Women In Algeria: Progress And Paradox

 @Gooch700
on October 26 2012 5:46 AM
Woman At Polling Station In Algiers
An Algerian woman casts her ballot during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Algiers. Reuters

Algeria, the North African Muslim nation that has largely avoided the political turmoil of the Arab Spring, is a nation of contrasts.

A highly conservative Muslim society, Algeria nonetheless boasts, by quota, a high representation of women in its government (even higher than the average of the European Union). In addition, 60 percent of college graduates in Algeria are women.

However, such prominence of female lawmakers is but a façade -- Algeria is an authoritarian, essentially one-party state, in which an ancient patriarchy rules.

The International Business Times spoke with an expert on Mideast-Arab affairs to disentangle the complex puzzle that is Algeria.

Dilshod Achilov is an assistant professor of political science at East Tennessee State University.

IB TIMES: Women account for about 30 percent of the parliamentary seats in the Algerian government -- the highest such ratio in Arab world. Does this in and of itself suggest that Algerian women are among the most advanced and liberated in the Middle East-North Africa?

ACHILOV: In comparative and symbolic terms, yes, but in absolute terms, no.

The fact that women represent nearly one-third of the Algerian parliament is truly impressive, given that the global average is only 20 percent. In the Arab world as a whole, the rate is even lower (about 14 percent).

In comparative terms, Algerian women MPs hold more political power than their Arab counterparts. In the context of the Muslim world, Algeria is only second to Senegal (about 40 percent) with the highest ratio of women MPs.

Nevertheless, Algerian politics are highly authoritarian.

In fact, the level of civil liberties and political rights in Algeria is one of the lowest in the Arab world. According to Freedom House rankings, the level of civil liberties and political rights has not improved at all in Algeria in the last 15 years.

With this in mind, it would be premature to conclude that having a high ratio of women MPs would be sufficient to make claims about liberties that women enjoy in Algeria. Having more seats in parliament does not necessarily translate into more liberties in absolute terms.

IB TIMES: Is the Algerian government committed to improving the lot of the country's women?

ACHILOV: From a historical perspective, the Algerian collective memory from the war of independence against France highlights the courage of Algerian women who fought as hard as men in the front lines.

In this respect, the war of independence played a key role in empowering Algerian women in the country's sociopolitical landscape.

As such, the Algerian government always proudly reiterates its commitment to empowering women in the society, as it is a politically correct policy.

But, according to the Global Gender Gap Index, the gender gap in Algeria has actually worsened in the last five years.

It is perhaps more accurate to state that the current government will empower and support those women who do not (and will not) challenge the current political system and/or current regime. The policies of the current regime revolve around protecting the authoritarian structures built around the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

IB TIMES: Are there any women in the Cabinet -- that is, people holding real power?

ACHILOV: Yes. Khalida Toumi, for instance, is a minister of culture. She is also a feminist activist who is known as one of the leading advocates for women’s rights in Algeria.

IB TIMES: Algeria is essentially a one-party state -- President Bouteflika's National Liberation Front. Does he not risk alienating Islamists by expanding women's rights?

ACHILOV: While this could be an issue for more radical religious factions, for moderate Islamists, it would not be a big problem. In fact, there are many moderate Islamists who advocate for women’s rights. Even though their voices are often overshadowed by radical forces, the trend of moderate, or mainstream, Islam that advocates civil liberties is increasing.

IB TIMES: If women are elected to parliament by quota, does that preclude the best candidates getting elected?

ACHILOV: It is theoretically plausible to think that setting quotas will hamper selecting the best candidates as opposed to a neutral selection process that is invariable to gender. But, on the other hand, putting quotas can also be compared to affirmative action (as in the U.S.), which opened up new venues to traditionally under-represented groups who otherwise would not have got an opportunity to be selected.

In a traditionally male-dominated society like Algeria, it is important to make these kinds of adjustments (at least at the initial/transitional stage) so that women can show that they are as capable as men in politics. In addition, this move can significantly empower women in politics and establish new female role models for future generations.

IB TIMES: What rights do Algerian women still not have?

ACHILOV: In general, Algerian society largely remains a male-dominated society. For instance, as current family law stands, a man has a right to divorce his wife without a cause, whereas a woman can only file for a divorce on limited grounds. Some similar discriminatory statutes also exist.

Furthermore, the corruption rate in Algeria is one of the highest in the Arab world. In terms of the rule of law, Algeria stands at the bottom 25th percentile, which suggests that three-thirds (75 percent) of the world’s governments have higher levels of the rule of law than Algeria.

So, in the bigger picture, women and men alike still do not enjoy liberties that most democracies (free or partly free states) offer to its citizens around the world.

IB TIMES: Does Algeria experience such things as forced marriage, child marriage, forced dowry payments and honor killings?

ACHILOV: There is a high statistically significant correlation between the levels of education, economic development and practices such as forced marriages, honor killing, etc. Algeria is largely a secular society. To a certain degree, the French secular experience has had its impact on Algerian society.

But it is important to note that these acts, such as honor killings, are largely a product of narrow and out-of-context religious interpretations. For instance, references to honor killings can be found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In theory, a person can be sentenced to a death by stoning (for adultery) in all three Abrahamic religions. But the question is how to interpret these verses in this modern age and in what context. In urban areas with higher levels of education and socioeconomic development, these practices are rare and unlikely. Unfortunately, in the rural and tribal parts of the country, these practices are not uncommon. About one-third of Algeria currently lives in rural areas.

IB TIMES: Algeria endured a deadly civil war in the 1990s that killed tens of thousands. Are the people so traumatized by the violence in that war that they didn't have the strength or desire to fully engage in the Arab Spring?

ACHILOV: We should not discount a potential full-scale Arab Spring explosion in Algeria in years to come. What’s equally important, "Arab Spring" should not be used synonymously with "democracy."

We have yet to see the countries that experienced full “Arab Spring” to genuinely democratize, though it is our hope and optimistic expectation.

In 2011-2012, there have been public demonstrations that clashed with the Algerian security forces demanding change mainly in reaction to poor living conditions, rising unemployment, lack of civil liberties and widespread corruption.

But the critical mass to spark a fully engaged Arab Spring is just not there in Algeria -- yet. Yes, the bloody civil war is still in the collective memory.

Moreover, President Bouteflika is not quite an “old dictator” as Gadhafi and Mubarak, who ruled Libya and Egypt, respectively, for over 30 years. The tension in the public, however, seems to be increasing.

Moving forward, I believe that the biggest factor for mass mobilization will be the economy. Improved financial conditions, growth and economic prosperity can offset this process. On the other hand, high unemployment, high levels of corruption and poor living conditions are likely to increase civil unrest in Algeria and lead to a mass mobilization in the near future.

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