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Patriarchal West: Less Women in Major’s UK Government than in Tunisia (1996)

Using the data collected by the UN Women Watch in 1996 and presented on Our Other Sisters we can draw several conclusions. In particular, in the mid-1990s the Tunisian government had more women in subministerial roles in government than the United Kingdom under John Major’s Conservative Government.

Partnership with women in Iraq courtesy of Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Creative Commons

Before we look into the finer details of this statistic, let’s state some facts about women who held positions in government in 1996 from both ‘Middle Eastern’ countries and the countries which are within NATO.

Ministerial Government Roles

Although the population of Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa was less than 6 million in 1996, they had the highest percentage of women in ministerial government roles in the Middle East: 18.8%.

The percentages measure the proportional amount of women who were in government, and so although taking population into account is relevant, it does not directly change the statistics regarding the raw amount of women in government.

In 1996 Denmark had the highest percentage of women in ministerial roles in government amongst the NATO countries: 29.2%

No women held ministerial roles in Greek, Lithuanian, Estonian or Czech Republic governments in 1996: all NATO countries.

Subministerial Government Roles

In terms of women in subministerial governmental roles, Kyrgyzstan was the highest country in the Middle East in 1996, with a representation of 12%. Tunisia was close behind, with 10.9% of women in subministerial governmental roles.

Pioneering the existence of women in politics, was the USA, with 34.5% of women in subministerial governmental roles, closely followed by Norway (22.7%) and Croatia (21.1%).

In 1996, there was no female representation in government, (neither in ministerial nor subministerial roles), in Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar, UAE, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Tunisia v. UK

It is particularly interesting to see that Tunisia already had a relatively strong female presence in government in the mid-1990s.

At the talk Our Other Sisters attended at the Guardian Open Weekend  (‘The Role of the Arab Spring’), Amel Azzouz, who is currently the leading member of the women’s office of the Islamic Party Ennahda, told us that the Tunisian revolutions throughout the 80s and 90s had already laid the foundations for change for women, and the statistics that 10.9% of women were in subministerial roles in 1996, support her comments.

In stark comparison, the UK only had 6.6% female subministerial representation in government in 1996, with only 8.3% of the Cabinet ministers being women.

It is not only Tunisia who had more female subministerial representation than the UK in 1996. Azerbaijan (6.9%), Algeria (8.3%) and Kuwait (6.7%) all had more women in government than the UK (6.6%) in 1996.

Tunisian Background

Let’s now focus on the governments in Tunisia and UK government of the mid-90s to offer some background.

Tunisia first liberalized the abortion law in 1965; the country’s current abortion law dates back to 1973, and President Bourguiba banned polygamy in the country in 1956.

A 1999 report by the Inter-parliamentary union (IPU) states that, particularly in Tunisia, a “strong showing of women in parliament has [had] an impact on the priority attached to women’s issues, and, more generally, on gender mainstreaming.”

Two thirds of parliaments, (of which Tunisia was one) felt that more attention was paid to women’s needs when bills were debated, due to the presence of women in sub ministerial government in the 1990s.

However, some respondents in the Democratic Constitutional Rally of Tunisia drew attention to the lack of solidarity among young women, which was reflected in a reluctance amongst women to vote for one another in government, with jealousy and fear reportedly key factors lending itself to this lack of solidarity.

This lack of a unified female movement in Tunisia also propagated a failure to encourage new young women to enter politics.

UK Background

The Conservative Government led by John Major in 1996 was often challenged for the lack of female political representation.

Robert Hughes, Labour MP for Aberdeen North questioned Major in the Commons regarding this: “With regard to the Prime Minister’s desire for a classless society and social mobility, will he explain why there are no women in his Cabinet?”

Major response was “In recent years, in all aspects of life in this country, women have been taking a higher profile: in the law, in commerce, in the civil service, in industry and in politics – and that will continue. As those women would wish it to be, they will reach the top on merit”

When Major came to power in 1990, the Cabinet which he appointed did not include a woman. He subsequently came under pressure to appoint a woman, and hastily did so, by appointing Gillian Shepherd as Economic Secretary to the Treasury.

Was appointing a woman to Cabinet a priority for John Major? Did it just slip his mind? Were women’s views properly represented in the UK in the 1990s? Was women’s involvement in politics considered important?

What we can conclude from these statistics is that, foundations were already being laid in the Middle East for women to enter politics throughout the 1990s, especially in Tunisia.

Furthermore, the presence of women in UK politics was very limited in the mid-90s.

This piece uses statistics from 1996 in order to offer some context for readers: please click here to compare these statistics with the situation for women in politics today.

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