“Shadow Councils” in the West Bank: When Gender Quotas Are Not Enough
By Vanessa Veltgens*
Political Representation of Women in the Arab World
As of 2018, Arab women hold only 17,7% of seats in parliaments, a level of participation that is second lowest in the world. Accordingly, the Beijing Platform of Action, the Arab Plan for Action and article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) all acknowledged that governments in the Arab region have to conduct affirmative action aimed at tackling gender inequality. In response, many Arab states have implemented gender quotas in the past 15 years. Their goal is to increase female representation in the legislature.
Gender Quota in the Palestinian National Authority Area
Due to pressure from women’s organizations and activists, in 2005 the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) implemented a 20% gender quota for local councils within their jurisdiction. Local councils form the backbone of public administration in the areas governed by the PNA, providing all the key public services. While the gender quota raised the number of women in local governments, it did not change gender roles within government. As a result, a huge power and equity imbalance in the region remains.
Numerous problems exist: Men still often try to prevent women from taking part in local decision-making; throughout the West Bank men sometimes hold local council meetings without informing the councilwomen; councilmen do not always brief women on laws that have recently been passed; and according to Mr. Samha, Deputy Assistant at the Palestinian Ministry of Local Government responsible for monitoring local council work, Palestinian society has yet to get used to the increasing number of women in local political positions. “It is something new for the society to see a woman leaving her house, especially at night, to go to the municipality council to participate in a meeting and to go home maybe late at night,” he said. And Mr. Tamaallah of the Palestinian Central Election Commission explained that a majority of women in local councils “are not the appropriate women” because “usually when they form a list in a village, they don’t come to the women and asked them, ‘Who wants to be in the council?’ They don’t ask for the women who are willing and capable of doing that.’”
In response to the shortcomings of the gender quota, the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development (PWWSD)created “shadow” councils, grassroots groups of progressively minded women activists and citizens. The municipal councilwomen are in some cases members of the shadow councils while in other cases they attend meetings as guests. The purpose of the councils is manifold: They encourage and strengthen women’s political participation in the country’s local municipality councils; they provide support to existing local councilwomen in the face of councilmen’s opposition; they encourage the candidacy of women who have not been part of local councils before; and they provide training for women in such realms as political participation, leadership skills, legal texts, the media, and electoral campaigns (all also giving the attendees a much–needed boost of confidence as civic leaders). Many women report feeling empowered by these activities. Some praised the opportunities to accompany a political leader for a few days, thereby gaining information on daily municipality work; others have become role models in their communities, which they enjoy. Said Rania from Kobar, in the West Bank, “Because of the shadow councils, I learned that even when men don’t want me at local meetings, I will go to these meetings.” Nihad from Jenin recounted, “Through the shadow council experience I gained a lot of experience that benefited me in the last local council election. I truly felt empowered.”
The local council election in May 2017 provides data on the impact the shadow councils are having. In that contest 67 women associated with the PWWSD either as member of a shadow council or as participant in one of their workshops won out of a total of 308 women on the ballot. Of those a majority of women confirmed that they enjoyed their new responsibilities. Reported Amal, a local councilwoman from Beitunia (in the West Bank), “I love what I am doing. There are a lots of things happening, and I am part of it.” Yusra, a newly elected councilwoman from Belle stated, “I love doing something good for the people. I am very hard-working.”
In addition to their training programs, the shadow councils cooperate with local ministries and women organizations to raise awareness of and lobby for women’s rights (something that, happily, also strengthens the link between local councils and local communities). In total, around 70 shadow councils exist in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.
Note from the editor: some names have been changed to protect personal identity.
*Vanessa Veltgens is currently enrolled in a master’s program in Middle Eastern studies at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Lund, Sweden. She gained work experience through internships in Berlin, Ramallah and Beirut.