Gender Jihad: Enhancing female access in politics [Archives:2006/993/Opinion]

October 26 2006

Donna Kennedy-Glans
Yemen's 2006 election was not only a barometer of pluralism in the Arab world, but also, a barometer of hope within Yemen. The September 2006 election results in Yemen mark the first time in modern Arab history that a president was seriously contested by an opponent with substantial popular support.

The election outcomes – for both the ruling party and the opposition are tangible evidence that positive leadership and pluralism are indeed capable of flourishing in Yemen.

Since the first experiment with presidential elections in 1999, there has been keen interest in Yemen's political life. I vividly recall that first presidential election; President Saleh won with 96.2 percent of the popular vote and his only challenger was a former member of the ruling party running as an independent. In 2006, President Saleh of the General People's Congress was again the victor, but with only 77.2 percent of the vote; his opponent, Faisal Bin Shamlan of the Joint Meeting Parties (an opposition coalition) won 21.8 percent of the vote. This garnering of voter support by opposition parties not only demonstrates the influence of alternative voices in Yemen but somewhat paradoxically reinforces the legitimacy of the ruling party's leadership.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the extent of pluralism in the Yemen. Women in Yemen strive to be represented in political life. Women whole heartedly participated in the 2006 election as voters, but were disappointed with their participation as candidates. The male – female split of candidates running for elected office was heavily weighted in favour of men: 18,760 male candidates compared to 137 female candidates. There were no female presidential candidates and only 149 women ran for local councils compared to more than 20,000 male candidates.

According to electoral experts, women's candidacy in Yemen is backsliding, and fingers are pointing to the political parties. Nearly half of the female candidates in the September election were running as independents. Over the last year, there had been a lot of engagement with women's groups in Yemen to explore how to enhance female candidacy. Early this year, there was pressure for a 15 percent quota for women in local elections. A protest march to the presidential palace was launched in early September to express growing frustration with the nomination of women candidates by both the ruling and opposition parties. Clearly, some women in Yemen did not only wish to be voters, they also wanted to political leaders. Gender jihad has been launched in politics!

From my vantage point in Canada, the unfolding of egalitarianism in Yemen is insightful. Yemen's experiences give Westerners another chance to consider what equality of opportunity for men and women can look like, and to consider our own evolution of female political leadership.Women only won the right to vote gradually in Canada and remain underrepresented in our federal Parliament as well as in provincial legislatures. The first federal election in which women were able to vote and run as candidates in Canada was 1921. In that election, four women ran for office and one woman, Agnes Campbell MacPhail, made

history as the first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons. Between 1921 and 2006, 3402 women candidates stood in the 39 general elections and won on 426 occasions.

At the close of nominations for the 2006 election in Canada, there were 380 women and 1,254 men among the 1,634 candidates confirmed by Elections Canada. While the absolute number of women candidates fell from 2004, the percentage of candidates who are women remained steady at 23.2%. There were 64 women elected in the 2006 election campaign (20.8% of all those elected), with only 14 women elected from the ruling Conservative party.

Canada has a Ministerial portfolio responsible for Canadian Heritage and Status of Women. Notwithstanding the obvious under-representation of women in elected political positions in Canada, there are vigorous deliberations about the role of this Ministry. Some even recommend an end of funding to women's organizations that do lobbying, advocacy or general research on rights issues, and encourage instead support to skills training and mentoring programs for women. Opposition is outraged with the assumption that activism is no longer necessary to support gender equality in Canada: “Your judgement, guided by your conservative ideology, is that systemic discrimination doesn't exist. In other words: fend for yourselves.”

There is no legal obstacle preventing women from participating as candidates in elections – in Canada or in Yemen. But, the statistics are not encouraging in either country. Female voter registration is strong, but the number of women nominated to run for office in both countries is stagnating, even declining.

What can be done to really improve female participation in political life? What is the impact of gender advocacy? What is the outcome of training and mentoring of females? In Canada and in Yemen those who value equality continue to assess the options, and to implement policies and implementation strategies that have impact.Perhaps we first need to dispel some myths that cloud our thinking:

Myth #1: Women politicians are power-hungry

Some believe that women politicians are power-hungry; only seeking public office as a means to access influence. For many female and male leaders, political life is not about an exercise of power, bur rather, an exercise of stewardship. We need only to identify as role-models female political leaders who exercise their decision-making in a compassionate and gender balanced way. In Yemen, there are many such female political leaders – including Amat de Souswa, the former Minister of Human Rights and now a Yemeni representative at the United Nations. More recently elected female political leaders in Yemen include a principal of the Arwa All Girls' school in Taiz, Amat Al-Rahman Jahaf. I had the pleasure of working with Amat this spring on a project involving young girls in Canada and young girls in Yemen. As a community leader in Taiz, and now as an elected leader on a national level, Amat's gentleness, sincerity and transparency will certainly inspire other women to elected positions. Rather than “giving up” on her femininity, Amat brings feminine virtues to this role and is trusted by her constituency to represent their interests.

Myth #2: Women lack political experience

In Canada and in Yemen, some argue that women lack the training and experience for political life. This is a bit of a circular argument that will never end while women stand on the political sidelines. In order to address this myth, the Yemeni Women's Federation (YWF) coordinated with political parties to train 200 women candidates from various political parties. In Canada, the Famous 5 Foundation was launched in 1996 as a not-for-profit charity to honour early Canadian women in politics, our female pioneers. As well, the Foundation commits to support a future where all Canadians will recognize their potential to contribute in positive ways to the generation in which they are living, and honour the leadership of women and men who have been our nation builders. Women may lack direct political experience, but they do not lack leadership

Myth #3: Female constituencies are not influential

Political leaders represent their constituents, and in both Yemen and in Canada, voter blocks often include women and youth. Election results in

Yemen indicate that a majority of women and youth voted for the ruling party. The GPC party will need to ensure that those responsible for making political decisions understand the implications of their decisions, not only on a state level and an economic level, but impacts must be understood across the social fabric of local communities and within families. State decision-making cannot afford an obscured female perspective. Women are encouraged to better understand their influence, as voters, as elected politicians, and as constituents.

Women in Yemen and in Canada have been granted rights as equal citizens the right to primary, secondary and post-secondary education, the right to vote and to hold political office, the right of non-discriminatory access to work and to justice. We must work diligently and honestly to be societies where limiting beliefs about equality are truthfully evaluated and addressed, at a national policy level, at a values threshold within communities and families, and within the hearts and minds of individuals. We have much to learn from each country's experiences with gender jihad.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, LLB. is the founder and executive director of Bridges Social Development, a Canadian registered charity providing capacity building in Yemen for women in healthcare, law, education, journalism and politics.