My speech at the International Conference of Istanbul

The political and Socio-economical empowerment of women Promoting Arab women leadership breaking the barriers and redefining the stereotypes

November 6, 2012

Speech of Franco Frattini


In the last decade, considerable efforts have been made to empower women politically in the Arab world. Legal recognition has been extended to women’s right to vote and women are now legally allowed to run for local councils and parliaments. Most Arab women leaders agree that the nature of a government, regardless of whether it is liberal, conservative or authoritarian, determines the extent of its openness toward leadership role for women.

In fact, with regards to the future advancement of women’s political leadership in the Arab World it is essential to understand that the political environment of each country in the Arab world has developed at a different pace. While some North African countries are leaps ahead in introducing initiatives to encourage women to play a part in all areas of society, other political structures have been slow to change. (Rank of women participating in Parliament: Lebanon 3.1%, Algeria 8%, Bahrain 10%, Syria 12.4%, Morocco 17%, Iraq 25%, Tunisia 26.7%)

Several factors continue to limit the participation of Arab women in politics and restrain their ability to rise to leadership positions. Constraints on the mobility of women campaigning for elections limit women’s opportunities to participate in elections. Cultural values and the resulting norms also have a role in curbing political participation, even in the absence of legal restrictions on mobility. In particular, in some countries, the cultural legacy and the patriarchal system are an obstacle to women’s involvement in politics.

Cultural conditioning has created an environment in which Arab women are often resistant to women’s political empowerment and do not necessarily vote for female candidate.

Lack of freedom, political instability and growth of extremism: In some countries, these are cited by Arab women leaders as key obstacles to their political participation. Questions of women’s rights and gender equality in the Arab world are not only strongly politicised but are also infused with strong postcolonial significance.

Again, Ambiguity: Some Arab women political leaders also suggest that the inclusion of women in the political system is ambiguous. Most Arab constitutions provide clauses that ensure women’s political rights. Yet in practice, Arab women are confronted with substantial barriers both with regard to their political participation and representation. As a matter of fact the number of women in political positions of leadership is not high enough.

Quota System: As far as positive actions are concerned, two types of quotas exist in the Arab world. The first reserves seats in parliaments for women. The other extends party quotas to them. Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco have used their quota systems as a means to increase women’s participation in politics. In Morocco, political parties signed a charter in 2002 that reserves 30 seats on a special national list for women candidates. In Tunisia, quotas have helped to ensure that 14% of the parliament is female. The percentage of women in Jordan’s parliament rose from 1.3% to 5.5% in 2006.

Many applauded their introduction as a good remedy to raise women’s participation in the political arena and those critical of quotas believe that this cannot contribute to a more gender –based society.

Other challenges: the lack of party support, media support and financial resources played a pivotal role in the building of the gender paradigm in Arab world.

Positive factors:

Open economies, liberalisation and globalisation, civil networks have benefited women leaders in the Arab world.

Countries of the Arab world are a diverse mix ranging from oil-rich countries to human resource-rich countries, to those that are very poor on all indicators. Over the last few years, women have been affected – and have advanced – by globalisation on the one hand and by two separate economic developments on the other. In some countries, a lagging economy has encouraged them to become part of the workforce and take a more active role in both the business and social domains. In other countries, the oil boom of the 1970s has funded impressive growth and provided women with unprecedented educational and employment opportunities. A high rate of growth in the Middle East and some North African countries has, as a result, led to significant investments in reform, education and employment which has helped pave the way for women in numerous fields.

The new economy has also triggered the creation of stronger civil networks in favour of women. From associations to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and micro-finance institutions, the number of women’s civil networks has flourished in the past few years. In addition, women’s movements have broadened their messages and benefited from new forms of media, such as the Internet, chat rooms, and television channels. In some countries, the participation of women in the social sphere is central to the overall development of the country. Women in Saudi Arabia, for example, have demonstrated a strong determination to play a central role in civil society.

Defining Arab Women Leadership
“Leadership is not a personality trait or a list of qualities, or something that can be taught in school or in a seminar. Leadership requires vision and it depends on trust. Leadership is about listening and learning, and getting people together to do something that you believe in.” (Michelle Bachelet, UN Women Executive Director)

Targeted Leadership Development through Education
Education is a key enabler for all women and a core requirement for women leadership. It is necessary to adopt programs that enhance and develop women’s leadership skills. Women definitely need more training and exposure to overcome the cultural and social barriers that prevent them from being exposed to the outside world. It is therefore important to tailor special programs to be taught in institutions for young women, which they can further utilize in their career.

On the 11th June the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched The Women in Public Service Project Summer Institute- an intensive two -weeks summer training and mentoring for forty-nine emerging and aspiring women leaders from around the world. In the frame of this initiative, SIOI in cooperation with the MoFA intends to develop an intensive one week winter school in Diplomatic Practice, Management of International Relations and Global Governance, addressed to young women coming from the Europe’s neighbouring countries.

The goal is to provide skills and tools on diplomatic practice in the globalization era and create specialized competences for professionals capable of implement and evaluate the most appropriate development policies to tackle the new international challenges.

The core learning objectives are:

  • training the next generation of women leaders and building networks to share ideas and skills for a more effective and innovative leadership
  • promoting women’s rights as human rights
  • enhancing the good practices to achieve gender-balanced representation into top positions in international public affairs;
  • supporting participation of women in decision-making processes, inter alia in the field of conflict prevention and resolution and in multilateral diplomacy;
  • increasing women representations in senior-level positions of responsibility, as enshrined in Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) and in General Assembly Resolution A/RES/66/130 (2011)

Challenges and perceptions: redefining the stereotypes
Has the media strengthened or hindered Arab society’s image of women leaders?

Traditionally, the region’s media has portrayed denigrating stereotypical images of Arab women. However this perception is changing with the increased participation and representation of women in the media.

Arab media is increasingly showcasing successful women leaders in the region, which is generating a positive image of women participating in the economic and political sphere. Arab women leaders themselves are employing digital media and social networks to promote a balanced image of Arab women. Social media allowed women to pursue a new form of leadership focused on connections and networks.

Society, Religion and Women’ s Rights:

  • Promoting equality and women empowerment

Talking about women’s rights in 2012 is itself powerful evidence of an historical anomaly, to resolve and overcome which will require more attention and increased efforts.

For many women around the world, enjoying full respect for their human rights is still a mirage, obstructed by traditional attitudes inspired by patriarchal systems, by mentalities that evolve only slowly and – sometimes – by the instrumental use of religion. In the Western world, huge progress has been made, as proved by the increasing number of women in leading positions in international politics and economics. The glass ceiling has cracked, but it has not been shattered yet.

In many western countries, including Italy, much more should be done!
Gender issues have an extraordinary impact on demographic and socio-economic dynamics. It has been demonstrated that women’s empowerment and wider involvement in public affairs have enormous positive effects on families, communities and societies as a whole. Women’s exclusion from the productive life of their country is a waste of talent, a waste that we can no longer afford.

But there is one point I would especially like to stress. Women represent approximately half of our countries’ populations. Without their full integration in society, and without guarantees of their being able to express themselves freely, there can be no real democracy.

Hence, granting women’s rights and fighting discrimination, abuse and violence against them is not just a moral and humanitarian commitment. It is also intrinsically linked with peace, sustainable development, growth, democracy and stability. In other words, with progress. If this is true, putting the gender issue at the top of the international agenda is not just something that we should do to protect a part of the population. It is something that we must do to defend the interests of each and every one of us, and the well-being of humanity.

  • Promoting Women’s Rights

Women’s progression into leadership roles is a prerequisite for a thriving economy and the ability to compete globally. Promoting women’s rights at the global level must aim to enhance women’s role as pro-active individuals and as the essential and most effective channel for development and peace. However, to achieve this requires protecting women’s fundamental rights, first and foremost the right not to be subjected to violence.

Thus, while there is an emergency agenda dictated by dramatically negative developments, there is also a positive agenda, which constitutes the best way of calling attention to the structure role already played by women socially, economically, and politically.

Women also play an important role in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peacebuilding, as recognised by resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council, approved in 2000, and stressed by General Assembly Resolution 66/130 (2011).

Resolution 1325 also recognises how women are the population hardest hit in armed conflicts. But unfortunately it is not only this: violence against women is a blight that convulses the world at every latitude, in peace and war, rich and poor alike, at home and away from home.

Resolution 66/130 (2011) urges all States to comply fully with their obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, urges States that have not yet ratified or acceded to the Convention to do so.

Recommendations: turning words into action
The 21st century is the time for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Gender discrimination and inequality do not just violate human rights but are economically inefficient.

Advancing equal opportunity and equal rights is an investment in our common future, and there is no better time to act than now.

Now we need to work together to turn these commitments into action. The case for gender equality is a case for human rights and human dignity, and for justice and democracy.

Today countries in Europe are responding to the financial crisis and taking action to reduce debts and deficits. We cannot let austere policies set back gender equality in the workplace and society.

In focus: Lessons from Tunisia
Equality vs complementarity

More than a year after the Arab Spring, which brought tremendous political change to the Middle East, possibilities for the advancement of women in the region are continuing to unfold, with women discovering greater opportunities for participation in their governments and communities.

But a simple word in the text of a draft of Tunisia’s new Constitution and the conditions of Tunisian women would have gone back half a century in an instant.

Such an addition would have made women in Tunisia not social actors with the same rights as men but a complement to men worthy of nothing by themselves.

Tunisian women have repeatedly demonstrated to defend their rights as part of efforts to preserve the country’s secularism under the strenuous attack of the religious Ennahdha party. They protested with courage against Salafite fundamentalists who have been monopolizing demonstrations and threatened them with violence.

Tunisian women have regained their role in society, a role many wanted to marginalize.

In 1956, Tunisia became the first Arab country in the world to have legislation equalling women to men in a long road to bring women’s rights on the same level as those of the West.

Language around complementarity between the roles of women and men has caused huge debate in Tunisia and fear of regression on women’s rights.

Margaret Sekaggya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, and her counterpart of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Reine Alapini-Gansou recommended that “Equality should be explicitly endorsed in the draft Constitution and references to complementarity should be removed for sake of clarity around women’s human rights”.

Anyway, we have still to wait for Tunisia’s new constitution because the final draft of the new national charter would be voted in parliament at the end of April 2013, six months later than planned.

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