Iraq: Women Are Seeking Greater Political Influence

The New York Times

For women in Iraq, the coming national elections offer both a promise and a reminder of the difficulty of change in this male-dominated culture. The Constitution calls for at least 25 percent of Parliament’s seats to go to women. But the first women elected in 2005 have had little effect, analysts and women who are members of Parliament say. Now, as the campaign begins for the country’s second post-invasion parliamentary vote, on March 7, some women say a new female political class is starting to emerge. In one sign of this development, 12 women from outside the political system have formed their own party, with a platform built on women’s rights and a jobs program for Iraq’s more than 700,000 widows.

“People can see we are independent and we are not working for any party in Iraq,” said Jenan Mubark, who organized the slate because, she said, women were often marginalized within parties. “They can see we just want to empower Iraqi women in the educational and economic sectors. It’s a very wide range of objectives, but I believe that Iraqi women need it.”

Iraqi women have higher rates of poverty and unemployment than men, and lower levels of education.

Ms. Mubark manages a construction company and runs the Iraqi Center for Women’s Rehabilitation and Employment, a nongovernmental organization that she said gave her a base of support, both male and female. In her walkup office in central Baghdad, she described her agenda in language that has become familiar to political campaigns around the world. “This,” she said, “is the first step for change in our country.”

Women have not been spared the violence of the electoral process. Last week, gunmen near Mosul killed Suha Abed Allah, a veterinarian running as a member of a multisectarian alliance.

“Everything is possible,” said Safia Taleb al-Souhail, a member of Parliament whose father was killed after plotting a coup against Saddam Hussein, and who is now seeking re-election. “But I believe women have more space than four years ago, and the ability to go from place to place.”

After the fall of Mr. Hussein in 2003, when women’s groups called for a quota in Parliament — originally seeking 40 percent of seats — they expected support from the United States, Ms. Souhail said. But American officials put other priorities ahead of women’s rights, Ms. Souhail and others said. “We took pictures with the president and the secretary of state,” she said. “This is not support. Support is letting the leaders know there also female leaders.”

American officials have said they did support the inclusion of women in the new government.

Like Ms. Mubark’s list, Ms. Souhail is running on a moderate, democratic platform. Both oppose an article in the Constitution requiring the creation of legislation that would give religious leaders partial authority over domestic matters, including marriage, divorce and inheritance. After opposition from women’s groups, the planned legislation was suspended, but religious parties hope to pass it.

For Ms. Souhail, the suspension was a major success, as was establishing the quota for women in Parliament. But she said that in other areas, the impact of women had been disappointing.

“We are seeing women in soft ministries,” she said. “Even those women who are chosen by certain political parties can’t give their positions independently, they have to bow to a leader. We want to have a woman who is a leader herself.”

She added: “I’m not saying we didn’t improve. We improved by seeing women participate in the political process. And we have learned a lot for the last four years. Many women who did not know anything about political expression now can really teach.”

Tanya T. Gilly, a member of Parliament from the heavily Kurdish north, will not be part of that next wave. She has decided not to seek re-election, citing a desire to spend more time with her children.

She said that many of her peers, male and female, accused her of trying to impose Western values on Iraqi society.

“One misconception is that we want some kind of liberal movement for women,” she said, adding that she had once received a death threat from another female lawmaker.

“I have literally been told, ‘Why don’t you stay at home and learn how to cook and find yourself a husband,’ ” said Ms. Gilly, who is married. “These are colleagues who are members of the same party, who supposedly embody the same values that the party values.”

She said that young women often avoided politics for fear of harming their reputations. “As a woman politician I should not have a problem having a meeting with all men, or a one-on-one meeting with a man,” she said. “But some people think that’s not the right thing, because Islamically you’re not supposed to have a woman and a man sitting in a room together unless they’re married.”

Shatha al-Musawi, an independent member of Parliament, said she would not seek re-election because of the power exerted by party leaders over their membership, which often meant that women were excluded from decision-making sessions. “I am not ready to lie to people claiming that we have a democracy,” she said.

“Iraqi women in the Parliament are more serious, more devoted, more present and more interactive than men with the public issues,” she said.

Nonetheless, she said she did not think the solution was an all-woman party. “Politics is about ideas, principles and theories,” she said. “These issues can’t be tackled by a gender approach only.”

She added, “I don’t think this is the right time to focus on women’s issues.”

More than 6,500 candidates are running for 325 seats. In a campaign that has already been stirred by sectarianism, Ms. Mubark has joined the Iraq Unity Alliance, a secular, cross-sectarian coalition. She said the parties in the alliance had promised to support her on women’s issues.

But even so, the effect that women like Ms. Mubark can have remains marginal, said Haider al-Musawi, a political analyst.

“In comparison with other regional countries, Iraq is formally advanced, with many female M.P.’s and ministers,” he said. “But this is only a false bright image. In reality, Iraq is left behind other countries.”

Ms. Souhail said that was starting to change, in part because of missteps by the men in office.

“When it comes to violence, militias, corruption, so many mistakes, men were mainly the ones who made these mistakes,” she said. “So we do believe we have improved the willingness of our people for our acceptance in the future.”

She pointed to stirrings of change among Iraqi women. “Many women who wore the hijab for security reasons are now able to take it off, and many who were not able to drive cars are now starting to drive,” she said. “There is a change in the tone of our society.”

Published: February 16, 2010