Debating the War on Women

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Unquestionably, the plight of Arab women is cause for considerable alarm. And it only seems to have gotten worse since the Arab uprisings began. For this reason, Mona Eltahawy’s recent Foreign Policy essay makes for vital reading. But how and why did it get this bad? The answers to this question are perhaps just as troubling, and require far greater consideration than Eltahawy allows. In Egypt, women were at the frontlines of revolt. But when it came time to cast their votes, the majority of Egyptian women voted for parties that do not believe in “gender equality” as most Westerners would understand the term. Presumably, men did not force them to do so. The fact of the matter is that Arab women, throughout the region, are exercising their moral and political agency, but not necessarily in the ways we might expect.

In Kuwait, Islamists vocally opposed giving women the right to vote. But when women were eventually granted suffrage, Islamist parties did just as well, if not better, in subsequent elections. In other words, women, in large numbers, were exercising their right to vote for candidates who did not believe they had the right to vote in the first place. Meanwhile, in an April 2011 poll, only 18 percent of Egyptian respondents said they would “support a woman president.” Breaking it down by gender, female respondents were more open to the idea than men were. But the vast majority — 73 percent — still said they would not support a female presidential candidate.

The reality is that democracy and liberalism do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, at least not in the Arab world. If anything, the opposite is true. Democracy means that governments need to be responsive to the will of the people. But the will of Arab men, and even Arab women, does not seem to be particularly supportive of the Western conception of gender equality.

Which brings us to an uncomfortable question: What if Arabs decide they want to be illiberal? The Arab Spring provided an opportunity for the United States to align itself with the universal values that so many Arabs hold dear — the right to be free, to vote, to peacefully protest, to express their opinions without fear of persecution. But some seemingly universal values — regarding not just gender but a number of other issues — are not universally held. It is a slippery slope. The controversial Indian feminist Gayatri Spivak took this sort of cultural relativism to its logical but troubling conclusion when she argued that British attempts to abolish suttee — a tradition in which a woman burns herself to death after her husband dies — denied Indian women their own agency.

In feminist studies, including the work of Alison Assiterand Judith Butler, there has been a long-running debate between those who prioritize “empowerment” and those who privilege “equality.” It soon became clear — and is now becoming clearer — that the former did not necessarily lead to the latter. But where does that leave the rest of us? What the international community can and should do is promote programs and initiatives that empower women’s participation in political life while realizing that, once empowered, Arab women may make decisions that we find bizarre or objectionable.

There are no shortcuts. The most direct interventions are gender quotas in parliament and other elected bodies. Before the Arab Spring, I was generally againstquotas because autocratic regimes used them for reasons that had much more to do with holding power than helping women. Now that new democracies are (hopefully) emerging in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, there is a chance to start anew. Tunisia’s quota system — requiring that parties include equal number of men and women on their lists — is a model worth studying. But some caution is in order. As James Liddell, the author of a study of gender quotas in Morocco, notes, “One of the most problematic assumptions behind quotas is that having more women in parliament somehow represents a de facto gain for women’s causes.”

Indeed, in Tunisia, nearly 86 percent of the women elected under the new quota — 42 out of 49 parliamentarians — were from the Islamist party al-Nahda. As it turns out, quota systems generally benefit the largest, best organized parties, which in the Arab world are invariably Islamist. (This is because smaller, liberal parties can often only win one seat in a given district, and even liberal parties will almost always put a man at the top of the list.)

In Tunisia’s case, the gap between al-Nahda’s overall share of seats in parliament (only 41.5 percent) and its share of women’s seats was a remarkable 44 percent. If Egypt applied the Tunisian model, Islamist women — represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative al-Nour party — could win as much as 90 percent of the total women’s seats. Quotas, then, are a mixed bag. If the goal is empowerment, then quotas do exactly what they’re supposed to do: empower (some) women to play political roles that society wouldn’t otherwise allow them to play. But if the goal is promoting a particular, “liberal” conception of women’s role in society, then quotas are insufficient to the task.

Quotas, like any top-down solution, fail to address the root of the problem — that the prevailing culture in the Arab world, for now at least, does not view women the same way that Western cultures do. In other words, getting to gender equality is probably going to take a very long time. The other possibility, and the more likely one, is that Arab societies will decide to go their own way — a different way — on women’s rights. And they may do so both democratically and with the support and active encouragement of Arab women themselves.