By Carla Beth Abdo, University of Maryland
*This essay was prepared for the Women and gender in Middle East politics workshop, March 11, 2016.
On December 17, 2010, a fruit vendor by the name of Mohammad Bouazizi doused himself in paint-thinner and lit himself on fire as an act of political protest in Sidi Bou Zid, Tunisia. Bouazizi could not have known that his actions would reverberate across the region, leading to calls for democratic change and reform through the Arab world. Using the Status of Women in the Middle East and North Africa study conducted in 2010 by the International Foundation for Electoral Studies, examining the electoral behavior of women in the transitioning Arab world merits further discussion. Using Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen as cases representing the Levant, North Africa, and the Arabian peninsula respectively, this study examines the propensity to vote among women, and examines the question as to whether or not impositions on women’s personal space reduces political participation.
This is not the first examination of the gender-based implications of space. According to Sherine Hafez in her piece, Egypt, Uprising and Gender Politics: Gendering Bodies/Gendering Space, women’s bodies are often the source of contention in public life. In the Egyptian context, measures against female mobilization included virginity tests, sexual assaults, fatwas (religious decrees) validating the rape of unveiled activists, all of which were implemented explicitly to demobilize politically active women. The findings in this research indicate that mechanisms of demobilization which are based on the gendered body occur not only in the public sphere, but also in the private sphere.
According to the polls conducted by IFES (accessible from www.swmena.org), the turnout rate for women varied significantly across these three countries. In 2010, 80 percent of Lebanese women voted compared to 79 percent of men, 46 percent of Moroccan women voted compared to 55 percent of men, and 58 percent of Yemeni women voted compared to 83 percent of men.
In all three countries, voting is not only an exercise in political participation. It is also an occasion to elect a leader who will provide basic services and goods as a reward, such as food, jobs, scholarships — even repairing basic infrastructure, such as roads and fences. Ultimately however, visiting the polls is the most widespread modicum of political self-representation. While it should come as no surprise that those who are of lower socio-economic status and those who come from marginalized socio-political social groups are less likely to vote, one unusual regulatory mechanism comes into play when discussing the electoral habits of women. It appears as though familial control over mobility demobilizes women, ultimately reducing their political presence in the midst of political change.
A region typically associated with communal behaviors and strong familial ties, most Arab youth (male or female) live with their parents until marriage. In this context, men move from living in their family homes to become heads of their own households, whereas women who marry are not often given roles of familial leadership. This is clearly reflected in the experience of familial control over mobility, as women typically go from being under the authority of their parents to that of their husbands.
When women were asked how free the felt to leave the home without permission from either husbands or parents, 39 percent of Lebanese women surveyed stated that they feel restricted, while in Morocco, 62 percent admitted feeling restrictions of this nature. Similarly in Yemen, 61.84 percent of female respondents do not feel that they can leave the house independently. In Yemen, the law explicitly restricts independent mobility among women, making gender-based restrictions on mobility not only the norm, but also legally sanctified. Though this is not the case in Morocco, the cultural practice in many parts of Morocco includes refraining leaving home without a male guardian, particularly in rural areas.
Among women who said that they feel restricted to leave the home in Lebanon, 37 percent did not show up to the polls, compared to 22 percent among those who felt completely free. In Morocco, 57 percent of women who said they felt restricted did not vote, compared to 50 percent of women said that they feel free to leave the home. In Yemen, 46 percent of women of women who did not feel free to leave the house did not vote, compared to 36 percent of women who experience freedom of mobility. In all three cases, it appears as though the proportion of voter attrition is higher among women who do not feel free to leave the home independently, although the strength of this relationship is more salient in Morocco and Lebanon. In Lebanon, a woman who feels free to leave home independently is 29 percent more likely to vote than a woman who does not, and in Morocco, women who feel free to leave home independently are 34 percent more likely to vote.
Interestingly, women who asserted that they did not feel free to leave home independently tended to be younger, less educated, less likely to be employed, and had fewer material assets in the form of either income or property ownership. Moreover, they were less likely to have regular access to healthcare and other social services. Among women, those who are not participating tend to be dominated at home, and have limited larger social capital. Indeed, it appears as though female political participation is more likely to occur among women who are already employed, educated, have higher levels income, and have access to social services. As such, impositions on personal space compounded with fewer material resources could both be demobilizing women.
In the context of the transitioning Middle East, it appears as though a substantial social cleavage of the total electorate which is vulnerable to social distress is not participating. Given the absence of their voices, it appears as though the promises of revolutionary measures may not include policies that would address acute social needs. These would include creating scholarships which target women, increasing access to healthcare, and creating incentives for employers to hire women. Ultimately, it appears as though to those who are more vulnerable, much will go unaddressed. However, this is not to imply that the socio-political scene is unchanged — for vulnerable minorities and other groups — since 2010 in either Lebanon, Morocco, or Yemen.
In 2011, Houthi rebels engaged in the Yemeni revolution calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2014, the Houthi insurgency took over the presidential palace, leading to the ouster of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in early 2015. At this point, Yemen is experiencing violent political conflict not only between Houthi rebels and those who are loyal to the regime, but also with ISIS.
In Lebanon, rivalry between the March 8th and March 14th coalitions has led to the failure of parliament to elect a president, as the March 8th camp continues to boycott attending presidential election sessions unless Michel Aoun, their candidate for president, is determined to be the president beforehand. Undermining the concept of democracy, these tactics have led to a void in the presidential office for nearly two years. Moreover, parliamentary elections cannot be held without first holding presidential ones. Moreover, Lebanon is also dealing with an influx of approximately 2 million Syrian refugees, and increasing levels of political violence from Syrian rebels fighting from Lebanese territory. There have also been terrorist attacks from ISIS on Lebanese soil.
In Morocco, substantial political change has occurred since 2010. In response to Moroccan protestors, Morocco transformed its style of governance from that of an absolute monarchy to that of a constitutional one. The Islamist opposition Party of Justice and Development has a plurality in parliament, and the government has allowed Moroccan citizens increased civil freedom in the form of increased political expression. By that same token, it is appropriate to characterize Morocco as a country that is transitioning into democracy, rather than one where democratic transition has been solidified.
At this point, it appears as though heavy political unrest is dominating the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, leaving existing political structures little room to accommodate for new political discourses, or create substantive reformatory policy. What these statistics show is that even under circumstances where political restructuring is effective, female political participation is framed with mechanisms of familial control, thereby limiting the ability of female voters to consolidate and mobilize into a particular socio-political bloc with interests that need to be addressed.
Admittedly, increased voting among women is no guarantee of either policies which allow for increased gender equity, or even an increased female presence in legislature. In Marwa Shalaby’s piece Women’s Political Representation and Authoritarianism in the Arab World, she shows that the Middle East has the least number of female politicians respective to other regions, and female politicians in the Arab world do not advocate for women’s issues, such as domestic violence, honor crimes, antiquated personal status laws, and unequal wages. In her examination of Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait, it appears as though the women bring up gender-specific political issues a maximum of 3 percent of the time. This trend is salient throughout the Arab world.
Ultimately, the Arab Spring has done little for female voters in Lebanon, Morocco, or Yemen. Women experience significant demobilizing obstacles within the home, and do not enjoy an external political environment where addressing women’s issues is welcomed. In the final analysis, there appears to be no sign of addressing gender-based socio-political inequity in the immediate future.
Carla Beth Abdo is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, in their department of Government and Politics. Her research interests are gender politics, Middle Eastern studies, environmental politics, and conflict.
 S. Tang, Oral communication with author, March 11, 2016, POMEPS workshop,Washington, D.C. Sasa Tang is a doctoral student at American University. Her specialization is gender politics in the Middle East, and she worked as the Communication and Public Relations Officer at the Amal Women’s Training Center in Morocco from July 2014-June 2015.
 Samaha, N. and Chugtai, A. 2015. Lebanon At Crossroads. Accessed from: http://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2015/lebanoncrossroads/
 Masbah, M. 2015. His Majesty’s Islamists: The Moroccan Experience. Accessed from: