ALGIERS (Reuters) - Now that Algeria has the largest proportion of women lawmakers in the Arab world, workmen at the national assembly building have some urgent modifications to make.
While the men’s washroom just outside the debating chamber is clearly marked with the silhouette of a man, there are so far no signs for the women’s. On the opening session of the new parliament on May 26, two of the newly elected female members had to ask for directions to the rest-room.
“Wherever I go I see a woman in front of me. Things have changed. We’re used to only seeing men,” said one local journalist as he watched the opening session of parliament.
The 146 women elected to parliament last month is up from just 31 before. Women now make up 31.6 percent of the chamber, the highest share of any Arab legislature and higher than many in the West.
The sudden leap is the result of a quota mandated by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that many skeptics - including foreign election monitors - thought would not be enforced.
Now Algeria, a Muslim energy exporter of 37 million people, is basking in its new status as a trailblazer for woman’s rights.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both praised the large female contingent.
But campaigners for equality say the big question remains unanswered: how will the new women lawmakers - most of them political novices - put their positions to good use?
Under Algeria’s constitution, the president has the most power, leaving only limited prerogatives to parliament. Lawmakers’ functions usually extend little beyond rubber-stamping initiatives handed down from the executive branch.
Women’s groups said the result was a positive, if limited, development, however.
“This is a victory,” said Nadia Ait Zai, head of CIDDEF, a non-governmental organization that campaigns for women’s and children’s rights. But, she asked, “What can these 140 women do?”
Algeria’s nearest Arab rival for the number of women MPs is now Tunisia, where women account for 26.7 percent of the seats in parliament, according to figures compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Algeria comes out ahead of several Western states, including Switzerland, Canada, France, Britain and the United States.
“As women, we will play a role,” Samira Kerkouche, a new member of parliament from Algiers told Reuters in the national assembly building, across the road from the capital’s Mediterranean port. “We seek change.”
Bouteflika may have been thinking about his legacy when he created the quota. He is 75 and frail, and few people expect him to run for a fourth time when his term runs out in 2014.
Increasing the number of women in parliament suits the secularist ruling establishment of which Bouteflika is a part. In the 1990s they fought and defeated Islamist hardliners who, among other things, wanted to confine women to the home.
Women in Algeria have traditionally played a more active role in public life than in most other Arab states.
Women feature among the heroes of Algeria’s war of independence from France in the 1960s. Female underground fighters would change into western-style dress, slip unnoticed into bars and restaurants frequented by the French, and leave behind bombs timed to explode minutes later.
Today, the police force prides itself on its female officers. At their graduation ceremony, women cadets show off their skills in hand-to-hand combat and dismantling automatic weapons.
The government has one female minister and two women deputy ministers. Algeria is one of only two Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to include women in their delegations.
Nevertheless, the large number of women in parliament came as a surprise. Most people had assumed that the male-dominated parties would find ways to get around Bouteflika’s quota.
Almost unnoticed a few days before the vote, however, the interior ministry came up with a mathematical formula for allocating seats that guaranteed women would make up about a third of the new legislature.
In many ways, the parliament that Algeria now has is way ahead of the society it is supposed to represent, however.
Away from the reaches of the secularist state, Algeria is a deeply conservative society.
Violence against women is widespread and laws guaranteeing equality are often flouted. One piece of legislation, the 1984 Family Code, gives women fewer rights than men in questions of divorce, inheritance and custody over children.
The Islamist hardliners who challenged the authorities in the 1990s took up arms after the military annulled an election they were poised to win. In the fighting which followed, 200,000 people were killed, according to some estimates.
They have now been largely defeated, but their sentiments about the role of women are still widespread.
“Islam is positive about not allowing women to practice politics,” said Sheikh Abdelfateh Zeraoui, a prominent cleric and proponent of Salafism, an ultra-purist branch of Islam which is widely followed in Algeria.
“We have a hadith (saying of the Prophet) which says ‘Allah will be angry when a group of men accepts being led by women’.”
Campaigners for women’s equality hope the new female members of parliament will take up the fight against this kind of discrimination.
Djaouida Safarbati, a lawyer from Medea in the mountains south-west of the capital, was elected as a member of parliament with the National Liberation Front, traditionally Algeria’s ruling party.
“Our top priority is to take back our rights. Women’s concerns are countless,” she told Reuters.
However, other new female members of parliament face a steep learning curve. In many cases thrust into the election by parties trying to meet the quota, not all have a background in politics or even in public life.
One new MP is well-known as a television announcer and sister of Rabah Madjer, one of Algeria’s most celebrated soccer players, but displayed no apparent political ambitions before the election.
Another new lawmaker is the former wife of Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian preacher who has become a celebrity for his appearances on Al Jazeera, the pan-Arabic television station. His ex-wife had not been involved in politics before.
Ait Zai, the women’s rights activist, was confident that with the right support, these new members of parliament could bring about a change.
“Many of them are in politics for the first time ... so we as women, if we want something from them, we have to go towards them,” she said in her office, decorated with posters condemning domestic violence.
“We cannot expect them to come to us so we will have programmes to train these members of parliament and educate them about the rights of women.”
Additional reporting by Christian Lowe and Lamine Chikhi; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall
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