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Women - A Moderating Influence on Islamic Fundamentalism

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
February 2003
The Princeton Independent


While the western world debates whether regime change in Iraq could unleash democracy in the region, several neighboring countries have held their first elections in years. The process, and results, should be of great interest to the U.S. since in almost every Muslim country, fundamentalist forces are on the rise. The question is can an emerging democratic process co-opt Islamist parties into the political system, or will Islamists use the democratic process to take control of government and impose a harsh, theocratic state.

Some leaders in authoritarian Muslim countries recognize that long-term modernization must be accompanied by greater political freedom. They appear committed to a gradual process of democratization and, critically, to including women in that process. Women are not only vital to a country’s economic development, but can also be a political bulwark against some of the more extremist elements in society. True, many women are highly conservative in these countries, and support Islamists parties, but women can and do form important constituencies concerned with their own basic human rights.

To be an effective constituency, women need to be nurtured, both as candidates and voters, particularly in Muslim countries where their role in political and civil society has long been repressed. Women as candidates are up against tradition, religious discourse, a hostile media, and chilling smear campaigns. As voters, they suffer the consequences of disproportionate female illiteracy and lack of access to basic identity cards. Yet, in two traditional Muslim countries, Morocco and Pakistan, strong-handed leaders deem women so crucial to their development goals that they mandated significant female electoral quotas in elections last year.

Morocco’s elections on September 27th, 2002, the first in more than 5 years, were arguably the cleanest the country has experienced. The fundamentalists made a strong showing (with the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) tripling its share of lower parliament seats, from 14 to 42), despite significant efforts to restrict them. Simultaneously, electoral quotas ensured that women won at least 10% of parliamentary seats. The ground work for such an unprecedented role of women in this election began several years ago, at the direction of King Mohammed. With the World Bank’s support, Morocco launched a program to promote women’s participation in its development. The focus is on increased girls’ schooling, mother/child health, and women’s economic and political empowerment. Several international organizations, including the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the World Bank and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), provided training support to female candidates in the recent election.

Women’s groups have begun to play a more active role politically in Morocco – most significantly in lobbying for reform of the “moudawana”, the personal status code that defines women’s status in Morocco. Included in their demands are better employment opportunities for women, raising the legal marriage age for women from 15 to 20, and having the same right as men to marry without their father’s consent. King Mohammed established a “royal consultative committee” to assist these efforts, despite vehement opposition from fundamentalists. While it is too soon to tell what impact women will have in Morocco’s parliament, thanks to the quota system they now have some voice in government.

In Pakistan, the fundamentalists made significant gains in elections held October 10th, 2002, the first elections since President Musharraf seized power in 1999. A coalition of religious parties (the MMA) that had never won more than 5% of the vote won almost 20% of the national vote and now forms the third largest voting block in Parliament. The MMA also dominates two out of four provincial governments – North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan.

As in Morocco, a generous quota system benefited female candidates by reserving nearly 20% of provincial and national seats for women. The requirement that all candidates have at least a university degree means that the more than 200 newly-elected women are educated; how effective they will be remains to be seen. Many of the female candidates, particularly in the provinces, were merely stand-ins for male relatives barred from running by stringent election rules. A persistent challenge for female political participation in Pakistan is that women as voters remain highly suppressed, particularly in the provinces. In the very traditional North West Frontier Province, several tribal leaders vowed “jihad” if women were allowed to vote, more than 75% of women did not receive national identity cards required for voting, and women wearing veils were hindered from voting by officials who claimed their identities could not be checked. To compensate, the government did establish several women-only voting centers. Nevertheless, the vast majority of rural women in Pakistan did not vote, and the fundamentalists gained control of North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, two highly sensitive regions bordering Afghanistan. MMA officials have since been pushing ahead with their promises to “cleanse” Pakistan society by publicly destroying English-language audio and video tapes and movies of Turkish dancing, and working to impose Sharia, or Islamic law. However, Balqueef Hussain, the leader of the women’s wing of the MMA, has been a moderating voice. She has affirmed the government’s commitment to girls’ education, to providing every village with a female health care provider and to ensuring that women have opportunities to work.

Clearly, the use of electoral quotas for women in Morocco and Pakistan will not improve the status of women in these traditional countries overnight, but by ensuring a healthy percentage of women in government, it could be an important first step. International organizations and the U.S. government should encourage these developments, and develop creative ways to support the women who are in the frontline of change without undermining them.

Isobel Coleman is Senior Fellow, U.S. Foreign Policy and Director, Project on Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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