Quotas for women in parliament could ‘effect real change’, authors say

Quotas should be introduced to increase the numbers of women in parliament and public life to address the “dire” gender balance in Westminster, authors have told the Edinburgh international book festival.

Kamila Shamsie, the novelist, and Kate Mosse, the author and founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, argued that quotas for women in parliament, though according to Mosse “a blunt tool”, could “effect real change”.

Mosse, author of novels including Labyrinth and Citadel, founded the former Orange prize for fiction in 1996 – an award that, though firmly established on the literary scene, still provokes debate since only novels by women are eligible.

“We all know there is no perfect system so it’s about what might make a change that would be beneficial,” she said.

“If you have quotas for women on boards, parliament and so on it takes away that burden for each individual woman to be ‘everywoman’ – to be every single thing that any woman would want represented.

“If there is a quota … there is no debate. Women can be there as themselves. Quotas would effect change. If we were living in a golden age for political representation and tolerance for all faiths … then we might say things were working pretty well. But we are living in the opposite, so it seems to me therefore that you try and act rather than sitting on your hands.”

Shamsie said that the gender balance in Westminster, where 22% of MPs are women, was “dire right now. And the nearer you get to the top the worse it gets.” Holyrood, with its 35% of female MSPs, was doing better – but should aim for 50%, she said.

The writers were speaking in a debate with writer Lisa Appignanesi, co-editor of the volume of essays 50 Shades of Feminism – devised as a result of “a long moan”, according to Appignanesi.

Shamsie, who grew up in Pakistan and is one of Granta magazine’s “best of young British novelists”, cited the quota for women in Pakistan’s parliament as a positive example. “It has made such a world of difference to have women in parliament [in Pakistan]. Why are we not having that conversation as well?”

She also warned that violence against women in Pakistan or Egypt should not be framed as anything other than simply misogynist.

“When in Egypt there were women being attacked around Tahrir Square conversations started about Islam. And I wanted to say: ‘Where in the world are women not attacked?’ Show me the country where women don’t suffer sexual harassment. Show me the country where there is no rape. The women in Egypt begin to ask, ‘Why are you making this about Egypt – I am Egyptian. Why are you making this about Islam? I am Muslim.'”

According to research conducted by the Guardian Datablog in 2012, Britain ranked 53rd in the world for its parliamentary representation of women. As a region, the Nordic countries led the way internationally with an average of 42% of women in parliament. Rwanda, which operates a quota system, was the only parliament with a majority of women in its lower house – 45 out of 80 seats were taken by women.

A report published by the United Nations in 2012 found that out of the 59 countries that held elections in 2011, 17 of them had quotas. In those countries, women gained 27% of parliamentary seats compared to 16% in those without. – By Charlotte Higgins © Guardian News and Media 2013

Image – AFP