Iraq: Women face enormous obstacles in Iraqi politics

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Maha al Douri took a radical stance when she decided to run for a seat in the Iraqi Parliament in December. The 36-year-old candidate on a minor Shiite Muslim slate put her face on campaign posters - and succeeded in raising eyebrows around the country.
"I got threats," said al Douri. "I am the first (female) candidate to talk about women's rights. The political parties list women as candidates, but they want to waste the woman's voice. Where is the secularity and democracy we hear about? Are they only slogans?"
She's hardly alone in wondering what the future holds for women seeking political power in Iraq. Al Douri, who studied politics and journalism for a doctoral degree, notes that any woman getting involved must be brave enough to risk enormous social pressure and to face tremendous practical obstacles.

The official line from the government and many politicians is that women are welcome to participate. The constitution, which voters ratified in October, even guarantees women equal rights in society and a quarter of the seats in Parliament.

"We seek a real role for women, not a marginal one," said Haider al Abadi, a prominent member of Iraq's largest political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite group. "Society has now accepted women in the political field. ... We are keen for women to hold leading positions in the government."

During Saddam Hussein's 25-year reign, women did have a few opportunities to play important roles in government or elsewhere in society, but only as long as they complied with Saddam's demands to serve him and the ruling Baath party. Women had the right to vote, for instance, but like all Iraqis could vote only for Saddam.

Yet for all the talk of shedding a history of female repression and establishing a nation in which a woman's voice matters as much as a man's, signs that the government is becoming more Islamist worry champions of women's rights. Proponents of Islam in government note that the religion explicitly values women, including by cherishing their contributions to family, home and society. Yet others fear that a conservative Islamic government would bar women from voting, moving or even studying independently of their fathers, husbands or brothers.

Already there have been numerous reports of husbands casting votes in their wives' names and of fathers voting for their daughters. Before October's constitutional referendum, in conservative areas campaign posters showing a woman's face - symbolizing the face of a new Iraq - were ripped from walls or painted over and denounced as shameful.

In the December parliamentary elections, security concerns prompted candidate Huda al Nu'aimi to decide at the last minute not to display any of her campaign posters, including those featuring her face. Like other female candidates, some of whom were even afraid to appear in public, al Nu'aimi feared that she'd be a target.

"I did not dare to be pursued by militias or organized criminal groups. I did not want my posters to be torn or covered in bad words," said al Nu'aimi, a candidate of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, a major secular Sunni Muslim slate. "Here, the man is still the master."

Like many Iraqis who are worried about the direction their nation will take, Aseel Ayad wants women to have a stronger role in politics. The 23-year-old, who works in her family's Baghdad optical shop, thinks it's important that the new government's promises of gender equality - the right to work, vote and participate fully in society - don't vanish. "As a woman, I feel I need women in office to help me achieve my goals," she said. "So far we have seen nothing in the past elections. Women have been represented in the slates, but only to fill a space, and they haven't been valued." While some political groups did just that, others sought to fill the spaces on their slates that were constitutionally reserved for women with bona fide candidates, said Hussein al Musawi of the Sun of Iraq, the minor Shiite slate that included al Douri. It will take time for Iraq to embrace a political system that's open to women and for women to seize the opportunity, he said.

"This is a golden chance for women," al Musawi said. "They must exploit it in the best way they can and improve their role in society in these years, so in the next round of elections women will be able to raise their percentage" in Parliament.

Not everyone is eager for women's rights to top the government's agenda.

Mays Hussam, 34, an office manager in Baghdad, said the nation had more pressing issues, including the epidemic violence that kills Iraqis daily and the chronic electricity shortage. Only after Iraq's basic needs are met should the government take on more, she said.

"I don't want something for my gender," she said. "All I care about now is security and a healthy environment for my son. Once we're safer, I hope women will defend our rights."

Political analyst Hazim Ali of Jadriyah University said that security fears, however, weren't necessarily driving the movements to exclude women from politics. Some extremist clerics may be taking advantage of troubled times to keep women in traditional roles, he said.

"Politics here is a male thing," Ali said. "I consider it two-faced: We say we accept women's role in politics, but we do not believe in them."

Azhar al Sheikhli, the minister for women's affairs, said that too often women were regarded as simple-minded, unable to handle the rough-and-tumble political world. Strong laws are needed to guarantee women's rights, and new generations must be taught that women have much to give to Iraq, she said.

"The heads of our political lists realize they don't need women at the top of their lists to succeed, so they figure, `Why risk it?'" she said. "We hope that will change with time."

© 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.