In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women’s Representation in the Middle East and North Africa

  • Introduction
  • Female Political Representation: A Conceptual Framework
  • Female Politicians in Subnational Politics
  • Woman as Voters/Constituents

Political Science Women’s Representation in the Middle East and North Africa
Marwa M. Shalaby
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0252


Women across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are relative newcomers to the political decision-making process. Despite the fact that women were granted the right to vote and participate in elections in most MENA countries since the mid-20th century, the region for decades continued to have one of the lowest percentages of female representation in national legislatures worldwide. As a result, research on the dynamics of female participation in the political (i.e., electoral) realm had been scarce and our knowledge continues to be limited. Only a few studies tackled the issue of women’s presence in formal politics (i.e., legislatures), and they mostly have focused on explicating the sociocultural, structural, and institutional explanations/impediments for women’s access to politics. Thanks to the substantial increase in women’s representation in the legislatures of Arab countries in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, the past decade has witnessed increased scholarly attention to the dynamics of women’s political representation. It is worth noting that it was not until the onset of the uprisings that women’s political participation in national legislatures exceeded the 10 percent mark. Currently, women constitute, on average, 17 percent of the membership in the parliaments in the region, compared to 40 percent in Nordic countries and 27 percent in both Europe and the Americas. This growth can be attributed to the expansion of quota adoption—especially post–Arab Spring—that has ushered in a new era of increased female representation in some of the region’s most influential legislative bodies. Research has paid much attention to women’s numerical representation in the MENA, female representation in subnational politics and the relationship between political parties and female politicians as well as women’s voting behavior. A plethora of studies has also focused on the intersection of formal and informal politics and the role women played during the Arab uprisings. Despite the remarkable advances in the study of gender and politics over the past decade, numerous knowledge gaps call for further research. For instance, scholarship on women’s policy priorities (i.e., substantive representation) and how they impact the electoral realm continues to be largely underdeveloped. Furthermore, very little is still known about the link between women’s representation in local and national politics, female candidate selection, the relationship between female candidates and/or legislators and political parties, and the symbolic effect of women’s representation both within MENA legislatures as well as in the broader society.

Female Political Representation: A Conceptual Framework

Pitkin 1967, a seminal work on representation, continues to shape the field of electoral studies. Pitkin’s classifications of representation—formalistic, descriptive, substantive, and symbolic—are still highly relevant and applicable to the study of representation around the world. Formalistic representation deals with the formal laws governing women’s access to power. While descriptive representation refers to the numerical presence of women in representative assemblies, substantive representation deals with the policy outcomes of legislators’ presence in power and the degree to which representatives seek to advance the interests and preferences of the groups they represent. Finally, symbolic representation refers to the effect of women’s presence in the political realm on public attitudes. Scholars emphasize the link between these different forms of representation. Childs 2004 asserts that increasing the number of women in legislative assemblies is crucial for fostering greater responsiveness to citizen needs—in particular, the needs of women, families, and ethnic and racial minorities. Relatedly, Mansbridge 2005 states that descriptive representation by gender improves substantive outcomes for women. Recent research shows that women’s presence in the political realm is not merely an issue of fairness; it is, more importantly, an issue of political efficacy and societal development. Pande 2003 shows that males and females differ fundamentally in their policy preferences. Paxton and Hughes 2014 maintain that while male politicians may be responsive to women’s issues, they are less likely to pass legislation that serves the interests of women and children. Female politicians also act as role models across age groups, motivating young women, in particular, to become more politically active and engaged citizens. Interestingly, Wolbrecht and Campbell 2007 find that women’s involvement in politics leads to an increase in political engagement, even among young men. Furthermore, research in Duflo and Topalova 2004 uncovers a link between women’s presence in elected offices and improvements in the overall effectiveness of government. Finally, Beaman, et al. 2009 present strong evidence that when women serve as political leaders, countries experience higher standards of living and positive developments in education, infrastructure, and health.

  • Beaman, Lori, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande, and Petia Topalova. “Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?” Quarterly Journal of Economics 124.4 (2009): 1497–1540.

    DOI: 10.1162/qjec.2009.124.4.1497

    Examine constituents’ perceptions toward female leaders on quota seats in India’s village councils. Find that constituents from villages that have not had a women leader favor male leaders and believe that women are not as efficient in government. Argue that biases are based on engrained “social norms,” especially with men. However, this effect decreases over time, concluding that quota arrangements can contribute toward decreasing negative perceptions.

  • Childs, Sarah. New Labour‘s Women MPs: Women Representing Women. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    Conducts interviews with 34 of the 101 Labour Party female representatives voted into the 1997 British House of Commons to better understand the roles of women in representing female constituents. Examines women’s roles through descriptive, symbolic, and substantive representation and assesses the substantive roles of women in more depth, considering their influence on the parliamentary agenda and how women representatives differ from men.

  • Duflo, Esther, and Petia Topalova. “Unappreciated Service: Performance, Perceptions, and Women Leaders in India.” Framed Field Experiments, The Field Experiments Website. October 2004.

    Examine the roles of female leaders on reserved seats in India’s village councils and the efficacy of service delivery in these jurisdictions. The authors find that constituencies led by women provide more services and have lower levels of corruption. Despite this, constituents in these villages have negative perceptions about services, which may indicate the reason for their reluctance to vote for women.

  • Mansbridge, Jane. “Quota Problems: Combating the Dangers of Essentialism.” Politics and Gender 1.4 (2005): 622–637.

    Highlights the important role that women’s descriptive representation plays in enhancing substantive representation while asserting that increased numerical presence is contingent upon the implementation of quota mechanisms. However, Mansbridge argues that essentialism and biases may accompany quota mechanisms. Thus, the need exists to establish arrangements to alleviate this impact. One way is through making quota arrangements malleable to allow for adjustments as circumstances progress for female representatives.

  • Pande, Rohini. “Can Mandated Political Representation Provide Disadvantaged Minorities Policy Influence? Evidence from India.” American Economic Review 93.4 (2003): 1132–1151.

    DOI: 10.1257/000282803769206232

    Focuses on India’s reserved seats’ system to determine whether it can have a positive impact on the policymaking authority of disadvantaged groups, namely castes and tribes. The reservation system is based on census reports on caste and tribe populations in each state. Finds evidence that it can assist in enhancing policymaking authority, pointing to the improvements in “targeted redistribution” policies toward caste and tribe members in the past few decades.

  • Paxton, Pamela, and Melanie Hughes. Women, Politics, and Power: A Global Perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

    Comprehensive assessment of female political representation, beginning with a brief history on women’s participation in political systems generally and noting their gradual involvement in legislative and executive positions. The authors demonstrate variations in women’s representation in different contexts, pointing to supply and demand-side factors as well as the role of the media, international actors, culture, and others in influencing female representation.

  • Pitkin, Hannah F. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

    Conceptualizes representation through four approaches: formalistic, symbolic, descriptive, and substantive. Formalistic representation points to “authorization” through institutions before the initiation of representation. Symbolic and descriptive representation refer to “standing for” a constituency. The former describes resembling this group, while the latter addresses numerical representation of a group. Finally, substantive representation highlights “acting for” a constituency that someone represents.

  • Wolbrecht, Christina, and David E. Campbell. “Leading by Example: Female Members of Parliament as Political Role Models.” American Journal of Political Science 51.4 (2007): 921–939.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2007.00289.x

    Examine the impact that female representatives have on influencing the political interest and participation of other women, both adults and adolescents. Using data from Europe and the United States, the authors determine that there is a “role model effect,” and that the greater number of women representatives in legislative institutions encourages adolescent girls and women in general to become more politically engaged.

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