Sunday, September 18, 2011

UAE: From Quotas To The Ballot Box, Women Rise In The FNC

What we've learned from the experience of women in United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the last Federal National Council (FNC) – and some suggestions for how women should operate on the next Council.
By Diana Hamade

In 2006, one woman was elected to the United Arab Emirates (UAE)'s Federal National Council (FNC) and eight others were appointed. Even before then, women had served as ministers and ambassadors of the UAE. And yet the entry of women into the UAE's political arena has had its difficulties, just as in other Arab states.
A common mindset in this country remains fixed on certain unchanging notions of a "woman's place". Many of the existing political institutions reflect a male-dominated, male-orientated culture. The media seems to play a role in promoting female politicians, but some see that as a problem.
The FNC is not like a parliament where issues that affect the lives of ordinary people are debated and laws are passed; the FNC's role at present is only advisory. Still, the effect of women on the full spectrum of political debate and development in the UAE must not be underestimated.
Some female members of the last FNC describe their term as a great experience.
But others say they wish they could have done more. These women say they found that some male ministers and FNC members made an infuriating and intimidating distinction between "soft" issues and "hard politics". The first category covered policies such as welfare, children and maternity; the second included defence, budgets and foreign policy.
The distinction, the women said, was aimed at limiting their involvement in political debate.
The female members were appointed to a committee or two where these soft issues were debated and examined. But these issues were scarcely deemed worthy of mention in established political spaces, which may have explained why the media portrayed the female members as being of little use and having negligible effect.
Nonetheless, these women agree that dealing with soft issues educated them, training them to take part in public discussions from which they previously shied away.
It is not clear where the public stands on this development. Do female Emiratis want female FNC members to be involved only in "women's issues"? Or would involvement in hard politics imply lack of interest in women's rights? Perhaps with time these and other questions will be answered.
The integration of women into political life began with quotas, seats reserved for females to enhance women's legislative and political representation.
Quotas came with the baggage of controversy, however. Among the arguments against quotas is that when seats are reserved for women, men have no chance at them.
Another argument is that quotas may lead to the election of women who are not adequately qualified.
In truth quotas worked against the UAE's women, since those who took office this way were looked down upon by male colleagues, and treated as tokens by the media.
Those who favour quotas insist that women are often discriminated against and are rarely voted for, so that positive discrimination is not a luxury but a necessity. This month's elections will test that argument.
In any case, reserved seats are meant to be temporary, until women no longer need them. But with most of the male candidates publicly supporting and promoting women's issues and rights, and as electoral systems generally do not lead to high numbers of women in legislatures around the world, elections for women without quotas will by very challenging.
The 2011 FNC election has more than 80 female candidates. Unfortunately, few or none of their platforms include any plans to comprehensively master the areas in which FNC activities may be concentrated. Nor have these candidates disclosed any plans to remodel the behaviours which made the performance of women on the last FNC the subject of public disapproval.
Women on the new FNC must study the nature of the institution and the procedures that take place within it, so they can make it more woman-friendly. The cultural acceptance of women as legislators must bring procedural changes to accommodate both sexes.
Women must also master parliamentary language and attitudes, both within the FNC and outside of it. Once women can operate like their male counterparts, they will have more influence on political discourse, and this will eventually change public attitudes.
Finally, female FNC members must also work on influencing the council's output by including women's perspectives, concerns, and suggestions in proposing policies.
Training and orientation exercises explaining FNC conduct - how to ask for the floor, for example - are needed. Also useful would be training in public speaking and effective communication; in relating to and lobbying male colleagues; in networking with women's organisations and in understanding and handling media. Learning about all these areas would be important first steps which every FNC woman must begin as soon as she is elected.
All of this said, the actual effect which women FNC members can have will depend on the political context in which the FNC will function, the number of women who are elected, and of course the individuals who are elected.
-This commentary was published in The National on 18/09/2011
-Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and legal consultant. She is the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai

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