering democracy.” She argues that female participation in democracy-building will only strengthen and speed up democracy in the region.

Moghadam’s first argument is that women’s participation in the institutionalization of democracy is a key element in successful transitions. She cites evidence from other parts of the world to show that women’s rights and interests could be better protected when they participate in the building of democracies. In Egypt, women who played an active role in the January 25 revolution are now looking to play a greater role in political life. Women under Mubarak’s regime were promised a quota of seats in parliament, but that seems to be the extent of their promised political participation. Egyptian women cannot be underrepresented in government if the ideals of the revolution are to be met. Women’s rights activists need to come together to strategize their political emancipation. A future of true democracy will require changes in government policy, education, media representation, and, most importantly, economic independence for women in Egypt and throughout the region.

Moghadam reminds us of the democracy paradox — the assumption that democracy is always better for women. But in some cases, democratic transitions have marginalized women, for example by opening the political stage to fundamentalist or extremist groups. Tunisian feminist movements enjoy a unique status in the Middle East — they used the revolution to reinforce their existing rights that were coded in 1956, and the overthrow of Tunisia's Ben Ali has only made them more alert about protecting their rights and pushing for greater equality.

We need to speed up democratic transitions in the region, and this can be best accomplished by including women in the political processes and decision-making. This means getting women to participate in political parties, parliament, committees, and more. It will bring attention to the demands of the women who make up half of these societies by achieving female participation in national dialogues, elections, and debates. Women must play a role in democratization. If the people could overthrow iron-fisted dictators, then they can institute gender equality as well.

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