Women may win seats, not rights, in Iraqi poll

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – More than a quarter of the 14,431 candidates registered for Iraq’s provincial council elections are women, but college student Fatma Imad sees few women’s faces on the posters plastered across her neighborhood.

“Even if I want to choose a woman, where are these women? I don’t see any posters for a woman candidate,” she asks.

In a January 31 provincial poll that will set the political tone for a national election due later this year, election law ensures women will be represented: each party that wins seats must give every third spot to a woman.

But in a country that was once one of the most progressive for women’s rights in the Middle East, and where black candidates plan to run for election for the first time, female candidates say the quota gives them little real clout.

The system has been dominated by conservative religious parties since U.S.-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“I feel afraid to hang my photos because of the threats. Our society is still a male-dominant society,” said Liza Nisan, a candidate from the National Assyrian Party, a Christian group.

A leader of a women’s organization, she has experience in politics, having won a seat on a municipal council a few years ago. But she quit because of constant threats.

She has agreed to stand as a candidate in this year’s provincial election only because the party was desperate for female names to meet its quota, she said. She does not allow her picture to appear on campaign posters.

The scarcity of posters showing female candidates may jeopardize their chance of winning seats beyond the guaranteed minimum, said Hamdiya al-Husseini, a member of the Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC), which is organizing the election.

“Women’s campaigns are so small, one (poster) of a woman faces 100 of men. It’s the nature of our society that does not favor their photos being posted. Most women feel uncomfortable about having their photos displayed,” she said.

Baghdad University law professor and women’s advocate Bushra al-Ubaidi said the dominant religious parties have so far doled out quota seats to women carefully selected to ensure they would not agitate for women’s rights.

“The women’s position in these parties was not a call for progress as much as it was a call to bind these women into these parties,” she said. “They are tools. They are using these women to reach a goal — to restrict the movement and progress of women…. I don’t blame the women. I blame their parties.”


Iraq enjoyed what many consider a golden age of progress on women’s rights in the 1960s and 1970s. But Saddam in the late years of his rule appealed to tribal and religious groups to sustain his officially secular state, resulting in setbacks to women’s rights, Ubaidi said.

After Saddam was ousted, conservative religious parties took power in many areas.

In cities like Basra in the Shi’ite Muslim south, once a cosmopolitan city, women found it dangerous to go out unveiled. Dozens were murdered in “honor killings.”

Elsewhere, Sunni Islamist extremists such as al Qaeda threatened to kill women if they did not wear an all-encompassing robe covering them from head to toe.

Today, the religious militia and Islamist extremists have largely been driven from the streets. Secular parties that include many supporters of women’s rights hope to profit from a voter backlash.

But the religious parties still have a firm grip on political power, and nearly all nationally recognized politicians are men.

“I will choose a man. A woman’s true place is at home raising her children and serving her husband, is that not enough for her?” said Jassim Abdul Amir, a taxi driver.

Women’s groups have complained that the electoral system in place for the provincial council vote could mean fewer women win seats than before. In the previous election in 2005, women were guaranteed 25 percent of seats.

Now, although big parties must give a third of their seats to women, parties that win one or two seats may name only males. There is no overall quota for women and there may be fewer seats for women in provinces where small parties collectively do well.

Still, some female candidates say a possible backlash against the conservative religious parties after years of war, corruption and shortages may give women a chance to reclaim a greater role in Iraqi life.

“My ambition is to see a woman as mayor of Baghdad,” said Amina al-Asadi, a primary school head mistress who is running for a seat on the capital’s provincial council.

“A woman is capable of doing anything she wants. She has the character of a leader, whether at home or as a teacher.”

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