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Arab women's political participation "is only symbolic" - UN report

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Thursday December 7, 2006

Sana'a- The political process in Arab nations is still far from representative of women and their needs and concerns, as their political participation is generally still symbolic and limited, says a UN-sponsored report released Thursday. The Arab Human Development Report, a project sponsored by the UN Development Programme, said the nature of women's participation in governments of Arab states has generally been only symbolic, limited to smaller portfolios and conditional.

The report, the fourth in a series began in 2002, said Arab governments enable "a few notable women to occupy leadership positions, without extending empowerment to the broad base of women."

It said pressure for the greater inclusion of women in the political process has increasingly come from Western governments and international organizations, producing changes that have often been "more symbolic than substantive."

The report, entitled Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World, noted that Arab governments accepted the formal incorporation of women into political life "on condition that they remain a mute, motionless presence."

For many Arab rulers, said the report, the issue of women's political rights became a type of "democratic facade."

According to the report, that was prepared by around 100 researchers and intellectuals, Arab leaders offered an "easily manipulated symbol for countries that wanted to escape political criticism of their undemocratic conditions."

The report said women's participation in senior levels of government remains "largely cosmetic" with a few women in high- profile positions "without much real power."

The report says that "real decisions in the Arab world, at all levels, are in the hands of men."

Women's roles, the report argues, are symbolic - one or two female ministers in most cases; limited to smaller portfolios like women's or social affairs minister.

The UN Assistant Secretary-General Amatul-Alim al-Soswa addressed the report's launch ceremony in the Yemeni capital Sana'a.

She said the report had an important and clear message that "the rise of women is in fact a prerequisite for an Arab renaissance, inseparable from the fate of the Arab world and its achievement of human development."

That rise is mainly hindered by two dominant forces inside Arab states, according to the report.

The first are the autocratic secular regimes, who manipulate women's issue depending on their political interest. The second, is the rise of Islamic movements in the.

"The Islamist's true difficulty with women is not linked only to their discourse and conservative view of women's place in society, but to their broader ideology," the report said.

"The challenge before the Islamist's vision of women is how to develop an Islamic alternative that can coexist with differing or opposing trends and advance women's position forcefully in discourse and practice not as a result of, but as one of the conditions for, building the Islamic society that they desire," it added.

The reports' authors recommended that the quota-form female representation in political institutions should be widely used throughout the Arab world as a first step toward broader equality.

The quota system have led to a significant presence of women into parliaments in Iraq, Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia, said the report.

Arab women also cannot achieve equal status without the elimination of a profound knowledge deficit resulting from "deep inequality between the sexes in booth access to and the quality of education," the report said.

"Despite tremendous spread of girls' education in Arab countries in the last five decades, Arab women remain poorly prepared to participate effectively and fruitfully in public life by acquiring knowledge through education," it added.

Even amid signs of progress like increasing enrolment rates and better test scores for women, the report points out that the Arab world remains in the lower ranks internationally in the education of women, especially at the higher levels of schooling.


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