14.06.2012In Dialogue: Charlotte Wiedemann & Mansoura Ez-EldinProspects for Women in the Arab Spring
Berlin, 16 June 2012
Charlotte Wiedemann I agree with you that we should not focus too much on women in leadership positions – positions which, in any case, remain illusory for women in the Arab countries at present. I also agree with you when you say that "ordinary citizens and individuals on the margins of society … also write history".
There is, nevertheless, one point that we mustn't overlook: we need women in prominent positions, as role models and inspiration. Even if these individuals don't change the reality of the situation of women as a whole, even if they don't do a better political job than the men, what they can do is change women's attitudes, change women's consciousness. After all, it is often women themselves who lack faith in the abilities of their own sex. This is what comes of centuries of patriarchy.
Let's take the example of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. I am not a supporter of her policies, but it is thanks to her that we have over the years grown used to the idea of a woman holding such a position. She is never off German television. There is no one around nowadays who would think, "A woman cannot do that." By the way, Mrs Merkel did not get where she is today because the women's movement gained in strength.
Her rise up the career ladder had much more to do with historical circumstances, with the turbulence of German reunification and with a series of coincidences. She then became very power-conscious and managed to outsmart all of her male competitors. When I met her 20 years ago, she was still a very young and inexperienced minister. She told me at the time that she felt like someone who was travelling in a speeding car and she was having problems just keeping up with everything that was happening. I wonder if she still remembers that.
Women have to start believing that women are capable of more: I believe that that is the key to so many things. Some of the authoritarian Arab countries, including Mubarak's Egypt, operated a quota system for women in the past. But now we have a situation in Egypt where there are fewer women in the new freely elected parliament than there were in the old one (I won't even mention the constitutional court's decision to dissolve the parliament; that's another story). We cannot just blame men for women's lack of power. I know from other countries too that it is often the case that women prefer to vote for men. This is something we cannot simply turn a blind eye to. The idea that the public domain is a male domain is one that is undoubtedly rooted in the patriarchal legacy of Arab culture. But, to a greater or a lesser extent, this kind of thinking exists in other cultures too. It is part of the mind-set of many women around the world.
I think that the Arab revolts have shown that women are more likely to be accepted in the role of activists than they are within institutionalized politics (please correct me if this is a misperception!). From this, many western observers have concluded that women were strong during the revolution because religion played no part in the revolution. Now, they say, the Islamists have become strong, and, inevitably, this means that women lose out. I rather disagree with this theory. First of all, it is a typical exaggeration: Arab women went from being the darlings of the western media one moment to suddenly reverting to their role as terribly oppressed Muslim women the next. As if everything was so black and white!
But there is another aspect here: the journey from the streets to the political institutions is often a long one for women – and not only in Arab countries. Why? Because it is about power and competition. On the streets, during demonstrations or when carrying out some of the groundwork for the revolution, female activists are not a threat to any men's jobs. In the political arena, it is a different story. There, particular seats, sinecures, money and status are all at stake. So the gap between the prominence women enjoy in political movements and their weak position in parliaments, commissions and governments is by no means a phenomenon restricted to the Arab Spring.
Examples of this can be found in Germany too. The political parties here have introduced different quotas to ensure that women are given adequate consideration when lists of candidate are compiled for elections. Here too, this is by no means a given! Even in the media, a branch in which many women work nowadays, a new discussion recently began on whether a quota is needed for managerial positions. Recently a group of respected woman journalists introduced an initiative with the aim of having 30 per cent of chief editor's posts occupied by women in five years' time. Currently they make up only two per cent!
So, dear Mansura, let's have a laugh at this joke together: the German media wants to liberate Arab women, but at home, in their own offices, hardly any women are ever allowed to make it to the top!
As I write these lines, we are still awaiting the outcome of the presidential elections. I am really curious to see what you will have to say about that!
Best wishes from Berlin!
To read Mansoura Ez-Eldin's reply, click on "4" below.