The Gender Gap in Political Participation in North Africa

The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions.  Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...

The Arab uprisings and their subsequent transitions raised alarm bells about how the transitions would impact women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What will the future of women’s rights be in the region, where significant gender gaps already exist and transitions initially empowered Islamist parties―most often associated with promoting traditional gender roles? Will the strides that Western-leaning authoritarian leaders made in improving women’s rights and representation―including a liberal family code and parliamentary gender quotas in Tunisia―remain now that these leaders have lost power? More importantly, how will greater or lesser inclusion of women in the political process impact their status and rights in the future?

A series of Post-Election Surveys in Tunisia,[1] Libya,[2] and Egypt,[3] conducted as part of the Transitional Governance Project (2015) shortly after each country’s first transitional elections,[4] provide insights into the problems of women’s participation. They allow us to gauge the extent and nature of women’s participation, discern how the attitudes and preferences women bring to the political process differ from those of men, and consider how gender gaps can influence policy outcomes. In this essay, we offer evidence of women’s relatively lower participation in elections and parties before and after the Arab uprisings, consider how the size of the gap varies across the transitional cases, and draw on our recent research conducted across North Africa to illustrate how this marginalization might negatively affect representation of women and women’s issues.

The Gender Gap in Political Participation

According to the Transitional Governance Project, women participated less than men in the first transitional elections, with the gap greatest in Libya (see Figure 1). In Tunisia, 75 percent of men voted in the 2011 Constituent Assembly elections, while only 65 percent of women voted. In Egypt, 77 percent of men voted in the first 2011-2012 transitional parliamentary elections, while only 58 percent of women voted. In Libya, the gap in voting in the 2012 General National Congress election was 84 percent for men, compared to only 59 percent for women. This amounts to gaps of 25 percent in Libya, 19 percent in Egypt, and 10 percent in Tunisia. That the gap was considerably larger in Libya than in Tunisia is important but not surprising; it reflects Tunisia’s history of proactive efforts to extend gender equality and bring women into the public sphere, beginning with the 1956 Personal Status Code, which made men and women equal and gave women equal rights in marriage and divorce.

Despite fears that the revolutions would roll back gains made by women, it is not entirely clear that they widened the participation gap. The size of the participation gap did increase in Tunisia, where 34 percent of both women and men said that they had voted in any parliamentary election before the revolution. Yet the gender gap appeared to have narrowed somewhat in Egypt after the uprising: 47 percent of men and 24 percent of women claimed to have participated in an election before the revolution. Libyans did not vote before the revolution in comparable national elections.

Figure 1. Participation in elections before and after the revolution





Question wording: “Did you vote in any parliamentary elections before 2011?” “Did you vote in any parliamentary elections that took place before the revolution?” Source: Transitional Governance Project

Men also appear to engage more consciously and feel more assured of their choices in elections. Males are much more likely to choose their candidate far in advance (see Figure 2). Men decided on their vote primarily before or at the beginning of the election campaigns, while women to a higher degree decided on election day. In Egypt, 55 percent of the male voters decided on their vote prior to the election campaigns or at the beginning of the campaign, compared to 45 percent of women. Egyptian women tended to decide on election day to a greater extent than men; 24 percent of Egyptian women decided on election day, compared to 13 percent of men. In Tunisia, the same tendency applied. Half of the male voters decided at the beginning of the election campaigns while 38 percent of women did so, and 27 percent of women decided on election day compared to 17 percent of men. In Libya, 71 percent of the male voters decided prior to or at the beginning of the election campaigns, compared to 59 percent of the female voters. Twenty-one percent of the female voters decided on election day, compared to 12 percent of male voters. In short, while men consider their options and make decisions long before polling, women tend to be undecided until the very last day.

Figure 2. Confidence in political choice



Question wording: “Did you vote in the parliamentary elections that took place [date]?” If yes, “When did you settle on this decision? Before the beginning of the campaign; At the beginning of the campaign; In the middle of the campaign; In the last week of the campaign; The day of the election.” Source: Transitional Governance Project

Engagement in political parties is low in the Arab world, but women are even less engaged than men (see Figure 3). In Egypt, 5 percent of men are involved in parties, compared to 2 percent of women, and 77 percent of women describe themselves as not interested in political parties; the share of men is 66 percent. In Tunisia, 4 percent of men are members of political parties, compared to 2 percent of women. Sixteen percent of Tunisian men describe themselves as not caring about parties, compared to 23 percent of women. In Libya, 7 percent of men and 3 percent of women are members of a political party. Thirty percent of Libyan men and 27 percent of women are not interested in parties.

Figure 3. Participation in political parties



Question wording: “Which of the following best describes you? An active member of a political party (coded member); A member of a political party but not active in party affairs (member); Party supporter but not member (supporter); Not a member of a political party but someone who generally supports a certain political party (supporter); Someone who supports different parties depending on current circumstances (supporter); Someone who does not care about political parties (not interested).” Source: Transitional Governance Project

Less Effective Representation of Women’s Issues

Women’s marginalization from transitional elections is not without consequences. It can impact representation of women’s issues, service provision to women, and electability of female candidates. Because women are less engaged in elections, their views and preferences will be systematically marginalized from the political process. On many issues, including the role of religion in politics and the state in the economy, men and women hold similar views. However, in two critical areas―views on women’s participation in politics and the labor force―they differ significantly. Thus, electoral marginalization likely affects substantive representation of their interests, making improvements in women’s participation yet less likely.

These attitudes are summarized in Figure 4. In Egypt and Libya, men agree more strongly than women with the statement that men have priority over women in applying for jobs. On a 1-9 scale, where 1 is not to agree at all and 9 to agree strongly, men have an average position at 5.6, compared to 5.2 for women in Egypt (p<.001) and 5.8 for men, compared to 4.8 for women in Libya (p<.001).

When asked whether gender quotas unfairly advantage woman and discriminate against men, on a scale of 1-4 (1 is not agree at all and 4 is strongly agree), Tunisian men hold an average position of 2.5 and women of 2.2 (p<.001). On a similar question asking whether the government should take care to ensure women are placed in top positions, women have an average position of 2.7 and men of 2.3 (p<.001). In Libya, the average position on the phrase that men make better political leaders than women is 3.7 among women compared to 4.6 for men (p<.001).

Figure 4. Attitudes toward women’s participation in employment and government






Source: Transitional Governance Project

Thus, while women and men hold similar preferences on many issues, including the role of religion in political life and the degree to which the government should be involved in the economy, gaps emerge in the area of women’s rights in political and economic life, leading to weaker representation of these issues when women are less politically active.

Service Provision to Women

Second, women’s lower engagement in elections has an impact on their access to parliamentary services, in part because women are less politically engaged and their vote is perceived by candidates as less important to mobilize.[5] Evidence from original surveys of 200 Moroccan and Algerian parliamentarians indicates that female citizens have significantly less access to clientelistic services, with only 20-29 percent of requests for assistance with personal and community problems coming from female citizens. While electing women helps reduce the gender gap in services, women elected through quotas experience mandate effects[6] and are more responsive to female citizens than deputies of either gender elected without quotas.

To explain why female citizens in North Africa have less access to service provision networks, this article draws on and extends Bjarnegård’s conceptualization of homosocial capital―resources and networks needed to win clientelistic elections. In Bjarnegård’s study of political recruitment in Thailand, she argues that male dominance of parliamentary politics is explained by men’s advantages obtaining expressive and instrumental resources, two elements that for males are seldom in opposition to one another. Expressive resources are dispositional similarities with members of networks, often of the same gender, which provide ease in relating to and building durable networks with individuals who can offer resources and support. People often find it easier to relate to others of the same gender and many prefer friendships and collaborations with others of the same gender as a result, but men can rely more on networks with other men because they can accumulate instrumental and expressive resources through linkages with other men. Instrumental capital are resources needed to succeed in elections, such as campaign funds.

Accordingly, two distinct gender gaps emerge: (1) a gap in access to services by female deputies and (2) a gap in access to informal networks with deputies by female citizens.

Evidence from the Transitional Governance Project, the Arab Barometer, and the Afrobarometer offer evidence of these demand- and supply-side gender gaps in service provision. Women parliamentarians have fewer resources and are less likely to be perceived as good sources of wasta (see Figure 5). In Jordan, for example, 45 percent saw males as better, compared to 14 percent seeing female parliamentarians as better (41 percent, no difference).[7] In Libya, 28 percent believed a man would be more effective, compared to 11 percent for women members (61 percent, no difference).[8] In Tunisia, 19 percent saw male deputies as better intermediaries, compared to 7 percent, who saw women as better (74 percent believed there was no difference).[9] Deputies have weaker incentives to serve females, who are less politically influential and mobilized and have fewer instrumental resources to offer than men due to their structural marginalization. Male deputies have more male citizens in their networks due to gender norms and preferences for homosociality, while female deputies have fewer resources to provide services to constituents, who are more likely to be female.

Figure 5. Perceptions of males and females as good sources of wasta



Question wording: “In general, would you say that male or female deputies are better able to provide wasta or would you say there is no difference? Man; Woman; No difference.” Source: Transitional Governance Project

Data from several surveys illustrate women’s exclusion from informal networks of service provision. The Afrobarometer suggests that women are less likely to contact members: 12 percent of Moroccan men, compared to 4 percent of Moroccan women (p<.000) and 2.2 percent of Algerian men, compared to 1.7 percent of Algerian women (p<.533) had contacted a member of parliament in the preceding year (see Figure 6).[10] According to the Arab Barometer,[11] 57 percent of men and 43 percent of women across six Arab countries (Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan) used wasta during the last five years. Women’s relative marginalization in post-uprising elections in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt thus suggests that women will continue to be seen as less important to serve.

Figure 6. Contacting members in previous year and use of wasta in last five years


Question wording: “How many times have you or any member of your household living here tried to contact a current Member of Parliament (2002-2007) to seek help with a personal problem, to seek help with a social or economic problem your community is facing, or to express an opinion?” Source: Constituent Survey (Benstead and Lust, 2007). “During the past five years, have you ever used wasta to achieve something personal, family related, or a neighborhood problem?” Source: Arab Barometer

When women participate less politically, their support is seen as less important to mobilize and they are less likely to access services.

Women Seen as Less Electable

Finally, women’s lower participation in transitional elections affects the electability of female candidates, in part because women are more likely than men to vote for women. In an article with Amaney A. Jamal,[12] we drew on a photo-based survey experiment embedded in a 2012 Tunisian post-election survey in which we asked respondents to rate their willingness to vote for candidates and presented them at random with photos of a secular-appearing male and female candidate or a religious-appearing male and female candidate. We found evidence of bias against female and religious candidates and showed that these biases cannot be explained by dominant modernization and cultural theories. We put forth and found evidence for role congruity theory, which posits that biases arise from incongruities between the stereotyped traits of women and expectations about good leaders. Applying role congruity theory for the first time in political science, we argue that this approach can explain biases based on different identity traits and in other regions.

In related work in Tunisia, we found that support for female candidates was higher, on average, among female respondents. According to Figure 7, 11 percent of women, compared to 5 percent of men, stated they would be more likely to vote for a list with a woman at the head, while 73 percent of women and 63 percent of men said this would not influence their choice. Seventeen percent of women and 32 percent of men said they would be less likely to vote for the list.[13]

Figure 7. Likelihood of voting for a list with a woman at the head



Question wording: “If the party list you would like to vote for has a woman at the head of the list, would you be more likely to vote for that list, a little less likely to vote for that list, or would it have no influence? More likely; No influence; Less likely.” Source: Transitional Governance Project

Thus, while both male as well as female voters can hold stereotypes that create hurdles at the polls for female candidates, female voters are more likely to see women as fit for office and to vote for females. Lower voting and participation by women only further disadvantages women candidates in elections.


Women’s marginalization from transitional elections, illustrated here, is not without consequences. It can impact representation of women’s issues, service provision to women, and electability of female candidates, only further exacerbating the structural marginalization of women. Persistent gender gaps in the post-uprising elections should encourage organizations and governments to promote women’s rights in Tunisia and Egypt by addressing political knowledge, efficacy, and participation among ordinary women, in addition to more elite-based program and electoral gender quotas. They also invite inquiry into issues of broad interest to political scientists: Why are women equally engaged at some times and in some countries (e.g., in Ben Ali’s Tunisia) and not others (e.g., in Mubarak’s Egypt)? What role does women’s participation play in regime stability and democratization? How can women’s full and equal participation be achieved?

[1] The Tunisian Post-Election Survey (TPES) was a face-to-face household survey conducted October 8-November 30, 2012 by the Transitional Governance Project (2015) shortly after the October 23, 2011 election of the Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with writing Tunisia’s constitution. Probability proportional to size (PPS) sampling was used to select 73 urban and rural communes located in 16 electoral districts. The response rate was 63 percent. The poll was conducted by Lindsay Benstead, Ellen Lust, and Dhafer Malouche, with support from the National Science Foundation, Portland State University, Princeton University, and Yale University.

[2] The first Libyan Post-Election Survey (LPES) was a household survey of 1,200 Libyans conducted April 2013 by the National Democratic Institute in collaboration with Diwan Research, Lindsay Benstead, Ellen Lust, and JMW Consulting. It asked respondents about their participation in the July 7, 2012 election for the General National Congress, which was tasked with governing the country, including the organization of elections for the Constitution Drafting Committee.

[3] The first Egyptian Post-Election Survey (EPES) was a household survey conducted October 31-November 10, 2012 of 4,080 Egyptians drawn from a PPS sample of 21 governorates with a response rate of 67 percent. All governorates except the five border governorates―North and South Sinai, Red Sea, Matrouh, and al-Wadi, which have less than one percent of the Egyptian population ―were surveyed. The poll was conducted by the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) in collaboration with Ellen Lust (Yale University), Gamal Soltan (American University in Cairo), and JMW Consulting and with support from the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI). The survey was conducted shortly before the November 28, 2011-January 11, 2012 parliamentary elections and May 23-24, 2012 presidential election.

[4] Transitional Governance Project (2015),

[5] Lindsay J. Benstead, “Why Quotas Are Needed to Improve Women’s Access to Services in Clientelistic Regimes,” Governance, forthcoming.

[6] Susan Franceschet and Jennifer M. Piscopo, “Gender Quotas and Women's Substantive Representation: Lessons from Argentina,” Politics and Gender 4, 3 (2008): 393-426.

[7] 2014 poll conducted among 1,488 Jordanians. Lindsay Benstead, Kristen Kao, and Ellen Lust, Program on Governance and Local Development (2015),

[8] 2013 National Democratic Institute poll of 1,200 Libyans. Diwan Research, Lindsay Benstead, Ellen Lust, and JMW Consulting, Transitional Governance Project (2015),

[9] 2014 survey of 1,200 Tunisians conducted by United Nations Democracy Fund and Centre d’Études Maghrébines à Tunis. Lindsay Benstead, Ellen Lust, Dhafer Malouche, and JMW Consulting, Transitional Governance Project (2015),

[10] Afrobarometer (2015),

11] Arab Barometer (2006-2008),

12] Lindsay J. Benstead, Amaney A. Jamal, and Ellen Lust, “Is it Gender, Religion or Both? A Role Congruity Theory of Candidate Electability in Transitional Tunisia,” Perspectives on Politics 13, 1 (2015): 74-94.

[13] Lindsay J. Benstead and Ellen Lust, “Traits, Competencies or Policy Signals? How Candidate Electability Affects Arab Elections,” paper to be presented at the Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting, Denver, CO, November 21-24, 2015.