ALGIERS: Algerian law requires the next parliament to be made up of 30 percent women — but political parties across the spectrum have struggled to come up with enough female candidates to fill the quota.
While universities in this Muslim North African nation are increasingly full of young women, politics is still largely seen as a male domain. A relatively macho culture, especially in the desert and rural heartland, has left many parties short of female options as they sift through thousands of potential candidates to finalize party lists by Sunday for the May 4 election.
Parties reached out to journalists, teachers and other female professionals to try to persuade them to join male rivals who are clamoring to run for parliament, notably attracted by the political power and financial privileges of a legislative seat.
"I was never involved in political or union activity, but I was always interested in politics, through newspapers, television. I don't know what parliamentary work consists of, but the challenge interests me a lot," retired teacher Aziza Boudia said. The Algerian National Front party asked the energetic 55-year-old to be the No. 2 candidate for the party's list in Boumerdes east of Algiers.
Television presenter Nora Hamdi is more reticent and doesn't want to be seen as a token woman. Contacted by the minority Algerian Popular Movement party, she said, "It will depend on the position I would have on the list."
When Algeria's 22 million voters are called upon to choose 462 members of the lower house of parliament, 145 of them are meant to be women under a 2012 law championed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to promote women in politics.
While the National Liberation Front party, or FLN, is expected to keep its parliamentary majority, the legislative elections are an important gauge of political shifts at a time when the president's health is a widespread concern. Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke and recently canceled a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the last minute for health reasons.
"We have received 6,228 dossiers from candidates overall, but barely more than 100 from women," Djamal Ould Abbas, general secretary of the majority FLN party, said two weeks before Sunday's deadline.
Sociologist Nasser Djabi described it as a "problem of society. Algerian political parties are macho. They haven't invested in promoting women in politics."
"They are disconnected to the evolution of Algerian society, where girls are in the majority in universities, and girls have higher success rates on exams," he said. "Certain professions that have become more female, like the press, the legal system, education, health — but I see that the political parties remain closed in on themselves, and haven't followed this movement of evolution."
Feminist law professor Nadia Ait Zai welcomed Bouteflika's "courage" in pushing for the law. "For years they did nothing to favor the emergence of women political leaders."
While some welcomed the new quotas, in effect for the first time at a national level in this year's election, professor Zalane Abderrahmane of the University of Algiers was less enthusiastic.
"There's no point in having 30 percent of women in parliament if they are coming just to be ... decorative plants," he said. "Women should be there because of their ideas, their capacities, their personalities, their commitment, because they are the future of Algeria."