Tunisia Election Raises Hopes for Arab Women and Democracy: View

Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) -- As Tunisians await final results in their national election, the first in a country remade by the Arab Spring, it’s worth paying particular attention to the outcome for women there. One hopes it leads reformers in other Arab states to understand that it will be impossible to advance their societies if half of the population is held back.

Tunisia’s caretaker government crafted an innovative system to ensure that women were represented in the new constituent assembly. Candidates for 217 seats divided among 33 districts ran not as individuals, but as members of lists. After vote tallies are certified, lists will be assigned a proportion of seats based on the percentage of votes their list garnered in the district, and must place candidates in office according to their order on the list. Not only do the electoral rules mandate that half of all names on a list be women, but to prevent top-loading the roster with men, the lists had to alternate their candidates by gender.

With some 1,500 lists competing, many will have succeeded in electing only their leader, usually a man. But with several large parties contending, it’s expected that women will end up with a solid chunk of seats.

This is especially important because the elected assembly will not only choose a new government, it will also write a new constitution. Tunisia’s women already enjoy greater liberty, equality and protection than those in other Arab states. The country has legalized abortion, a ban on polygamy, equal divorce rights and a legal code explicitly outlawing spousal rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment. The drafting of a constitution is a chance to enshrine and expand women’s rights and defend them against possible encroachment by Islamists, who emerged as the strongest winners in the voting.

Of course, any system that sets aside positions for a particular group seems unfair and risks tarnishing the beneficiary as unworthy. But nothing is perfect. Given the imbalance of rights between men and women in the Arab world -- a gap larger than in any other region, according to a 2010 special report by Freedom House -- it is more unfair to have women compete in elections as if they are on an even playing field.

That, essentially, is what Egypt’s ruling military council has decided to do. The generals have abolished a previous quota reserving 12 percent of seats in parliament for women. Instead, in three rounds of voting beginning in November, most lawmakers will be elected through lists that must contain at least one woman. However, since the mandatory woman can be placed anywhere on the list, including in a slot that gives her no chance of being elected, the rule is almost meaningless.

Once constituted, the Egyptian parliament will elect a body to write a new constitution. Egypt’s women have even more to gain than Tunisia’s from influencing the drafting of the basic law since they lag much further behind men in economic status and rights. Egyptian women make up only a quarter of the workforce and have inferior rights in such matters as custody, inheritance and the value of their testimony in court.

Of course, getting women into parliament doesn’t guarantee change. Iraq’s constitution, adopted in 2005, allots 25 percent of seats to women. Iraqi women are nonetheless struggling to regain the relatively high status they enjoyed in the 1970s and ’80s, partly because of the strong influence of Islamists. Female lawmakers there complain of being largely ignored by their male peers, and feel that many voters regard them as undeserving recipients of special treatment. This is one advantage of the Tunisian system: There is no outright quota for women but rather a requirement that electoral lists include both sexes equally.

It’s too late to change the system for the upcoming vote in Egypt. But officials of the U.S. and its allies -- with their large financial influence -- can remind the Egyptian parliament, once it’s elected, that it is important to ensure all of society is represented in the assembly that will write the constitution. The West can also suggest that Libya’s interim leaders consider Tunisia’s electoral system when they plan their own elections.

This would not constitute imposing Western values on Arab culture. Plenty of Arabs of both sexes believe that in order to effect meaningful freedom, democracy and economic progress, women must be elevated. Agreeing with them would mean coming down on one side of a vibrant internal debate, something diplomats do all the time.

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