Point 10 of the presidential initiative [Archives:2008/1149/Local News]

April 24 2008

Dr. Abdullah Al-Faqih
[email protected]

In his ten-point constitutional initiative, President Ali Abdullah Saleh proposes in point 10 that “in the elections of members of the House of Representatives (HR), 15% should be allocated to women and the elections law should include a clause to this effect.” This last point, unlike all the other points, is very vague and the embedded ambiguity is not accidental. It is the essence of politics in Yemen when it comes to women and their political rights.

First of all, it is not clear whether the president is talking about a constitutional or legislative amendment. In this regard, it could be argued that a constitutional amendment is unavoidable for any type of quota to be adopted. But that is only one way of reading point 10. Second, and more significant, it is not clear whether point 10 offers women a quota of parties' candidates or of the HR's seats. If point 10 means the former, the political representation of women will remain the same. Each party is expected to let women run on its behalf in every district it knows for sure it is going to lose.

Third, assuming that point 10 is offering women 15% of the HR's actual seats (a very unlikely move), one might still wonder how the regime is going to fulfill such a promise, especially under the current electoral system)the so called single member district plurality system. Reserving certain districts for women will be very problematic constitutionally and practically. In fact, it is almost certain that Yemen's “strong men” in every district will resist such a move even if they advocate gender equality.

Fourth, acknowledging the women's right to political representation in the HR only begs the question: “What about the Shoura Council, the Council of Ministers and elected local councils?” Additionally, if Yemen has committed itself in international agreements to give women at least 30% of all political positions, why should it not fulfill its obligations to Yemeni women?

It would be a mistake on the part of Yemeni women if they think the current administration will stop cheating them when it comes to their political, civil, and social rights. They must recall unfulfilled promises by the government in many past instances. In the last presidential and local elections of September 2006, for example, the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) failed to deliver on its pledge of allowing women to run for 15% of elected local positions. Furthermore, wherever women decided to run as independents, they were intimated by GPC members and forced to opt out of elections. The opposition parties are not much different from the GPC, except that they are willing to give women their share as long as their men's share is not affected.

It is very unlikely that the current clan-based Yemeni political regime will deliver anything meaningful in terms of rights to Yemeni women because before it extends these rights to women, it must extend them first to men. Women should also realize that rights are often taken and not given as handouts. And whenever they are given by a regime, they can be easily taken by the same regime or by its successors. It is evident that under the current regime, political representation of women)and for men as well)will remain the same. From time to time, a woman who can perform the role of a man and represent the men in power will be appointed in a position where she has no real power and cannot do much for women.

In light of the current situation, Yemeni women and their supporters should ask for the addition of three new articles to the constitution. The first article should state: “Citizens are equal before the law; they are equal in public rights and duties, and discrimination on the basis of sex, color, origin, language, profession, social status, or belief, is prohibited except in cases where discrimination is positive and enhances equal citizenship rights, and the law should specify punishments in cases of violations.” Such a statement is very important not only for women but also for all other excluded groups.

The second article should read “Thirty percent of all elected public institutions at the central, regional, and local levels should be reserved for women, and political parties should compete for these seats under a proportional representation electoral system. The law should make it the duty of the electoral commission to make sure that female nominees on party lists have been selected and ranked in the lists according to secret intra-party balloting.” The third article should state “Thirty percent of all public institution positions which are fielded by presidential appointments at the central, regional, and local levels should be reserved for women, and the law should specify the cases where exceptions can be made, provided that they do not violate the principle of equal citizenship, the principle of equal opportunity, and the qualifications required for taking a specific job.”

The author is a Yemeni activist, analyst, and professor of politics at Sana'a University.