Panelists Anita Haidary, Issrar Chamekh and Taghrid Khuri discussed women’s agency and empowerment in Tunisia and Afghanistan in a Feb. 6 panel hosted by Portland State’s Middle East Studies Center.
The two student activists and adjunct professor highlighted facts and misconceptions about women’s political representation, access to resources and the roles of religion and government in defining the status of women in both countries.
Different countries, similar challenges for women’s rights
Khuri, an adjunct professor in the women, gender and sexuality studies department at PSU, explained that while Afghanistan and Tunisia share both Islam and patriarchy, their status quos differ in significant ways.
The Human Development Index, a United Nations program that ranks countries according to measures of economic prosperity, education and standards of living, ranks Tunisia 97th and Afghanistan 169th out of 180 countries overall. In terms of gender inequality, the HDI puts Tunisia in 58th place and Afghanistan in 154th.
With laws protecting women from domestic violence and rape, Tunisia has a reputation as a regional leader in women’s rights advocacy, inspiring change in nearby countries. According to Chamekh, a master’s degree candidate in political science at PSU, women’s rights laws and state-sponsored feminist organizations have been part of her home country’s identity for decades.
Though the presence of religious fundamentalism complicates the pursuit of women’s equality in the Middle East, Haidary, an Afghan student and women’s rights organizer known for her role in co-founding the Kabul-based non-government organization Young Women for Change, said complex social factors that limit women’s access to resources, education and public spaces also reinforce women’s oppression.
“More than a conservative state or an Islamic country,” Haidary said, “[In Afghanistan] it’s an issue of resources and an issue of facilities and access in general.”
Chamekh said Tunisia faces a similar challenge in that women from poorer or more rural areas of the country do not benefit as much from the state’s publicized equality efforts. “[To this day] there are a lot of women working in factories [who] are paid less than men,” Chamekh said. “Or…[employers] hire them on short contracts, so it’s very easy to fire them.”
She added, “There are a lot of other things that have to do with the economic situation that don’t get brought up just because [women] have all these rights and [they] should be happy.”
Gender quotas and women’s representation
In Afghanistan and Tunisia, women make up 28 percent and 31 percent of the respective legislatures. By comparison, the United States Congress is currently 19 percent female.
The relatively high levels of women’s legislative representation seen in Afghanistan and Tunisia can be partially explained by their use of gender quotas. The electoral systems in both countries include provisions that require a certain number of women be nominated or elected to office.
Evidence suggests that quota policies can, in some political contexts, have significant positive effects on the presence of women in government. Some debate persists over whether gender quotas have the power to bring about real change in the lives of women constituents.
“[Afghan] women are involved by quota, not because they really wanted to be involved or they really have power,” Haidary said. “So they’re just numbers, really.”
Chamekh said she believes quotas alone have limited power in a context where women are not generally seen as leaders. “The problem is getting the women…to see themselves as possible candidates and to present themselves to these elections and get involved,” she said. “We do have qualified women, it’s just that [Tunisian government is] so misogynistic they don’t want to get involved.”
Khuri emphasized the value of role-modeling as an argument in favor of legislative quotas for women. “This is a matter of getting used to performing in certain ways,” she said. “When we see women in high positions like principals of schools and universities and Wall Street and the government and parliament, then we have generations of younger women who see models.”
Though feminist organizations have existed and been helpful in Tunisia for decades, Chamekh said they have historically been state-run.
Prior to the Arab Spring, a wave of revolutionary protests that spread across the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 and 2011 and led to Tunisia’s democratization, Chamekh explained, “Any organization that wanted to work independently [was] presented with two choices: Either you work with us and you join us as a state organization, or we’re not going to let you work and we’re going to sabotage all of your activities.”
This qualified support of women’s rights is what Chamekh calls token feminism in Tunisia.
“We can’t talk about gender law when [poorer and rural women] as citizens go through double discrimination and double hardship,” Chamekh added. “Don’t use women’s rights to cover your economic issues and the economic reforms that we need to have.”
Hope for the future
Chamekh said she has hope in the post-revolution generation of Tunisians that faces less government oppression and feels bolder about demonstrating in the streets. This new generation of activists, she added, is also working to separate itself from state alliance and provide more support for the LGBTQ population, as homosexuality is still illegal in the country.
Haidary said women in Afghanistan are also beginning to protest for women’s rights in their own way. “There are a lot of women who are making changes in the local area,” she said, “not just by going on the street and screaming they want rights, but it’s more of a very calm, very subtle way to empower women in a way that is not reversible.”