MENA Soft Power

Members of the Tunisian parliament celebrate after approving the country's new constitution in the assembly building in Tunis January 26, 2014.

Meet the region’s leading female politicians

BY Leila Hatoum and Bilal Aziz 

Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is led by a woman—Angela Merkel. The United States may just elect its first ever female president, Democrat-nominee Hillary Clinton, who has gained further support on the ground according to recent polls. Many people from the Middle East, especially women, wonder if the day would ever come when they, too, can have a female president or prime minster.

I have often heard misconceived notions from western friends regarding the status of women in the Middle East and North Africa region. They raise an eyebrow when I tell them of a female minister or a female political activist in the Arab world.

“So not all women have to stay at home and produce babies, cook for their husbands and clean 24/7?” a Canadian friend of mine once asked me.

“Darling, you watch a lot of Hollywood movies featuring magic carpets. The reality is much different,” was my reply.

While it is true that there is still much to be done in the way of implementing gender equality, one must admit that things have significantly improved in the last few decades in terms of female representation in the political arena across the Middle East.

Take Morocco for example. In 1990, it barely had female parliamentarians. Fast forward to 2016, the country now has 67 women in parliament, constituting nearly one sixth of Morocco’s 395-seat House of Representatives and 14 in the Upper House of Senates which has 120 seats.

According to the World Bank, the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments worldwide in 2015 is 22.9 percent. Of that, the number of seats held by women in the Arab world were among the lowest.

Newsweek Middle East offers a closer look at the number and distribution of female politicians including parliamentarians, ministers and political leaders across 17 Arab states extending from Morocco to the Levant, and passing through the Arab Gulf region.

From Amina El Idrissi, an MP from the Justice and Development Party, who sits on a number of parliamentary committees including the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Islamic Affairs and Moroccans residing abroad, to Zeinab Kayouh, an MP from the Independence Party who also sits on the Parliamentary Committee of Social Sectors, Morocco has one of the highest numbers of female parliamentarian representatives in this region.

In terms of ministerial representation, Morocco has two female ministers: Bassima Hakkaoui and Fatema Marouane. Haakaoui is a politician and a member of the Justice and Development Party. She has held the position of minister of solidarity, women, family and social development since 2012 and has been a member of the House of Representatives since 2002. Marouane is the minister of craft & social economy and is also a member in the National Council of the National Assembly of Independents, and the Council of the Region of Casablanca City. Marouane is also a specialist doctor in Endocrinology-Diabetology-Nutrition Diseases, and a former chief of endocrinology devices, diabetes and Nutrition in University Hospital Ibn Rushd.

Morocco also has a number of female political activists who’ve become mayors of their respective cities including Asma Chaabi, the first woman ever elected as mayor in the country. She currently serves as mayor of Essaouira. Fatima Zahra Mansouri, on the other hand, is aligned with the Authenticity and Modernity Party in Morocco. She was elected Mayor of Marrakesh in 2009, at the age of 33. She is widely credited with introducing transparency, accountability and efficiency within Marrakech’s 96-member city council.

Like its Moroccan neighbor, Algeria’s female representation in parliament is one of the highest in the region, and the most gender-balanced by far. Unlike Morocco, Algeria reserves a 20 to 50 percent parliamentary quota for women, depending on the size of the constituency. After all, up to 53 percent of the country’s population are women, and they control over one third (32 percent) of the national assembly’s seats, a big leap from only seven percent from the previous House of Representatives which served up until 2012. The sweeping victory for women in the parliamentary elections in Algeria back then drew welcoming and encouraging notes from then U.S. Secretary of State and current U.S. Presidential contender Hillary Clinton who applauded the high number of “women elected.”

But it isn’t only the soft power in the Algerian Parliament which draws the attention to this somehow discreet North African state. In 2014, Algerian President Abdulaziz Buteflika appointed seven women as ministers in the cabinet, a move praised by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as “historical” and a “role model” for neighboring Arab countries.

Nouria Benghebrit was appointed as the minister of national education; Dalila Boudjemaa the minister for planning and environment; Nadia Labidi the minister of culture; Mounia Meslem the minister of national solidarity and the minister of family and status of women; Zohra Derdouri minister of post and information communication technologies; Nouria Yamina Zerhouni the minister of tourism and handicraft; Aïcha Tagabou the delegate to the minister of tourism and handicraft. But outside the government posts, Algeria also has a number of female political leaders including Louisa Hanoune, a highly regarded politician in her country and the first ever female politician in the Arab region to stand in elections for a presidential role. Her first attempt to run for president was rejected by the Constitutional Council in 1999 because she was imprisoned by the government several times prior to the legalization of political parties in 1988. She is now the head of Algeria’s Worker’s Party.

Tunisia, which boasts 68 female parliamentarians in its 217-seat House of Representatives, constituting a healthy 31 percent representation, has recently broken Algeria’s record of seven female ministers by appointing eight ministers in a new cabinet formation that was announced on Saturday, August 20.

“We have now included eight women in important portfolios such as finance and health while young people have received 14 ministerial portfolios and five of them are under 35 years,” said Tunisian Prime Minister Designate Youssef Chahed.

The new cabinet now awaits the parliament’s endorsement to start its work. The current outgoing cabinet has three female ministers: Salma Rekik, minister of vocational training and employment; Khadija Chérif, minister of women, family and children and Latifa Lakhdhar, minister of culture and heritage protection.

Of the famous active Tunisian female politicians, the name Maya Jiribi certainly comes to mind. After all, she is the first female ever to lead a political party in Tunisia when she was elected to head the Progressive Democratic Party in 2006. Samia Abbou is also known for her political activism. The current member of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People following the 2014 elections, is one of the founding members of the Congress for the Republic and the Democratic Current.

In June 2016, the parliament approved an amendment ensuring that women have greater representation in local politics.

Of the 188 seats in Libya’s Parliament, only 30 are held by women, or 16 percent of the total number of seats. The country currently has three female ministers in the cabinet: Faida Mansour El Shafi, minister of social affairs; Amsa Mustafa Usta, minister of state for women’s affairs and development. Iman Mohammed Ben Younes, minister of state for institutional reform. Other leading female politicians in Libya include Fatima Hamroush, who, in November 2011, became Libya’s first female health minister. The Libyan-Irish politician stood against the regime of former Libyan dictator Moammer Qaddhafi and was a member of the opposition since 2008. Aside from Hamroush, Salwa El Deghali is the only female member of the National Transitional Council representing women and is in charge of its legal affairs?

Unlike its North African counterparts, Egypt has a lower representation of women in its parliamentary life. Of the 596-seat parliament, Egyptian women hold 89 seats, which is slightly less than 15 percent.

The country of 90+ million citizens has four female ministers in its 34-member cabinet (but none of them hold a sovereign brief): Naglaa El Ahwany, minister of international cooperation; Laila Iskandar, minister of state for urban development; Nahed Al Ashri, minister of workforce and migration; Ghada Wali, minister of social solidarity.

Of the famous female political activists in Egypt, Rawya Ateya, who passed away in 1997, stood out as the first female parliamentarian in the Arab world in 1957. This led her to be seen as a pioneering figure in Egyptian and Arab feminism. Of the many leading political activists in Egypt, one can name Sara Saleh, the youngest serving parliament member in the history of the South Sinai governorate, who is an advocate for the rights of youths; Hala Shukrallah, the first female and Christian leader of a political party in Egypt; and Farkhonda Hasan, the chair of the Commission on Human Development and Local Administration of the Egyptian Shura Council.

Saudi Arabia
In 2015, 20 women won in the municipal council elections in Saudi Arabia, a rarity not only on the political scene, but also when it comes to gender equality there. The new generation of royals are advocating for enhancing women’s conditions.

“More and more women are working in various sectors and industries. A Saudi woman is now able to have any job she wishes in any sector and field of work. We do not have any obstacles,” the Kingdom’s Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman said.

In 2013, some 30 women were elected for the 150-member Shura Council for the first time, constituting 19.9 percent of the total number of seats held by women. Prior to 2013, the council had female advisors, albeit in a limited role. It is worth noting that the late King Abdullah first announced his plans to name women to the Shura Council in 2011, adding that Saudi women would be allowed to vote and be candidates in the 2015 municipal elections.

Also in 2013, King Abdullah decreed that women should make up at least 20 percent of the council. Of the names that come to mind are Haya Al Manei and Latifa Al Shaalan, two members of Shura Council who caused controversy in the past by calling for officials to debate women’s right to drive in a country where it is not illegal, but rather against the norm for a female to drive a car.

One cannot say that women in Yemen are severely underrepresented in the country’s political system. The war-torn Arab state has zero—yes you read it right—zero women in its 300-seat parliament. Same goes for their representation in cabinet. But when it comes to political and humanitarian activism, the country is on the global radar via Tawakkol Karman, the first Arab woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize back in 2011. The Yemeni journalist, politician and human rights advocate became the international face of the 2011 Yemeni uprising and was dubbed as the Iron Woman.

Much like the country, Oman’s 15 female parliamentarians (1 in the lower House of Representatives and 14 in the Upper House) maintain a low profile. Each has 85 members, which means female representation in the Lower House stands at 1.2 percent, while in the Upper House it stands at 16.5 percent. Of the 29-member cabinet, there are only two female ministers: Madeeha bint Ahmed Al Shibaniyah, the minister of education and member of the permanent delegation of the Sultanate of Oman to UNESCO. Rawyah Al Busaidi is the first Omani woman to be appointed to a ministerial position. She is the minister of higher education.

Compared to its Arab Gulf counterparts, perhaps the country advocating most for women’s rights and for women to take on government posts and have a leading role in public offices is the United Arab Emirates. The country has nine female representatives in the Federal National Council (FNC) of 40 members, which brings women’s representation at the parliamentary level to 22.5 percent. Not only that, the country brags that it has the first Arab female parliament speaker, Dr. Amal Al Qubaisi. She is also the first woman to chair a council session at the FNC where she had once served as the deputy speaker. Earlier this year, UAE’s Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum appointed six women as part of his cabinet, including the world’s youngest minister, 22-year-old Shamma Al Mazroui as the minister of state for youth affairs and president of the youth council. She had gained political experience by working as a public policy analyst with the UAE mission to the U.N. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, who is listed as the 43rd most powerful woman in the world and is the first woman to hold a ministerial post in the UAE. She is the minister for international cooperation and more recently minister of state for tolerance. Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi is the country’s minister of happiness. The position was announced via Twitter by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. Reem Al Hashimi is a state minister and the managing director of the upcoming Expo 2020 which will be held in Dubai. Maryam Al Roumi is the minister of social affairs. Noura Al Kaabi is the minister of state for the FNC.

Qatar’s 35-member national council has no female members, and there is only one female minister present in a cabinet of 20 ministers. Hessa Al Jaber is the Minister of Communications in the country. She is the third Qatari woman to assume a ministerial position in the state. However, Qatar is also known for strong female advocates of education and culture who are noted for their distinguished services like Sheikha Mozah Al Misnad, the mother of the current ruler of Qatar. Sheikha Mozah is the chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development and the chairperson of the Arab Democracy Foundation. Additionally, she has been named as one of Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women.

Bahrain’s 40-member Lower House of Representatives has three women constituting 7.5 percent of the total members. The 40-member Upper House has nine female representatives or 22.5 percent. The country also has one serving minister at present, Faeqa bint Saeed Al Saleh, who is Bahrain’s minister of health. Prior to taking the post in 2015, Saleh was the minister for social development.

Hailed as a true democracy in the Arab Gulf region where citizens get to enjoy an active political life, including joining political parties and electing representatives in parliment, Kuwait’s last parliamentary elections—held in July 2013—resulted in bringing one woman to the 65-member national assembly. This constitutes a 1.5 percent representation of females. The country’s 17-member cabinet also has one female minister, Hind Sabih Al Sabih, who holds two ministerial posts: Minister of social affairs and labor, and minister of state for planning and development affairs.

Iraq’s active political life after Saddam, and the environment of political freedom which its women have enjoyed for decades, have resulted in a higher representation of women in the country’s political scene. In the last parliamentary elections held in April 2014, the country’s 328-member parliament saw 87 women win seats constituting 26.7 percent of the total number of parliamentarians. Vian Dakhil is a current member of the Iraqi Parliament and the only Yazidi member, while Maysoon Al Damluji is a liberal Iraqi politician and women’s rights campaigner, who has done extensive work on the ground. The country has two female ministers: Adila Hussein, minister of health, and Wafa Mehdawi, the minister of labor.

The last parliamentary elections held in Syria was earlier this year in April. Out of 250 parliamentarians elected, only 33 were women, constituting 13.2 percent of the total number of seats in the parliament. The country’s 35-member cabinet has two female ministers: Nazira Sarkis, who is the state minister for environment affairs, and Rima Al Qadiri, the social affairs minister. Perhaps the most famous of all is Bouthaina Shaaban who is the political and media advisor to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. She served as the first minister of expatriates for the Syrian Arab Republic, between 2003 and 2008.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II is one of the main advocates for women’s rights in the region. He passed a legislation requiring a quota for the number of women in parliament, and since it was endorsed, 15 of the seats in the Lower House of Parliament have consistently and successfully been reserved for women. Jordan’s 150-member Lower House of Representatives has 18 females in it constituting 12 percent of the total seats held; while the Upper House of Representatives has 75 members including 8 women constituting 10.7 percent of the total seats held. Three female ministers have been appointed in the country’s most recent cabinet in June 2016: Yasera Ghosheh, minister of public sector development; Lina Ennab, minister of tourism; and Khawla Armouti, minister of social development. Another prominent female figure in Jordan is the Jordanian Queen, Her Highness Rania Abdullah who is a staunch advocate for human rights and equal rights for women.

Perhaps the closest to a parliament in Palestine that has hundreds of representatives from across Palestinian territories is the Palestinian National Council, which has a significant number of female representatives. The Palestinian Authority’s 132-member Legislative Council has 16 women representatives. It is worth noting that being under Israeli occupation, it is hard for Palestinians to move freely to elect figures in their respective districts. The most famous Palestinian female politician of them all is Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator, activist, and scholar and the first woman elected to the Palestinian National Council, which is the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization. She also served as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East Peace Process.

Lebanon’s 128-member parliament has only four female members in it or 3.1 percent of the total number of seats held. Bahiya Hariri is the head of the Parliamentary Education Committee and the sister of the assassinated Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri. She is also a member of the Future Movement, which her brother founded back in the 1990s. Strida Geagea is a member of the parliament representing the Lebanese Forces Party, and is the wife of the party’s head. Nayla Tueini, daughter of the assassinated MP Ghassan Tueini, is also a member of the parliament on behalf of the March 14 Forces political coalition.

Gilbert Zouein represents The Free Patriotic Movement and perhaps is the only female parliamentarian who doesn’t hail from a political family. The only female minister in the 24-member cabinet is Alice Shabtini, minister of displaced persons. She is a lawyer and politician who is a former magistrate, a professor of law, and former chief of Lebanon’s Court of Cassation and the the Military Court of Cassation.


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