Women in Political and Public Life

Section 3: Access to the public space

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Section 3: Access to the public space

Access to the public space requires both physical and cultural access. This includes access to public places, including buildings, parks, forests and beaches, and to public services, including judicial processes, administrative agencies, education, training and health. Women’s right to equal access to the public space is derived from their equal right to all the political and civil rights and the economic, social and cultural rights secured under international human rights law136.

Currently, the obligation of states to secure women’s right of equal access to public space has not been fully implemented. There is continuing discrimination in law and/or state practice that limits women’s right to full and equal access to public space. For example, cultural practice in some regions still requires that women have a male guardian in public space. This requirement can significantly restrict women’s participation in public life. In Saudi Arabia, personal status law states that an adult woman is the ward of her father, a married woman is the ward of her husband, and a widowed woman is the ward of her sons. In fact, in the past, Saudi Arabian women were only named, and not pictured, on family identity cards, which identify them as dependents of their husbands or fathers. This significantly restricts women’s potential for empowerment137.

Women may also be segregated and excluded from public places or services. For example, in Morocco, there is quite a strong separation of public and private spaces: the public space is the street and the marketplace where men are located, and the private space is the home, where women are primarily located138. Although women are seen on the street, it is often not a welcoming place for them, where they can be vulnerable and subject to sexual harassment. Social norms in Morocco also dictate that people would generally not defend a woman alone in the street if she experienced harassment, especially if she were young139.

The imposition of restrictive dress can also limit women’s right of equal access to public space. In many regions, the police enforce restrictive dress codes. The Islamic tradition of women wearing a burka or headscarf creates paradoxical effects for women’s presence in public space. On the one hand, veiled women can have greater access to public space; on the other hand, they remain symbolically in private space140. Religious laws about women’s restricted dress are often rigorously enforced. In Iran, women must conform to strict dress codes, and in recent years, there have been attacks on women deemed to be dressed immodestly141. Another example of restrictive dress exists in Swaziland, where it is customary for widows or women in mourning to wear black mourning gowns for the duration of the mourning period, which can range from six months to two years, and in this time, women wearing such gowns cannot participate in public gatherings or meetings142. In the Asia-Pacific region, the rise of fundamentalism and militarization has led to high levels of religious assimilation which, in many cases, leads to heightened control over women’s bodies. In the case of the Pahari women in Chittagong Hill Tracts, women have been forced to dress more conservatively and have had their rights to free movement and physical integrity compromised due to harassment from the army and settlers143.

Women’s right to access the public space may be limited by women’s inability to participate in justice processes. In some communities, women are unable to access legal systems without the assistance of a male relative. For example, in some countries, such as Timor Leste, it is customary practice that a woman does not speak on her own behalf in local disputes144. This social barrier can be especially challenging if a woman is speaking out against violations perpetrated by her family.

Women are also discriminated against when they are limited from accessing certain sections of public space, or when their presence in public space is regulated by rules about where they are or are not allowed to be. The case of the Israeli Supreme Court ruling against segregation on buses illustrates this point. In 2011, the Court ruled that gender segregation on public buses was unlawful. While the practice is still condoned on a voluntary basis, so long as all parties consent to it, prior to the ruling female passengers were frequently harassed and forced to move to the back of the bus. Certain religious figures have publicly stated that sex segregation in public spaces is not Jewish ‘law’, even if it has become Jewish religious practice.

While customary practice and discriminatory legal systems can lead to rules and laws that restrict women’s full access to public space, there are good practices to suggest that progress can be made to prevent this discrimination. In Vanuatu, the traditional Malvatumauri (House of Chiefs), supported by church leaders, attempted to pass a ‘new’ customary law in 2005 to prevent women from wearing trousers, shorts, pants or jeans. Women’s non-governmental organizations, such as The Vanuatu Women’s Centre, challenged this law with a media campaign saying that the new dress code was unconstitutional and against women’s rights. The efforts of this NGO led to the withdrawal of the new code, preventing the introduction of this restrictive dress code145.

When considering women’s access to public space, it is also important to consider the discrimination that women experience in self-expression within the public space. This is connected to women’s use of communication technologies to gain access to public and political life. Women’s writing published in print or online, is a strategic tool that increasingly permits women’s voices to enter the larger public sphere despite cultural filters, which might try to silence their voices. The case of Rana Husseini, a Jordanian journalist, illustrates the importance of women’s voices in the public sphere, as she unveiled the cultural and legal institutions that directly and indirectly sanction ‘honor crimes’ in Jordanian society. Her published writing sparked public debate around this contentious issue and provided support to activists who could then press for legal reform using her concrete data146.

In Iran, there has been an interesting trend seeing rising numbers of women ‘bloggers’ in cyberspace. Through their personal narratives, women bloggers are entering into the public sphere to become more visible and to speak out about their experiences147. Bloggers are participating in online demonstrations and public debates through their participation in cyberspace. The process of writing and publishing is an expressive and publicly visible forum for women’s participation, especially in a society where women have few avenues for more physical forms of public participation. An interesting case occurred in Iran in April 2008 where women bloggers began to write about their own bodies and their sexual relations. This sparked fierce debate in the cyber-sphere about the limits of freedom of expression and the limits of transparency regarding women’s private lives in relation to religious law and Iranian social conventions148.

Women’s activism through civil society organizations has encouraged women’s participation in the public sphere through engagement in media and journalism. Women’s NGOs in many regions, especially the Middle East, have been active in breaking the culture of silence around women’s lives and experiences. There is an increasing realization among activists and media professionals in the MENA region that communication technologies can contribute to a refashioning of political culture. The Jordanian-based Arab Women Media Center seeks to play a pivotal role in journalists’ lives and careers by offering training sessions and sharing information and experiences at local and regional levels. One of its goals is to raise public consciousness about gender stereotyping and to establish advocacy to facilitate change in discriminatory policies149. A similar goal led to the creation of the first Women and Media Forum, in Abu-Dhabi in 2002, which brought together more than 1000 Arab women to denounce the media’s failure to support women’s achievements and discuss strategies for progressing women’s rights150.

Cultural Barriers to Women’s Equal Access to Public Space

Women’s access to public space increasingly must address the role of religious discourse in all aspects of life. Access to public space can be limited by religious and cultural factors. Religious institutions, in particular, play a key role in the development of social and cultural norms regarding women’s role in society and in the public sphere. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the church has played a notable role in this domain, as well as in the development of legislation, public policies, programs and services in areas pertaining to women’s rights issues151. Even in countries that are experiencing increasing social and economic modernization, and/or that are introducing constitutional provisions to separate the Church and the State, the hierarchy of the church significantly influences women’s political participation and access to the public sphere. In fact, a recent ECLAC survey related to political participation in Latin America noted the significant influence of the church in opposing gender parity in public decision-making positions152.

While religious and cultural barriers may limit women’s access to public space, examples also exist of women who have mobilized within the public sphere around the cultural symbolism of their role as mothers to create change in public and political domains. The culture of motherhood provides a space for women’s political participation, and women’s activists in many regions have used this symbolism for political goals. For example, the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo is an association of Argentine mothers whose children were subject to disappearances during the military dictatorship. With the aim of finding abducted children, the group started demonstrating in 1977, in front of the Presidential Palace, and became well-known for their public showings153. Another example of a movement of mothers occurred in the Balkans, where women used the cultural symbolism of motherhood to protest against their sons being drafted into the army154. Women activists from diverse groups in South Lebanon have also used motherhood as an avenue for civil participation during the time of war in South Lebanon155.

New Political Spaces: Cyberspace, ICTs and Social Media

While women’s participation in formal public and political life remains important, there is increasing recognition that political decision-making occurs within a continuum of formal and informal spaces and institutions. We increasingly live in a ‘network society’, characterized by broad webs of connection and connectedness156. Social and political practices are increasingly emerging in interaction with digital technology157. The Internet has the capacity to open new public and political spaces, by allowing new discourses to flourish, giving powerful voice to previously marginalized communities for anti-discrimination and gender equality.

Research shows that there has been a decline in engagement in traditional, institutionalized forms of political participation and a rise in more informal, fluid and personal forms of civic engagement158. There has been a steady increase in the number of people involved in emerging forms of civic engagement, such as Internet campaigns, ad-hoc protests, political consumerism and life style politics. These emerging forms of participation abandon traditional organizational structures that involve high levels of formality and bureaucratic order and they are also less concerned with institutional affairs like party and parliamentary politics. This new form of participation blurs the traditional boundaries between the public and private sphere because spheres traditionally perceived as private can become politicized. The individualized character of this participation allows for more flexibility, choice and ways of involvement159.

These new forms of participation, and particularly the use of the Internet, are so important that governments have started to pay attention to the Internet as a source of protest. For example, in China, India and across the Middle East, attempts are underway to censor the Internet. In the network age, democratic processes need to account for emerging Internet spaces, and need to consider the trade-offs in how political organization functions in new digital spaces. During regime change in Egypt and Libya, and at times of heightened tension in countries such as Pakistan and Thailand, one government response has been to shut down ICT communications160.

These new forms of political participation raise the question of how these emerging political action repertoires impact patterns of inequality. The significance of socio-economic resources such as education, for example, might diminish when considering informal participation because the entry costs of signing a petition are lower than the costs of joining a political party. The gender equality gap is also diminished by the rise of these new forms of political participation. Research shows that for these emerging forms of participation, the gender gap was reversed in 2002, with women now being significantly more active than men in acts such as signing petitions and joining boycotts and protests161. Women now have 13% higher odds of being engaged in the emerging action repertoires when compared to men162. The proliferation of Internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and online petition sites such as avaaz.org can be effective mediums for political participation.

Internet use by women’s rights activism signals the emergence of new trends that could change the nature of the women’s activism in the public sphere163. New technologies are useful for activists for three key reasons. First, it permits access to information and knowledge outside of censorship, so that relevant information can be retrieved faster and more effectively. Second, it increases the volume of women’s voices and initiatives without relying exclusively on traditional media. Third, it encourages women to think about new ways to establish professional relations and forge alliances164. ICTs have facilitated the construction of a more inclusive public space and can help women’s organizations to mobilize international public opinion against discriminatory and unjust actions in domestic contexts. Key players at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing have been at the forefront of promoting women’s rights through the strategic use of ICTs. Information sharing and dialogues through the Internet between women from the Global North and South, and among women in the South, have contributed to effective collaboration on a global scale to promote gender equality165.

The Internet is a driving a force in accelerating progress in development and human rights, and in promoting freedom and democracy. International human rights law and declarations confirm that everyone has a right to communicate through new technologies166. Furthermore, the Internet is an ‘enabler’ of human rights, boosting economic, social and political development and contributing to the progress of humankind, and this significance implies that ‘digital literacy’ is essential for freedom of expression in the present and future167. ‘Digital literacy’ can particularly support women’s empowerment, improving health and education, and allowing for informed decisions and greater economic opportunities, which are all connected to an increase in women’s access to and participation in public and political life.

A new concern when considering the rise of ICTs in public and political life is the question of anonymity. The possibility of functioning anonymously online can help women to invent safe spaces in which to mobilize and communicate. The case of lesbian feminist Lebanese women using anonymity online to mobilize was key to their movement and became a defining aspect of the Lebanese experience of being a lesbian168. Research shows that anonymity was key to the success of lesbian organising in Lebanon, however there are also disadvantages of anonymity in online culture. Being anonymous can restrict women’s rights online by facilitating harassment, stalking and trafficking because of the ability of perpetrators to operate anonymously and at a distance from victims169.

The noted increase in the use of ICTs in recent years by women’s rights activists can be seen in the enhanced capacity of women’s advocacy and support groups to exchange information and coordinate action. For example, the use of electronic media was paramount to mobilize around the major conferences on women’s rights, in Beijing, Durban and the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre170. Women activists have also used the Internet to mobilize in the cases of the ‘Free Mona’ campaign, to free Mona El-Tawahy, who was arrested in Tahrir Square; and as part of the ‘Tahrir Bodyguards” to support women’s role in the process of democratisation in Egypt. In this case, women’s presence in the public space of the streets was an important step for women to be able to express their support or opposition in the process of drafting the Constitution. However, many women experienced harassment, which had the effect of silencing women’s voices. A group of women began the group, ‘Tahrir Bodyguards”, who came to protect women at the protests. They used SMS, micro-blogging and social networking to help prevent violence and to address the safety of women to ensure they had the right to demonstrate in the public space171.

The ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign in India in 2009, which protested cultural right wing attacks on women in public spaces, also gained momentum through the use of social media tools172. However, these new possibilities are also bound by new politics: the ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign was attacked by ‘trolls’ and broken into, but the Facebook social media platform was unresponsive to repeated requests for help, forcing the group administrator to disable the account173.

While the increase in new public spaces through ICTs have vastly changed the landscape for women’s public and political participation, it is important to note that not all women can access these resources. A study from ECLAC and IDRC showed that in Latin America and the Caribbean, less than 12 percent of individuals are Internet and broadband subscribers174. Gloria Bonder has noted that Internet connectivity is primarily an urban phenomenon in Latin America, and this trend applies in other regions175. There is still a gap in users of new technologies according to education level and quality, as well as age and gender. Gender gaps may be connected to low levels of literacy and computer skills, deep-seated socio-cultural norms, a lack of financial resources to gain access to ICTs and a lack of culturally relevant software.

Participation in Public Space: Organizations, Associations and Unions

In addition to women’s access to public space, women’s full participation in public life requires non-discrimination and gender equality within public organizations and associations.

Case law in the US shows a good practice in addressing the issue of discrimination against women by the male-only membership of a club called the Jaycees. The US Junior Chamber (JC, Jaycees) is a leadership training and civic organisation for young people up to age 41. Females were limited to associate membership that prevented them from voting or holding office within the organization. Two chapters allowed women full membership, but when the national organisation revoked these chapter’s licences, they filed a discrimination claim. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that the Jaycees lacked the distinctive characteristics that would permit it to discriminate against women and that the eradication of gender discrimination within the Jaycees was justified by State enforcement of anti-discrimination176.

In terms of religious organizations, research suggests that in the US, as in other countries, women are more likely to be members of church groups and other religious organizations than men177. However, when it comes to leadership positions within religious organizations, there are barriers that discriminate against women. Often, where laws prohibit sex discrimination in employment, exceptions are made for religious organizations. For example, in the case of the Church of England, women are permitted to be ordained as Ministers but are not eligible to take the position of bishop in the Church. While many Christian denominations have responded progressively to calls for gender equality, such as the Episcopal Church in the USA, other denominations such as Catholicism and certain strands of Evangelicalism share an opposition to female ordination. Within Islam, women may become imams, and most Sunni and many Shia denominations agree that women may lead prayer for other women, but also believe that women may not lead a mixed-gender congregation in prayer. Within Orthodox Judaism, only men can become rabbis, however in all other strands, women are eligible to become rabbis.

Women also face barriers in access to membership and leadership positions within trade unions. Barriers include women’s lack of knowledge about the benefits of trade union membership, fear of reprisals by employers and lack of time due to family responsibilities. In 2000, according to a worldwide survey by ILO and ICFTU, there was no proportional representation for women in trade union management. Women held less than a third of senior decision-making posts in over 60 percent of the trade unions studied178. A 2011 report by the African Labour Research Network cited that women’s involvement in trade union activities is low on the African continent, with the exception of nursing and teacher unions, where women still remain underrepresented at higher leadership levels179. In 2012, Frances O’Grady made history in the UK by becoming the first female to be elected General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress. In spite of this progress, research suggests that there is a lack of women at union leadership levels. Among the UK’s 10 largest unions, there are now four women general secretaries, but only two unions have achieved proportionality in the National Executive180. In 9 major unions within the USA with significant female membership, women comprise 24 percent of top leadership positions and in none of these unions do the leadership levels represent the proportion of females in membership rates181.

Where there has been progress in gender equality in trade unions, it is often a result of strong ‘women structures’ within the union: the sum of women’s collectives and posts within a union, such as women’s caucuses, committees, networks and meetings. In the UK, ‘positive action’ strategies inform the liberal union approach, helping women to access their union and develop the skills and experience, such as through childcare provision, to compete equally with men within existing union arrangements. More extensive positive discrimination measures have also been adopted which assist with equal outcomes in women’s representation, through a shift in the union structure such as quota setting or women’s reserved seats. In some Canadian unions, such as the Canadian autoworkers and the United Steel Workers unions, ‘affirmative action’ initiatives encompass anti-discrimination, positive action and positive discrimination measures, sometimes through the creation of union goodwill or mandatory measures182.

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