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Muslim Women: From Polling Booths to Parliament

Muslim Women - Polling Booths to ParliamentThis report addresses an important aspect of Muslim women’s civic participation, namely their involvement in the political process. Civic minded people engage in the political process in many different ways, but voter turnout rates, party nomination to contest elections and success at the polls are the focus of this study.

Muslim voter turnout rates are quite low. They abstain from voting for many of the same reasons as the other Canadians, but some unique factors distinguish them from the rest: a distinctive demographic profile, high geographical mobility, lack of social capital and, to a small extent, a perceived inconsistency between religious beliefs and participation in a secular democratic process.

Only 42 per cent of the eligible voters are estimated to have cast ballot in the 2000 federal election. The apathy was more evident at the provincial polls, with only 40 per cent voting, and at the municipal level — where decisions concerning their children’s schools and neighbourhoods are made, just over one-quarter (28 per cent) exercised the franchise.

Muslims are the least likely of the faith communities to vote. They are one-third less likely to vote than the Hindus and Sikhs, with whom they share some key demographic characteristics, and about 40 per cent less likely than the Jewish community which has the highest voter turnout rate. Low turnout rates largely offset the political advantage Muslim women and men have in terms of votes.

However, Muslims are a diverse community, and their participation in the Canadian political system is affected by various factors such as experience of democratic institutions in their native countries and awareness of the importance of the ballot in influencing decision-making. Arab Muslims are the most active, while the South Asians are the least involved.

Muslim women are less likely to vote than men. Only 39 per cent are estimated to have cast ballot in the 2000 federal election, lower than the 45 per cent Muslim male turnout rate. The relative lack of interest by women is a projection of their roles in religious and many community organizations which typically treat them as a special case rather than equal partners in community building. There are stirrings of change, but gender roles based on customs and traditions of the immigrants rather than Islam are still the norm.

Defying the decline in the overall voter turnout rate, more Muslim women cast ballot in 2004 than in the previous election. This increase was small but significant because it was achieved in spite of a high proportion of newcomers among them, who are typically less involved, and the lack of attention paid to Muslim female voters by both the community and politicians. Some 43 per cent of them voted, up from 39 per cent in the previous federal election in 2000.

However, women did not keep pace with the male voter turnout rate which increased to 50 per cent in 2004 from 44 per cent in 2000. Most of the increased activity — campaign for voter registration, calls for exercising the franchise, and information about candidates and their parties — centred on the mosques, which segregate women. Most of the political candidates wooing Muslim voters tried to reach them at the Friday congregational worship to take advantage of the large gathering, when the congregation is almost all male and the few women who are there are segregated and not able to interact with the political candidates.

While a Muslim man was elected to a provincial legislature in the mid-1970s, a woman’s nomination to run for election in 1993 marked a milestone in Muslim women’s entry into politics. The increase in the number of Muslim female candidates to four in 2004 at the federal level reflected a number of things, including increased activity of Muslim women in party politics; rise of Muslim women to prominence in public life for their stand on issues of concern to all Canadians; demonstrated ability to articulate and represent the views and aspirations of the wider electorate; and attempts by the political parties to attract the support of the growing Muslim electorate. Some of them had to overcome opposition from within the community.

Fatima Houda-Pépin was the trail-blazer. First elected to the Québec National Assembly in 1995, she is serving her third consecutive term, and is the only Muslim woman among six men serving in various provincial legislatures. For nearly a decade, she was the only elected Muslim female until the election of Yasmin Ratansi in 2004 to the federal parliament.

Muslim women contesting elections run as Canadians in spite of some media outlets’ portrayal of them as Muslims running to promote Muslim causes. From an election strategy point of view, no candidate running as a Muslim can hope to win, as there is no riding among the 308 federal constituencies where Muslim voters can elect a candidate on their own although there are several where their vote is very important.

Rather, they are politicians who identify themselves with Islam, as do politicians of the other faiths. This is evident in the range of views that they hold on social, economic and political issues. At the national level, they have represented the centrist and left-of-the-centre parties — Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois (BQ).

In spite of the popular notion that Muslims are social conservatives, no Muslim female politician has ever represented the Conservative party or its forerunners in the federal elections. On the other hand, the NDP, which is on the farthest left of the centre among the major parties, has attracted more Muslim female candidates, nominating three of the four Muslim women who ran in the 2004 federal election.