Lindsay J. Benstead, Portland State University

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Adaptation Strategies of Islamist Parties and Movements  workshop held at George Washington University January 27, 2017. POMEPS Studies 26 is a collection of the memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

How do Islamist parties under varying degrees of repression or freedom govern and in what ways does this impact the quality or equality of governance? In a recent article written with Mounah Abdel-Samad, we examined this question in Tunisia, where Ennahda operates in a minimalist democracy and is, thus, free to implement electoral strategies and represent constituents in accordance with Islamist values and ideology.[1]

Ennahda emerged as an electorally successful party in the country’s first free elections, winning the largest proportion of seats (37 percent) in the Constituent Assembly in 2011 and achieving second place (32 percent) in 2014. We find that Ennahda governs differently from non-Islamist parties, resulting in an Islamist mandate effect and better symbolic and service representation of women. By examining evidence from two other cases – Morocco and Algeria – we also clarify the conditions under which the Islamist mandate effect operates and shed light on how Islamist parties adapt to freer electoral environments, where they are better able to govern according to their values, and why it improves governance for women.

Islamist Parties and Women’s Representation: The Case of Tunisia

Substantial literature shows that women are marginalized from political networks in clientelistic settings (Beck 2003; Goetz 2002, 2007; Tripp 2001) and, as a result, face barriers to elected office (Bjarnegård 2013) and services. Surveys of Moroccan and Algerian parliamentarians and Libyan citizens find that females have significantly less access to clientelistic services, but that electing women, particularly through quotas, reduces the gender gap (Benstead 2015, 2016a, b). Apart from a few studies (Arat 2005; Blaydes 2014), however, little is known about how Islamists – or Islamist women – impact women’s access to services or ability to interact with elected officials.

Indeed, despite the growing role of Islamist parties in MENA politics, most literature and public attention focuses on how these movements impact substantive representation of women’s rights.[2] Many pundits see the Arab spring’s Islamist victories as a winter for women (Barchrach 2011). Yet while the media and scholarly literature debate Islamist parties’ impact on women’s rights (Marks 2012; Unal 2016), little research has examined their impact on women’s symbolic and service representation. Briefly, symbolic responsiveness is interactions with constituents (Eulau and Karps 1977), which build trust and engagement and create conditions for service and substantive representation, in the form of club goods and legislation. Service responsiveness is providing services, such as healthcare, electricity, or jobs (Benstead 2016a). In authoritarian regimes, service responsiveness reinforces clientelistic norms, but provides critical services for marginalized groups.

Conventional wisdom assumes that Islamist successes negatively affect women, whether in terms of family laws, service provision, or other governance outcomes. Yet literature on Islamist parties and governance suggests the picture is more nuanced; some studies suggest that Islamist parties benefit women by improving governance outcomes like healthcare (Blaydes 2014). Others suggest that the chief obstacle to gender inequality in government services may not be Islamism, but clientelism, which is deeply embedded in the Arab world’s authoritarian and transitional political contexts and advantages men due to their structural and numerical dominance in positons of power (Sung 2003; Bjarnegård 2013).[3] Because Islamist parties are more internally democratic than some non-Islamist parties, serve marginalized communities, and institutionalize constituency service to avoid corruption and patronage, electing Islamists may diminish males’ advantages accessing clientelistic networks and improve women’s access to services. This would be particularly true if Islamist parties use women to mobilize female supporters in sex segregated, female environments such as homes, mosques, and social events, which increases women’s access to clientelistic networks, while diminishing access for men, thus, creating greater gender equality.

In our paper, we take advantage of increased Islamist and female representation in transitional Tunisia, where Ennahda won 37 percent of seats and women gained 31 percent of seats due to a legislated quota in the 2011 Constituent Assembly elections, to test the impact of female and Islamist deputies on women’s symbolic and service representation. To do so, we create three binary dependent variables, whether the