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

Authors including Kate Mosse tell the Edinburgh book festival that quotas could address 'dire' gender balance in Westminster

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.


Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘George Eliot’ joins 24 female authors making debuts under their real names
The Reclaim Her Name project, marking 25 years of the Women’s prize for fiction, will introduce titles including Middlemarch by Mary Ann Evans

Alison Flood

12, Aug, 2020 @4:19 PM

Article image
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie voted Women's prize 'winner of winners'
Nigerian author’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which won in 2007, named the best book in the prize’s 25-year history by the public

Alison Flood

12, Nov, 2020 @12:01 AM

Article image
Rachel Reeves: 'Time to write women back into parliamentary history'
Former frontbencher, who has written book about Labour MP Alice Bacon, says women’s contributions often overlooked

Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

27, Nov, 2016 @2:32 PM

Article image
Suffragette's great-granddaughter leads march on Parliament

Helen Pankhurst leads women to lobby MPs on issues including representation of women in politics and access to childcare

Alexandra Topping

24, Oct, 2012 @5:53 PM

Article image
Cherie Booth calls for quotas to help women succeed in politics and business
Barrister tells audience at the Hay festival equality would take a 'long time' if left to happen naturally

Ben Quinn

25, May, 2014 @6:29 PM

Article image
Scottish independence debate: women hold the key far from Westminster
Far from identikit men, both yes and no campaigns feature women at forefront in way currently inconceivable in UK politics

Libby Brooks, Scotland reporter

02, May, 2014 @1:59 PM

Article image
Lionel Shriver rubbishes plans for dedicated Year of Publishing Women
The novelist has called Kamila Shamsie’s campaign for a pledge to publish only female authors in 2018 ‘a ridiculous idea’

Alison Flood

10, Mar, 2016 @2:25 PM

Article image
Women and the coalition: how the government is letting down women

There is mounting concern about the impact of government policies on women – and furious debate over the language used

Polly Curtis, Whitehall correspondent

20, May, 2011 @6:03 PM

Article image
Tory minister declines John Humphrys interview over pay comments
Exclusive: Tracey Crouch did not appear on Today programme after leaked Carrie Gracie joke

Anushka Asthana Political editor

25, Jan, 2018 @5:54 PM

Letters: Women's role in war and peace
Letters: Kate Adie joins the ranks of the men who dominate accounts of the war, all too often totally ignoring the work of women who tried to stop the war

27, Sep, 2013 @8:00 PM