Women’s Political Representation and Authoritarianism in the Arab World

By Marwa Shalaby, Rice University

*This essay was prepared for the Women and gender in Middle East politics workshop, March 11, 2016.

On January 10, 2016, Egypt convened its first parliament under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after almost four years of constitutional gridlock and electoral maneuvering.[1] In an election marked by overwhelming public apathy and the noticeable absence of youth, female candidates managed to win merely 17 out of the 420 contested seats in the single-member districts, in addition to the 56 provisional quota seats allocated to women through the closed party lists.[2] President Sisi subsequently appointed 14 women to parliament, thereby increasing the number of female MPs in the lower chamber to 87 (i.e., about 15 percent of the total seats). While deemed an improvement compared to Egypt’s 2011 People’s Assembly under Mohamed Morsi’s rule[3] — when women won only 10 of the 508 contested seats[4] — the current situation does not indicate a major leap for women’s political representation compared to pre-Arab Spring.[5]

This reality is not particularly unique to the Egyptian context. Women in the Arab world continue to face numerous obstacles toward achieving parity in elected legislative bodies. Arab states have one of the lowest rates of women’s political representation at 17 percent, compared to 27 percent in both Europe and the Americas (IPU 2015). There are also stark variations across the region in terms of the numerical presence of women in Arab parliaments that have remained mostly unexplained.[6] For instance, whereas a few Arab countries have attempted to bridge the gender gap in the political arena by means of constitutional and electoral mechanisms (i.e., Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco), the majority of the region continues to lag behind with the lowest percentages of women in national legislatures globally (i.e., Qatar, Yemen, and Oman). While previous studies have mainly focused on the role of traditional and patriarchal gender norms (Abou-Zeid 1998, 2006; Sabbagh 2007), religion (Fish 2002; Karam 1998), international pressure (Krook et al. 2010; Tripp 2005), women’s movements (Brand 1998; Moghadam 2014), economic and structural factors (Ross 2008; Kang 2009), and the effect of institutional mechanisms (Amawi 2007; Dahlerup 2009; Darhour and Dahlerup 2013; David and Nanes 2011), on shaping women’s access to the political arena, little or no attention was paid to the impact of the politics of authoritarianism in shaping not only women’s numerical presence in national legislatures (i.e., descriptive representation), but most importantly, their legislative behavior and policy priorities once in office (i.e., substantive representation) (Brand 1998; Liddell 2009; Sater 2012; Shalaby 2015).[7]

The main goal of this short paper – which is a part of a larger book project – is not just to understand why and under what conditions women are more numerically represented in some Arab countries compared to others, but also to shed light on the varying effects of authoritarian politics on women’s substantive representation. The first section of this paper offers a brief overview of the impact of authoritarian politics in shaping women’s numerical presence in Arab parliaments. The second section explicates how the current situation has impacted women’s substantive representation and policy priorities, using original cross-national parliamentary data from three Arab monarchies: Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait. The concluding section summarizes the findings and highlights prospects towards empowering Arab women in the decision-making process post-Arab Spring.

Why are So Few Women Elected to Arab Parliaments?

Whereas previous explanations for women’s political underrepresentation has been mostly limited to socio-economic and cultural factors, this research contends that the politics of authoritarianism is one of the key factors hindering women’s access to political power. Female candidates do face numerous challenges to garner voter support and confidence, but the real issue lies at the top levels of power where electoral outcomes are manufactured, even manipulated, by the ruling elites to ensure their survival while maintaining the facade of fair and free elections. In addition, the sluggish democratization process and the failed aspirations of political liberalization have negatively impacted women’s political representation, even with the frequent promises of gender reforms under state feminism.[8] Finally, the opacity and volatility of the rules of the game under such autocratic regimes, combined with the fragmentation of party systems, have minimized women’s prospects for playing a more meaningful role in the electoral arena.

Despite the fact that promoting women’s presence in elected office has been part of state feminism efforts in several Arab countries over the past few decades (i.e., Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan), these efforts were least successful compared to other gender-related reforms (such as the CPS in Tunisia and the Mudawana reforms in Morocco). On the one hand, the struggle for power among male elites — especially given these regimes’ limited political openings — and their reluctance to cede power have created a hostile environment for women’s inclusion in the decision-making process. On the other hand, most of these state-orchestrated efforts have always been associated with attempts to build support, consolidate power and/or in reaction to imminent legitimacy crises (Tunisia in 1956 and 1989, Morocco in 2002, Saudi Arabia in 2015, and Egypt in 2015 are prominent examples), or as a reaction to mounting international pressure (Bush 2011, 2015; Welborne 2010), with no genuine interest in empowering women in politics.

While some studies have demonstrated that institutional mechanisms, such as quotas, can remedy gender inequalities in politics regardless of the country’s level of democracy (Tripp and Kang 2008), recent research has shown that this is not necessarily the case in the Arab world. As maintained by Goulding (2009, 76) studying Tunisia, “the efficacy of gender quotas set forth to encourage women to become active participants in their government is hindered by the authoritarian structure in which they exist.” James Sater (2012, 73) found similar findings for the Moroccan case as he argues that quota mechanisms are indeed “embedded” in the fabric of existing authoritarian structures, with very limited impact on producing genuine change.

Furthermore, the volatility of election rules and the continual maneuvering of the electoral scene have led to paramount uncertainty not only among elites, but also among political candidates and voters, which further impedes women’s presence in politics. Besides, the fragmentation — and in some instances, the absence — of coherent party systems in most parts in the region have contributed to limiting women’s access to political office. Previous research has shown that political parties play a crucial role in the advancement of women in the electoral arena, especially when combined with inclusive electoral systems (i.e., proportional representation), placement mandates on the party lists, and noncompliance sanctions.

Women’s Substantive Representation in Arab Parliaments: The Gender and Elections in the Middle East Project (GEMEP)

Female parliamentarians face many challenges to gain access to politics, only to encounter a hostile and aggressive environment in these predominantly “masculine” councils. As maintained by Safa al-Hashem, the only female MP in the most recent Kuwaiti Parliament, upon her resignation in May 2014,[9] “There are overwhelming levels of corruption within the Kuwaiti Parliament. I have never been able to exercise my legislative role.”[10] Although previous studies have provided scattered evidence on the implications of women’s numerical presence in Arab legislatures, there is currently no research that explains the role of authoritarian politics on women’s substantive representation (i.e., policy preferences and priorities). Thanks to the Governance and Elections in the Middle East Project (GEMEP), launched in 2013 by the Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program at Rice University’s Baker Institute, researchers are able, for the first time, to better understand the policy stances of both male and female legislators in MENA’s legislative bodies. Analyzing parliamentary data from three MENA countries — Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait — offers a unique opportunity to understand the dynamics of power in these elected councils. The countries included in this analysis are three Arab monarchies with various demographic and cultural similarities that have enjoyed considerable stability over the past few decades and have remained relatively untouched by the sweeping winds of the Arab Spring.

To better understand the legislative process in these assemblies, it is important to briefly highlight their current electoral arrangements. In 2002, Morocco introduced a 10 percent “gentlemen’s agreement” quota for women in the National Assembly (30 reserved seats on national party lists). Morocco currently has 17 percent female representation in parliament. Jordan adopted a 5 percent legislative quota system in 2003 that increased to 12 percent in 2013. Kuwait did not grant women the right to vote and run for office until 2005. In the 2009 elections, four women were able to win seats in the parliament for the first time (about 8 percent of total seats). There are also significant variations in the electoral systems in the three cases. In Morocco, elections are based on the list proportional system, while Kuwait employs the block vote system. Finally, Jordan implements the single non-transferrable vote (SNTV) system.[11]

Figure 1 summarizes the cross-national data — mainly the parliamentary questions proposed by female MPs during earlier parliamentary sessions in each of these countries. Data was collected and coded according to the comparative agenda project’s coding[12] scheme (major topics), and the researchers added two additional categories of specific relevance to the focus of this research (women’s issues and corruption[13]). The data for Jordan is from February 2013 to May 2015. As for Kuwait, data was collected since women gained access to the Assembly in 2009 until 2012. Finally, the Moroccan data presented in this paper is from January 2012 to July 2013.

Figure 1 shows stark variations in proposing “women’s domain” parliamentary questions across the three countries.[14] While female MPs are consistently interested in raising questions about feminine (i.e., women-friendly) issues – such as health and education – very few female MPs are working on advancing particularly “feminist” issues, especially in Jordan and Kuwait.[15] The female MPs in Kuwait’s Parliament have proposed only 2 percent of the questions focusing on women/child/family issues (N=3300), while female politicians in the Jordanian Parliament did not propose a single question on this topic (N=2900). Women in the Moroccan parliament have asked about 58 percent of the total questions in Parliament, but only 3 percent of these questions were focused on gender-related issues (N=3000).

While this may not seem surprising to legislative politics scholars in established democracies enjoying some level of gender equality, this finding is worthy of note given the context of the MENA region. Women across the region continue to face numerous challenges that have remained unaddressed for decades, such as soaring rates of domestic violence, honor crimes, antiquated personal status laws, and unequal wages. The core of representation theory is that female MPs would work on “translating” pressing policy issues and interests into legislative outcomes in favor of these marginalized groups (Phillips 1995) and would be their “voice” in these decision-making institutions. However, this does not seem to be the case in the countries under study. Future research will include additional individual-level and contextual data to unravel this intriguing paradox.

Figure 1: Percentage of Parliamentary Questions Posed By Female MPs


A closer look at Figure 2 provides some evidence supporting previous studies on the role of elections and legislative politics in the region. As maintained by Lust (2008), elections in the region are meaningful political phenomena, but they serve “different” purposes. Elections in these contexts are merely a fierce competition over the allocation of state resources; thus, voters are more likely to vote for those with access to the ruling elites and/or who are capable of offering material gains and benefits (Lust 2006). Despite the fact that these are preliminary findings of the first phase of the GEMEP project, data presented in Figure 2 shows that the top four categories (out of 19 different categories) in the cross-national analysis of questions posed by female MPs were about education, health, employment, and government operations and budgets. Interestingly, female MPs are heavily invested in determining government spending and allocations in all three countries, which supports previous studies on the idea of service MPs (i.e., the main role of MPs is to perform constituency service rather than actual policymaking).

Finally, it is interesting to see that the path to gaining access to political office did not have much impact on women’s legislative behavior in these three parliaments. In other words, the policy priorities and preferences of female candidates elected through the quota system in Jordan or the reserved party quota in Morocco were not that distinct from those of the female MPs in Kuwait who came to office via direct elections. There are slight variations in their legislative behavior and policy agendas, which also confirm the strong impact of the broader political context and the existing dynamics of power in shaping their priorities in these elected bodies.

Figure 2: Comparison of the Top Five Priorities of Legislators in Kuwait, Jordan, and Morocco


Conclusions and Implications

This analysis contends that scholars need to pay more attention to the effect of authoritarian politics on shaping women’s political representation in the region. Comparative politics scholars have focused on understanding the dynamics and the functions of political institutions (i.e., elections, parliaments, legislatures) under authoritarian rule and their impact on regimes’ durability and survival. However, most of these studies were conducted in isolation of the larger political context, and our knowledge continues to be lacking, especially in regard to the intertwined relationship between gender, politics, and authoritarianism.

The findings of this paper are one step toward bridging this gap. Future research will focus on explaining variations among political actors — especially female legislators —based on political party, tribal and/or bloc affiliation using the GEMEP data. It would be also very interesting to investigate what types of individualized services provided to women and/or women’s groups by those female MPS. Further studies will also pay special attention to legislators’ policy responsiveness by comparing their policy stances and priorities to the public using survey data. The preliminary findings presented in this paper have shown that legislators are not addressing the most pressing topics for the mass public, such as combating corruption, and bridging the income gap.[16] However, more research is needed to better understand the impact of the Arab Spring on influencing both legislators’ and voters’ orientations, especially given the fact that we now have data available to investigate such connections.

The Arab Spring has undoubtedly brought about a set of tremendous challenges to the region, but it also created some hope for women’s political empowerment. The recent parity clause in the Tunisian constitution that was implemented in the country’s most recent parliamentary elections is deemed a major achievement for women post–Arab Spring. Algeria has also enforced a mandatory party quota in 2012.[17] Women now constitute 30 percent of the Algerian Parliament. While it is still too early to gauge the impact of increased women’s presence in these legislative bodies, it would be very interesting to see whether critical mass theories can actually overcome the shackles of authoritarianism and to promote more women-friendly policies in this part of the world.

Marwa Shalaby is the fellow for the Middle East and director, Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program, at Rice University’s Baker Institute.



[1] The lower chamber is now called the House of Representatives instead of the People’s Assembly, according to Law 46, issued in 2014. This same law also abolished the Upper House (Majlis Al-Shura).

[2] According to Law 46, there are 568 total seats in the lower chamber. 420 seats are elected via the plurality system, and the other 120 seats are elected via closed party lists. In addition, the President has the authority to appoint 28 additional members to the parliament.

[3] The previous People’s Assembly (PA) under former President Morsi was elected via a mixed electoral system, with two-thirds of the assembly elected through proportional lists (46 proportional party lists) and one-third (83 members) elected through individual lists. The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) ordered the dissolution of the PA in June 2012, ruling it unconstitutional. The ruling was based on the fact that the electoral system in place favored political parties (mainly the Islamist ones) over individual candidates who did not get an equal chance to compete.

[4] Female candidates were placed at the bottom of the electoral lists in 2011 elections due to the absence of placement mandates.

[5] The last PA under Mubarak’s regime had 64 females out of 444 seats (about 15 percent).

[6] Women today hold on average 27 percent of legislative seats in the Maghreb, compared with an average of 10 percent in the rest of the MENA countries.

[7] This paper relies on Levitsky and Way’s definition of authoritarianism as:” a regime in which no viable channels exist for opposition to contest legally for executive power.” (2010,7).

[8] Brand (1998, 10) describes state feminism as “policies directed from (as well as generally formulated at) the state leadership level, which aim at mobilizing or channeling women’s (re) productive capabilities and coopting them into support for the state through such programs as raising literacy, increasing access to the labor market, establishing state-sponsored women’s organizations, generally along the lines of the single-party model.”

[9] Fadiyah al-Za’bi, “Two More MPs are Leaving the National Assembly,” Elaf, accessed August 25, 2015, http://elaph.com/Web/News/2014/5/900885.html.

[10]Another prominent example was the “Sit Down Hind” incident that received extensive media and international attention. The incident took place in December 2014 when Hind al-Fayez, a Jordanian female MP elected via the quota system, was asked by one of her fellow MPs (Yahya al-Saud) to sit down and stop talking. When she ignored his repeated requests, al-Saud started slamming female representation in the Parliament by repeating “God curse the person who brought the women’s quota in the Jordanian Parliament.” http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/08/world/meast/jordan-female-parliament/

[11] Voters can cast only one vote regardless of the district magnitude—also known as “one-person-one-vote” system.

[12] For more details see http://www.policyagendas.org.

[13] Most public opinion surveys in the region have repeatedly shown that corruption is deemed one of the most pressing issues facing these countries at the present. The research team added the category “combating corruption” to the coding categories to better understand the responsiveness of legislative bodies to the constituency.

[14] Despite disagreement among scholars in regard to distinguishing women’s domains from men’s domains, this study conceptualizes women’s domain issues as those related to: women’s issues, family and child issues, health and education.

[15] See Schwindt-Bayer (2006) for more details on the differentiation between “feminine” and “feminist” issues.

[16] These were the most frequent responses to the question, “what is the most important problem facing your country at the present?” in regional public opinion surveys, mainly the Arab Barometer data.

[17] Law No.12 of January 12, 2012 stipulated that political parties should include female candidates on their party lists according to the size of the constituency. As a result, women’s presence in the Algerian Parliament leaped from merely 8 percent in 2007 to more than 30 percent in 2012.


Abou-Zeid, Gihan. 1998. “In Search of Political Power: Women in Parliament in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon.” In Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers, ed. Azza Karam. Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 43-54.

Amawi, Abla. 2007. “Against all Odds: Women Candidates in Jordanian Elections.” In From Patriarchy to Empowerment, ed. Valentine M. Moghadam. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 40-57.

Brand, Laurie. 1998. Women, the State, and Political Liberalization. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bush, Sarah. 2015. “Forms of International Pressure and the Middle East.” Project on Middle East Political Science. http://pomeps.org/2015/08/21/forms-of-international-pressure-and-the-middle-east/.

Bush, Sarah S. 2011. “International Politics and the Spread of Quotas for Women in Legislatures.” International Organization 65: 103–137.

Dahlerup, Drude (ed.). 2006. “The Arab Region: Women’s Access to the Decision-making Process Across the Arab Nation.” Women, Quotas and Politics. New York: Routledge, 168-193.

Dahlerup, Drude, 2009. “Women in Arab Parliaments: Can Gender Quotas Contribute to democratization? Al-Raida 126, no. 27: 28–38.

Darhour, Hanane, and Drude Dahlerup. 2013. “Sustainable Representation of Women through Gender Quotas: A Decade’s Experience in Morocco.” Women’s Studies International Forum 41, no. 2: 132-142.

David, Assaf, and Stefanie Nanes. 2011. “The Women’s Quota in Jordan’s Municipal Councils: International and Domestic Dimensions.” Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 32, no. 4: 275-304.

Fish, M. Stephen. 2002. “Islam and Authoritarianism.” World Politics 55, no. 1: 4-37.

Goulding, Kristine. 2009. “Unjustifiable Means to Unjustifiable Ends: Delegitimizing Parliamentary Gender Quotas in Tunisia.” Al-Raida 126-127: 71-78.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2015. Women in National Parliaments 2015. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm.

Kang, Alice. 2009. “Studying Oil, Islam, and Women as if Political Institutions Mattered.” Politics & Gender 5: 560-568.

Karam, Azza, ed. 1998. Women in Politics Beyond Numbers. Stockholm: IDEA.

Krook, Mona L., Diana Z. O’Brian, and Krista M. Swip. 2010. “Military Invasion and Women’s Political Representation.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 12, no. 1: 66-79.

Liddell, James. 2009. “Gender Quotas in Clientelist Systems: The Case of Morocco’s National List.” Al-raida 126-127: 79-86.

Lust, Ellen. 2006. “Elections Under Authoritarianism: Preliminary Lessons From Jordan.” Democratization 13, no. 3: 455-470.

Lust, Ellen, Saloua Zarhouni, and Lynne Rienner (Eds). 2009. “Competitive Clientelism in Jordanian Elections.” Political Participation in the Middle East.

Moghadam, Valentine M. 2014. “Democratization and Women’s Political Leadership in North Africa.” Journal of International Affairs 68, no. 1: 59-78.

Phillips, Anne. 1995. The Politics of Presence. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.

Sabbagh, Amal. 2007. “Overview of Women’s Political Representation in the Arab Region: Opportunities and Challenges.” The Arab Quota Report: Selected Case Studies. Stockholm, Sweden: IDEA–International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 7-18.

Sater, James N. 2012. “Reserved seats, patriarchy, and patronage in Morocco.” The Impact of Gender Quotas, eds. Susan Franceschet, Mona Lena Krook, and Jennifer M. Piscopo. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schwindt-Bayer, Leslie A. 2006. “Still Supermadres? Gender and the Policy Priorities of Latin American Legislators.” American Journal of Political Science 50, no. 3: 570-85.

Shalaby, Marwa. 2015. “Women’s Political Representation in Kuwait: An Untold Story.” Report. James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, Houston, TX.

Ross, Michael. 2008. “Oil, Islam and Women.” American Political Science Review 102, no. 1: 107-123.

Tripp, Aili. 2005. “Legislative Quotas for Women: Implications for Governance in Africa.” African Parliaments: Between Government and Governance, ed. Mohamed A. Salih. Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Tripp, Aili Mari, and Alice Kang. 2008. “The Global Impact of Quotas: On the Fast Track to Increased Female Legislative Representation.” Comparative Political Studies 41: 338–61.

Welborne, Bozena C. 2010. “The Strategic use of Gender Quotas in the Arab World.” William and Kathy Hybl Democracy Studies Fellowship Paper. Washington, DC: International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *