Why gender quotas are necessary in the Arab world

Why gender quotas are necessary in the Arab world

In 2015, the UAE voted 20 members into its Federal National Council. Of those, only one woman was voted in by the people. A month later, the UAE government announced the appointment of the second half of the FNC. Of the 20 appointed, eight were women. And, in a remarkable decision, Dr. Amal Al-Qubaisi was appointed President of the FNC, making her the region’s first female leader of a national assembly. 

The decision to appoint eight women and a female president was irrefutably a direct enforcement of female participation and empowerment, and an indirect challenge to social and cultural conservatism toward women. 
 
Gender inequality is one of the most primitive and oldest forms of inequality. Yuval Noah Harari states in his book, “Sapiens,” that human societies have been patriarchal, valuing men more highly than women, since at least the Agricultural Revolution. “No matter how a society defined ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ to be a man was always better,” he wrote. 
 
Given the slow speed at which women’s participation in the political and business spheres are moving forward, and understanding that we are still struggling as nations, governments, civil society and people to achieve gender equality, there is an increased urgency and realization for more direct action to reach a gender balance. And so we have begun enforcing gender quotas. 
 
Numerous countries have introduced various types of quota in public office, management boards or other leading positions. Norway, Finland and France all have government-mandated quotas for women on corporate boards. Norway, for example, introduced a 40 percent quota for female representation among directors of listed companies in 2006. Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, has imposed a 30 percent quota for new appointments to boards. In the Arab world, specifically in Saudi Arabia, a 20 percent quota for women in the country’s legislative branch, the Shura Council, was imposed in 2013. 
 
 
The reason for women’s marginalization is not due to poor performance or lack of qualifications or skill, but rather due to the generational biases and barriers operating in different spheres, be they social, business or political. Because of that, women continue to be under-represented in most senior roles
Asma I. Abdulmalik 
 
 
In the most successful example, Rwanda has, since 2004, had proportionally more women in parliament than any other country in the world. Although there are many contributing factors, its success can be traced back to President Paul Kagame’s decree that women should be given 30 percent of decision-making posts. Today, over 60 percent of Rwanda’s parliament is female. 
 
The debate over gender quotas has been going on for years now between those who agree and those who deem it counterproductive. Some even go so far as to say it’s discriminatory against men. 
 
I have my own reservations with regards to quotas, assuming that many would disagree with me. As an immediate reaction, many women, myself included, feel offended at the idea of appointment on the basis of gender first, then meritocracy. Second, appointed women are usually not perceived legitimately; many voters even argue that it is not what they voted or wished for. Third, we cannot guarantee that candidates will be selected for their qualifications and skill. Finally, and most importantly, it does not necessarily promise change. 
 
Are gender quotas necessary though, especially for the Arab world? Do we need them in order to push the pendulum forward, or should we wait for nature to take its course? The reality is that we do not particularly live in a merit-based world, rather it is socially and gender-influenced. Men are hired, promoted and appointed faster than most women. Second, a talented, skilled, and over-achieving woman cannot guarantee a leadership position — the system is not that efficient nor fair. 
 

The reason for women’s marginalization is not due to poor performance or lack of qualifications or skill, but rather due to the generational biases and barriers operating in different spheres, be they social, business or political. Because of that, women continue to be under-represented in most senior roles. 

It seems clear that, despite the controversy, gender quotas are necessary, at least for the time being, for two fundamental reasons. One is to change and influence the existing misconceptions and bias against women. The other is to translate and recognize the critical and pivotal role females can play in the economic, political and social development of countries. If businesses, parliaments and decision-makers were all made up of men, we would not be able to guarantee fair representation. 
 
It is also crucial to acknowledge that gender quotas won’t work if they still reflect and reinforce the chasm in earnings between the sexes. The gender pay gap has been addressed more seriously lately in countries like Iceland, where it is now illegal to pay men more than women for doing the same job. A year ago, the UK introduced new gender pay gap transparency regulation, compelling all UK companies with more than 250 employees to report details of their pay equality, or lack of it. Furthermore, the UAE government recently passed legislation guaranteeing equal pay for men and women. 
 
The success of gender quotas will only be determined by our ability to implement them efficiently and effectively, as well as our capacity to challenge the social and cultural attitudes toward women and their role in society. 
 
  • Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik
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