Are Quotas for Women in Politics a Good Idea?

Pros and cons of requiring national parliaments to include a minimum number of women

Coleman Jan11 P.jpg

Afghan parliamentary delegates wait for the start of a conference in Bonn, Germany / Reuters

Quotas for women seem to be the hot thing in the Middle East these days. Libya just announced a 10 percent quota for women in its new election law. Tunisia used a form of quotas to enhance women's participation in its recent election. Iraq has used quotas in parliament and just expanded the use of quotas for women to the civil service; Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan have also used quotas. Over the past week, I've received several queries from blog readers about quotas: Which countries use them? How do they work? Are they democratic? Are they even effective? These are all big questions, and to answer them thoroughly is beyond the scope of this blog post, so here is just a snap-shot.

Iraq has a quota reserving 25 percent of parliamentary seats for women. Of the 86 current female parliamentarians, only 5 won enough votes in 2010 to be elected without the quota. Many of the women on party lists were relatives of politicitians or from prominent families, who ran simply to allow the party to fulfill the legal requirement for female representation. Women's impact on policy and effective governance  has been limited. The number of female ministers has in fact declined in the last ten years, largely due to the delicate powersharing arrangements that political parties have reached that divvy up ministerial spots to party leaders (who are men). As I wrote in my book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East: Iraqi female members of parliament have been regularly insulted by their male colleagues and relegated to working on "women's issues." Still, they are in the political mix, and a few have become political role models for a younger generation of aspiring female politicians coming up through the ranks. The government seems happy enough with the quotas that they've extended them to new hires in the public sector.

A new quota mandates that women make up 50 percent of new hires in the Health and Education ministries and 30 percent in all other ministries. While this could help ease high levels of unemployment for women, it will also compound the trend in Gulf countries where women are disproportionately employed in the public sector.

Tunisia also implemented a quota for women's participation in their parliamentary elections at the end of October. Following a closed-list proportional representation system, parties were required to have equal numbers of men and women on their list, alternating candidates by gender. This is known as a "zippered" list, and effectively guarantees that women will win seats, though the quota does not define a percentage of seats allocated for women. Overall, women won 23 percent of seats in parliament. (Forty-two of the 49 women elected are from the Islamist Al Nahda party, which won the lion's share of the votes.)

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Isobel Coleman is the Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at Council on Foreign Relations. She writes at "Democracy in Development."

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