Movement seen for women with perseverance and courage
[WASHINGTON, D.C.] — As a part of its Women and Foreign Policy seminar series, the U.S. State Department hosted a panel on the involvement of women in elections around the world. The discussion was moderated by Cathy Russell, the American Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and featured experts as well as female politicians from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The discussion itself covered an array of topics, from the use of social media in politics to the struggles and strengths of being a woman in a male-dominated political sphere.
Michelle Bekkering, of the International Republican Institute, noted that one of the biggest obstacles to women being politically active is that they are not politically aware, making it nearly impossible for a woman to attain a leadership position.
“We want to empower women to political participation and political leadership, like women being elected to office. What we can’t overlook is that entry level. We start with political education, and making sure women know that they have rights under the law. We start there, we start at the base level–making sure women can be a part of this.”
Women also are at a disadvantage when it comes to social media–an essential tool in 21st century politics. Sandra Pepera of the National Democratic Institute said lack of access to media platforms prevent the voices of women from being heard.
“Women are 14 percent less likely to hold a mobile phone than men. Access, security, and cost are the three top issues for women gaining access to social media. […] [Social media] is a powerful tool to get women’s voices out there, and to start that process of changing norms, which is really at the heart of all this. [We have] to change the norms to involve inclusion. […] Once you see inclusion, it’s really difficult to ‘unsee’ it.”
Sayida Ounissi, a member of the Tunisian Parliament representing the moderate Islamist Party, noted that her country is different than others in the region, and perhaps that was the reason she was given the opportunity to be a representative in her government.
“Tunisia has kind of a historical pattern of being very open to other cultures and very connected to all parts of the world that made the country more open to update legislation very early after the independence of Tunisia. You can have countries, especially Islamic countries, with very ‘pro-woman’ legislation — but for the woman, it’s not a reality in the society. [Tunisia] adopted the principle of parity in the law in our first democratic elections, and we had women on the [campaign] lists.”
In recent years, the representation of Tunisian women in the national parliament has grown from 27 percent in 2011 to 31 percent in 2015. An even higher percentage, around, “38 percent,” is expected in the new assembly.
“It was a sign to Tunisian society that young women can make it as city and political leaders, and that we can do the job properly,” said Ounissi.
In Afghanistan, where women in politics is less common, there is a certain danger to being politically active. Naheed Farid, Member of the Afghanistan Parliament and the youngest MP in Afghan history, said that women in politics, as well as their supporters, risk their lives for female representation in government.
“On the 30th day of my campaign, I had received the news that five campaigners of my female competitor were beheaded, and after beheading, they sent the bodies to the city, and that day I decided to not send my campaigners outside the city,” said Farid. “This means that if you are running, you have to sacrifice safety for you but also the people around you.”
Despite differences in the level of female integration into the political system, both Afghani and Tunisian women face similar problems while working with their male colleagues within their respective legislative bodies.
“One of the main challenges is to make everybody accept the fact that a woman can do what a man can do. They’ll say, ‘Oh, she’s cute; she’s nice,’ but it’s hard to be taken seriously. You need to prove constantly that you’re not just a picture and that you actually know what you are talking about and have ideas,” said Ounissi. “But I believe that we will be the last generation to do this. The coming generation won’t have to do all this work to be treated equally.”
“This means that we have to bring in women, and change the narrative, and have a movement,” said Farid. “The greater the goal, the bigger the challenges.”
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