Fatima Sbaity Kassem, the former Director of UN-ESCWA Centre for Women, discussed her new book Party Politics, Religion, and Women’s Leadership and the link between political parties and women’s role in governance.
On April 18, 2014, the Middle East Program and Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center held a meeting, “Party Politics, Religion, and Women's Leadership” with Sbaity Kassem, who is also a researcher and consultant on women and gender issues in Arab countries. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Sbaity Kassem began by discussing the worldwide trends in women’s political participation, which does not exceed 20 percent overall. Women’s participation is lowest in Arab countries, with a rate of 11 percent. Conversely, the Nordic countries have the highest rates of women’s political participation.
Historically, women’s political performance was studied within the context of a country’s political economy, Sbaity Kassem pointed out. However, she asserted that arguments based solely on the role of religion, economics, or political regime do not explain the global variations in women’s political participation. As a result, she instead focused the research for her book on the role of political parties, which she considered to be “forklifts” that promote women to public office and leadership positions. The capacity of political parties, she argued, significantly impacts women’s participation. Looking at the institutional structure of political parties, Sbaity Kassem sought to investigate why some parties are superior to others in promoting women’s leadership. Additionally, she discussed how her book explores the link between party religiosity and female participation.
Sbaity Kassem’s research focused on women’s share of party leadership rather than political representation, since the latter largely depends on voter preference. She compared 330 parties across 26 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe to investigate the influence of different religions on party dynamics. Sbaity Kassem defined party religiosity as the extent to which religious goals are articulated in party platforms and implemented in their agenda. She classified all political parties into three categories of religiosity: secular/irreligious, civil and confessional, and religious (tolerant/conservative/extremist).
Ultimately, Sbaity Kassem’s quantitative analysis supported the theory that party religiosity can explain variations in women’s leadership. She asserted that parties of lower religiosity promote more women to executive leadership than do more religious parties. Furthermore, she found that Christian-affiliated parties promote more women to higher leadership positions than Muslim-affiliated parties. Sbaity Kassem argued that party religiosity can explain many issues in women’s empowerment and leadership. She then discussed the case study of Lebanon, where women are highly qualified in social and economic terms yet only benefit from 3 percent female representation in government.
Moving forward, Sbaity Kassem argued that more female-friendly electoral laws should be implemented to increase the participation of women. In addition, she said that quotas for female participation, such as the ones in Iraq, are highly effective in advancing female leadership.
By Yomna Sarhan, Middle East Program
- Former Director, UN-ESCWA Centre for Women; and author, researcher, and consultant on women and gender issues in Arab countries