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Uzbekistan: More Women To Run For Parliament Under New Gender Quota

Uzbekistan is set to hold parliamentary elections on 26 December. According to a recent amendment to the country's election laws, at least 30 percent of the candidates nominated for parliament must be women. As of the end of the registration period, all five parties have met that requirement. Still, experts and observers believe there is little hope that female candidates, if elected, will be able to effect major changes in Uzbek politics, as the role of parliament remains largely nominal.

Prague, 7 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek authorities have pointed to the apparent success of the new gender quota system.

On 25 November, Sayyora Hojaeva, deputy head of the Central Election Commission, announced the percentage of female candidates who have registered for parliamentary elections on 26 December.

"32.7 percent of candidates from the Liberal Democratic Party representing entrepreneurs and business people, 30.5 percent of candidates from People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, 32.5 percent of candidates from Fidokorlar National Democratic Party, 32.7 percent from the Milliy Tiklanish Democratic Party, and 36.1 percent of candidates from Adolat Social Democratic Party are women. So, women comprise 31.5 percent of all registered candidates," Hojaeva says.

But whether the quota will have any meaningful effect on Uzbek society or politics depends on whom you ask.

Dildora Alimbekova, head of the Women Entrepreneurs Association, welcomes the quota. She tells RFE/RL it was a result of pressure from women's organizations and that it will give women opportunities they never had before.

"Of course, this measure is necessary during transition. As the society develops, economic reforms are implemented and there is democratization of all spheres, this quota might cease its significance. But at present, it is very needed," Alimbekova says.
"There are many businesswomen among them. I think they are financially independent and very knowledgeable. There are also well-known scholars among them. They realize the importance of gaining voters' support."

But Marfua Tokhtahojaeva, head of a nongovernmental organization called Women's Resource Center in Tashkent, believes the quota is nothing but a formality.

"The quota was introduced because the Uzbek government signed an international convention on eliminating all forms of discrimination against women. This document requires the political participation of women. But in the case [of Uzbekistan], I am afraid it is just a formality. [The government] wants to say to the international community, 'Yes, we respect women and their rights. Look how many women we have in the parliament.' But most voters do not trust women who will be elected or the parliament itself," Tokhtahojaeva says.

For his part, independent Tashkent sociologist Bahodir Musaev praises the new quota policy, but tells RFE/RL that he does not believe many women will get elected.

"On one hand, there are gender problems like discrimination of women. Women have a lot of problems. [Therefore] a 30 percent quota was introduced. But the question is what resources and chances do women have. I mean their political opportunities. [On the other hand], people's mentality and attitudes toward women will also play a significant role," Musaev says.

Alimbekova agrees that the chances of candidates of getting elected to the Oliy Majlis -- the lower house of parliament -- depend primarily on their political and financial resources as well as the attitude of voters. She believes many women have the necessary resources.

"There are many businesswomen among them. I think they are financially independent and very knowledgeable. There are also well-known scholars among them. They realize the importance of gaining voters' support. So these women have had very active campaigns for the past year. The electorate has also changed its attitude toward women candidates this year, compared to previous elections," Alimbekova says.

Activist Tokhtahojaeva disagrees. She tells REF/RL that stereotypes about women are still very strong in Uzbek society. It is a culturally accepted principle that a woman must first fulfill her duty as mother and wife. Therefore, she believes, voters will choose male candidates. Moreover, Tokhtahojaeva says that the attitude of male politicians toward women in politics is still negative.

"In our society, [there is a stereotype that] a woman must be beautiful and pleasant in every respect. Candidates were chosen only from this point of view. But in reality, members of parliament must not be beautiful and pleasant. On the contrary, they must be unpleasant because they must speak about problems. This is not pleasing for many [male politicians]. From this point of view, even though I respect each candidate personally, I think, there are very few candidates who can represent the interests of all women in the parliament," Tokhtahojaeva says.

Sociologist Musaev says that when female candidates get elected to parliament, their ability to effect change will depend on their talent, qualifications, and experience.

"Formally, [the government] met the demand [of women's groups to introduce a quota]. But it doesn't matter if 30 percent of parliament will be women. The most important question is who is going to be elected? Who is nominated? You say the people may not vote [for women]. It doesn't matter. What matters is who those women represent," Musaev says.

Neither Musaev nor Tokhtahojaeva believe that female deputies will be able to bring about major changes. They say the parliamentary elections will not be free or fair and the role of the Oliy Majlis remains nominal.

"Taking into account that the elections are uncontested, it will make no difference if a woman is elected or a man. They won't decide anything anyway. Female candidates represent parties, which are pocket parties. They will follow orders from above," Tokhtahojaeva says.

According to the Global Database of Quotas for Women, 41 countries have constitutional or electoral quota laws in effect as of 2004.

In Europe, Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway introduced gender quotas in the 1970s. Belgium and France adapted them in 1994 and 1999, respectively. Eventually, Denmark abandoned its quota policy as women are now firmly represented.

In non-European countries, it varies from 3 percent in Kenya to 40 percent in Costa Rica. Usually, the bar is set at one third of a general number of seats in parliament.

In the former Soviet Union, there was a 30 percent quota for women as well as for some professions, such as milkmaids and steel makers. But they were abolished after the break-up of the USSR.

In Central Asia, Uzbekistan became the first country to introduce a gender quota. But women's rights groups are seeking to reintroduce gender quotas in several former Soviet republics, including Russia and Kyrgyzstan.

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