Category Archives: Women and Election

Lebanon: Family History Counts for Women’s Race to Parliament

lebVOTEIn Lebanon’s Jun. 7 parliamentary poll, women represent only two percent of the candidates, many of them with family names that have been appearing on ballots for generations.

Names like Geagea, Hariri, Zwein and Tueni are as recognisable in Lebanon as Gandhi in India or Kennedy in the United States. In the tumultuous landscape of Lebanese politics, the death or assassination of a male family member is often the reason women are thrust onto the political stage, to preserve the family legacy.

“There is a common phrase in Lebanon that the only way women enter parliament is in their mourning dresses,” Abla Kadi, project coordinator for a UNDP-funded initiative promoting participation among women in the current elections, told IPS.

Kadi and others believe that for women to be viable candidates in Lebanon’s ‘confessional’ system, where seats are distributed based on religious sect, they need political backing, financial support and, above all, the right family ties.

One female candidate expected to win the lone Greek Orthodox seat in Beirut’s predominantly Christian district is Nayla Tueni.

Tueni’s father Gebran was assassinated six months after being elected in 2005 to the seat she now seeks. Nayla is deputy manager of An-Nahar, Beirut’s leading newspaper founded by her great grandfather and formerly edited and published by her father, and is supported by the Western-backed March 14 Coalition.

“My family’s history and the new situation we found ourselves in after the martyrdom of my father influenced my decision. Had my father been alive, I wouldn’t have thought of running for the elections,” Tueni told IPS.

Even with the competitive edge afforded by her family name, securing a seat in Parliament the first time around is far from guaranteed.

Gilberte Zwein discovered this in 1996 and again in 2000 when she was defeated in her home district of Keserwan. She was finally elected to Parliament in 2005 and is vying to maintain her seat as the only female MP endorsed by the Free Patriotic Movement.

The Zwein political dynasty extends back to Gilberte’s grandfather who served as a member of Lebanon’s first parliament when Lebanon gained independence in 1943. Her campaign manager and son, Jean-Michel Abouhamad de Tarrazi, told IPS that his mother’s interest in politics began at an early age when she managed her father’s successful Parliamentary campaigns.

“The family name is a necessary condition to success, but is not in itself sufficient. Just because you are the daughter of someone does not mean you will be elected. Today, people are voting more and more for candidates with clear political programmes,” Tarrazi told IPS.

As Head of the Lebanese Commission for Women’s and Children’s Rights, Zwein has worked to increase women’s political stake in Lebanon. “It is more a matter of making women conscious of the role they have to play than actual legal barriers standing in their way,” Tarrazi told IPS.

Legal barriers may not explicitly block women from reaching parliament, but societal norms create gender specific hurdles that have historically limited their success.

“The real problem for women is that we are a non-feminist society. We see men as more important than women in Parliament,” Yarra Nassar, Executive Director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, told IPS.

In 2009’s contentious election pitting a Hezbollah-led opposition against the Western-backed ruling majority, most female candidates are running independently without support or endorsement from either alliance.

One such candidate, Therese Rizkallah, is a former colonel in Lebanon’s General Security intelligence agency campaigning for one of three Maronite seats in Baabda.

Rizkallah says she has faced sharp criticism from men and women on both sides of the political divide. “Many people say to me, ‘Now is not your turn. You are an independent female candidate in an Arab country.’ They said the same thing when I joined the army, but if women can fight like men, why can’t they represent their country?”

Another independent candidate, Hoda Sankari, 28, is a pharmaceutical representative running for one of five Sunni seats in Tripoli. She told IPS that her main objective is to break the Lebanese tradition that women in power must come from politically oriented families.

At a roundtable meeting that brought together 14 candidates in Tripoli mid-May to discuss women’s issues, Sankari in her tight red sweater and matching purse posed a sharp contrast to the sea of black suits surrounding the lone female candidate.

Sankari, who says her conservative Muslim family has been vocally apprehensive about her decision to run, told IPS: “We (women) need to take the initiative to go after what is rightfully ours.”

Rizkallah shares Sankari’s sense of obligation to represent all Lebanese women. “Maybe I don’t have a chance in this election, but if I get even 100 votes, that means I’ve made a difference,” Rizkallah told IPS. “If I lose this time, I will run again in 2013.”

Sahar Choufi, 19, is studying Political Science at the American University of Beirut and has toyed with the idea of one day running for a seat in Parliament. She applauds Sankari and Rizkallah for their perseverance.

“Not many women take the initiative to run because they know they’re going to lose. We have to start somewhere to actually move forward. We need these pioneers,” Choufi told IPS.


‘Mrs Mousavi’: Artist who could be Iran’s First Lady


Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of moderate presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, is breaking the mould in Iranian politics by campaigning openly alongside her husband for next month’s election.

If Mousavi, a former prime minister, is elected president in the June 12 vote, the Islamic republic may get its first “first lady” in decades who would have a strong public profile like her peers around the world, observers say.

Despite playing a key role in the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed shah, Iranian women have had but a token presence in politics under the three-decade rule of conservative clerics, with just a handful of parliament seats and two cabinet posts.

Many Iranians have no clues what their presidents’ wives look like, as heads of government, even the reformist Mohammad Khatami, mostly kept their spouses out of the spotlight and shied away from appearing with them at political events or on foreign trips.

But with a prolific academic and artistic background, Rahnavard is to many a household name in her own right, especially those who studied at Tehran’s all-women Al-Zahra university, where she was chancellor for eight years.

Since her husband announced his bid for the presidency, she has appeared at most of his campaign rallies and has given numerous speeches, notably criticising Iran’s treatment of women, especially under hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“It is very ordinary, natural, sensible and religiously-accepted” for a president’s wife to have an active and visible role alongside her husband, she said in an interview with popular youth weekly Chelcheragh this month.

An admirer of her namesake, the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Fatemeh Zahra, Rahnavard has for years been an advocate of equal rights for women and called for their economic empowerment and a change to Iran’s laws deemed as discriminatory to women.

The 64-year-old grandmother, whose husband served as Iran’s last premier before the post was abolished in 1989, has said that mothering three daughters has made her more sensitive and concerned about women’s issues.

Despite appearing in public in the traditional black chador favoured by conservative women, she sports flowery headscarves and bright coats underneath, and says she did not wear the Islamic veil until her early 20s.

The sculptor and painter says she enjoys rap music and her favourite accessory is a bohemian handbag adorned with Iranian tribal motifs.

Rahnavard has slammed Iran’s tough police crackdown on “un-Islamic” attire over the past three years as “the ugliest and dirtiest patronising treatment of women”.

At a pro-Mousavi rally in Tehran on Saturday, she urged young supporters to vote for a new government that will “not have political and student prisoners” and one that will fulfil the wish of “removing discrimination against women.”

In 2005, shortly after Ahmadinejad’s election, she invited Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi to speak at Al-Zahra university — a move which did not go down well with hardliners who condemn Ebadi over her criticism of human rights in Iran.

Rahnavard was replaced as university chancellor less than a year later.

She met Mousavi at one of her exhibitions in 1969. The two shared a love of the arts and a common cause of overthrowing the shah.

In 1976, as the former regime stepped up its pressure on political dissent, Rahnavard left Iran for the United States with her two children and returned shortly before Islamic revolutionaries seized power in 1979.

She holds a PhD in political science and served as an advisor to Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005. She has also been a Koran researcher and authored several books on art and politics.

A picture of Rahnavard and Mousavi leaving a rally holding hands has been circulating in cyber space, sparking positive comments on many blogs — although conservatives frown upon public displays of affection even between married couples in Iran.


59 Women MPs in India’s 15th Lok Sabha

A record of 59 women were elected to India’s 15th Lok Sabha, with a majority – 23 – belonging to the Congress party alone, the Election Commission said Monday.

In all, 556 women had contested the 2009 general elections.

While the Congress topped the list, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came second with 13 women being elected. 

The All India Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) follow with four women each getting elected to the Lok Sabha.

The Janata Dal-United, Shiromani Akali Dal and Nationalist Congress Party have two women MPs each. 

The Telangana Rashtra Samiti, Rashtriya Lok Dal, Shiv Sena, DMK and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) have one woman MP each, according to the statement. 

In the 2004 polls, 355 women contested the elections of whom 45 won. 

In 1999, 284 women had contested the elections and 49 were elected. 

Uttar Pradesh has the maximum number of 13 women MPs to represent the most populous state. It is followed by West Bengal with seven women MPs.

In Madhya Pradesh, six women parliamentarians were elected, while in Andhra Pradesh five women candidates won. Gujarat, Bihar and Punjab have four women MPs each.


Women Win Seats in Kuwait Parliament

kuwaiti women

(The women elected to the 50-member national assembly in Kuwait are, from left, Aseel al-Awadi, Rola Dashti, Salwa al-Jassar and Massouma al-Mubarak)

Women won four seats in the Kuwaiti parliamentary elections over the weekend, a historic first and one of several electoral surprises that appeared to reflect a deep popular frustration with the political deadlock in the oil-rich gulf state of Kuwait.

Liberal Kuwaitis celebrated the landmark with fireworks and parties after the elections on Saturday. Women gained the right to vote and run for office in 2005, but none had been elected until now. Many conservatives resisted the idea, and in recent weeks Islamists urged voters not to elect women to the 50-seat assembly.

The elections came two months after Kuwait’s ruler, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, dissolved Parliament to end its latest standoff with the cabinet. It was the third time in three years that there had been such a standoff. Each time, lawmakers accused cabinet members of misconduct or corruption, creating a noisy spectacle and cabinet resignations. Sheik Sabah has consistently reappointed as prime minister his nephew, Sheik Nasser al-Muhammad al-Sabah.

The tensions have slowed economic reforms in Kuwait that many analysts view as essential.

Such tensions seem likely to continue, despite some noteworthy electoral shifts, political analysts said. Sunni Islamist candidates, who gained ground last year in the most recent election, lost some seats on Saturday, results showed. Liberals and independent candidates slightly increased their representation.

But many incumbents retained seats, including some who are widely considered to be responsible for the confrontations with the executive branch.

Voter turnout was down, and some popular incumbents won by narrow margins, in an apparent sign of discontent with many members of Parliament over the political turmoil.

“The main theme of this election was frustration,” said Ghanim al-Najjar, a newspaper columnist who is a professor of political science at Kuwait University. “People have a negative attitude toward the M.P.’s.”

Kuwaitis are proud of their relatively democratic political traditions, an exception in a region dominated by autocracies. Parliament sets the emir’s salary and is the nation’s sole source of legislation.

But many believe that their country, one of the world’s leading oil exporters, has fallen behind its autocratic gulf neighbors Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Some Kuwaitis are eager for public investment and economic reforms, and say the constant parliamentary battles are to blame.

The election of women to the assembly is a separate matter and a source of intense pride for many Kuwaitis.

The winners were Rola Dashti, an American-educated economist; Salwa al-Jassar and Aseel al-Awadi, who are both professors; and Massouma al-Mubarak, who in 2005 became the country’s first female cabinet minister.

Some Kuwaitis said the election results might be less important than the announcement of the new cabinet in the coming weeks.

“If it’s the same cabinet and the same prime minister, we will get the same result again,” said Nasser al-Sane, an Islamist and former Parliament member.

video source: AlJazeera English