Why women have not been successful in political life [Archives:2008/1218/Reportage]

December 22 2008

Dr. Najeeb Ghallab
For the Yemen Times

Yemeni women live in an environment that opposes their very participation in politics. This is true even within political parties that claim to be modern. Instead, they are either organized under a, albeit suit-wearing, tribal model, or in the style of a religious group obsessed with its own interpretation of scripture.

The bright side is that there are a number of rising stars among women working in the political domain, and some of our existing leaders exhibit an open minded attitude towards women in the public sphere. However, such sentiments are often overshadowed by traditional political interests, and by the struggle between parties, which unfortunately pushes women's empowerment to the bottom of the priority list.

Advocates of Modernization

The problem facing the more liberalized people in positions of power is that they are no longer able to adequately highlight women's issues amid existing political conflict. Instead, the contradictory alliances in the field marginalized the new thought in the momentary political battles. The Socialist Party, for instance, is no longer able to face the conservative attitudes that dominate the southern part of the country. It renounced the plight of women and the issues of social and intellectual modernization, and has ignored the accomplishments of women.

Therefore, the liberalization of attitudes towards women in the south began to unravel in the face of the conservative thought, and as a result, the Socialist Party lost the support of women. Those who follow the party's decisions in the media find that gender issues are marginalized to a great extent. Political compromises that the party has made with regard to issues of modernization have caused it to lose its progressive spirit, and have contributed to its declining support among women.

Proponents of modernization in the General People's Congress (GPC) may be the most active in advocating the discussion of women's issues. However, the problem with the GPC is that it deals with women issues in an opportunistic way, either to present a positive image of the regime to the world, or to exert pressure on the Islah Party. The GPC's traditional structure and its alliance with the Salafia currents – both as partisans and conservatives – as well as with wings of the Muslims Brotherhood Movement, have led the party to tend towards traditional attitudes with regard to women. Indeed, the very structure of the party is heavily influenced by the tribes, which don't recognize women as human beings equal to men.

The Islah Party seems unable to escape this crisis with regard to women, although there are some women inside the party who are working to promote a liberalization of the traditional party structure. They are attempting to employ religion to aid them in resisting conservatism in a way that contributes towards the introduction of a more liberal Islam. However, the well established traditions of the past pose a significant obstacle to these women. They must battle on two fronts, both resisting the traditional party structure on the one hand, and fighting those thoughts that challenge their very identity as human beings on the other. A further problem facing these women is that, to be in a position of influence they must have a political affiliation, yet this very political affiliation necessarily leads them to protect the conservatism that they are trying to defeat.

The Reality of Female Participation in Public Institutions

Despite the presence of women in elections, their contribution in decision-making is still weak. In the legislative field, there is a single seat for women in the entire parliament, from a total of 301. In the Shura Council, women occupy only 2 of 111 seats. On the level of the executive authority, only 2 of 33 ministries are directed by women. There are 39 women deputy ministers and assistants compared with 1210 men in similar positions. Out of 44490 general directors in Yemen, only 168 of them are women. In the diplomatic field, women represent a mere 10 percent of all diplomats, and in the judiciary field they represent 7 percent.

Female participation in the parliamentary elections of 1993 was low as they represented only 18 percent of the total voters. In 1997, this level of participation increased to 27 percent, and by the 2003 elections, the level of women participation increased to 42 percent of the total voters.

Interestingly, it is true that the number of women candidates decreases whenever the number of women voters increases. In the 1993 elections, women candidates represented 1.3 percent, yet in 1997 the percentage of women candidates was down to 1.4. This trend has continued, as in the 2003 elections the ratio of women candidates was only .8 percent.

The GPC attains the highest ratio of women votes, such as in the 2003 elections where it captured 60 percent of the female vote – 43 percent of the total votes for that party. The Islah party received 22 percent of the female vote, which represented 40 percent of the total votes for that party. Only 5 percent of female votes went to the socialist party, which represented 39 percent of the total votes that the party attained. The Nasserite party gained 2 percent of the women's votes, which represented 39 percent of the party's total.

Voting for parties is not based entirely on their programs. It is right that women in the Yemeni society have a negative view of the extremist religious powers and their rigid stance toward women. However, votes are also affected by other issues. The presence of women in these parties affects the distribution of votes. For example, women represent 31 percent of GPC members, which may account for its popularity among women voters. In the GPC's General Committee, women represent 12.8 percent of its members, and 9.1 percent of its Permanent Committee.

In the Islah Shura Council, women represent 9.1 percent, and in its General Secretariat they represent 6.3 percent of the total members. Women represent 9.01 percent of the total members in the Socialist Party's Central Committee, and 10.52 percent in the General Secretariat.