Iraq’s provincial elections Jan. 31 saw 4,000 women as candidates for 147 of the roughly 440 seats on provincial councils in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, and many of them will be guaranteed seats under an electoral quota system. Regardless of the votes their candidates receive, parties are required to give every third seat to a woman, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. The ultimate share of seats held by women will depend on the distribution of votes among parties, the report said. But some woman candidates quoted by the media questioned how significant the change really is.
Nibras al-Mamuri, a secular candidate the Baghdad provincial council, argues that fundamentalists have taken over the country since the 2005 elections. She told CNN: “Although a woman’s role in the Arab world is mainly that of a mother and child bearer, I want to prove that women are just as capable as men when it comes to challenging arenas… An Iraqi woman can be an equal. She can participate in change.”
McClatchy Newspapers spoke to Islam Abbas Faraj, a candidate in Diyala province, who was compelled to run by her husband’s forced disappearance. Last August, Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated security forces raided the government compound where her husband, Hussein al-Zubaidi, a member of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party and the head of the provincial council’s security committee, was sleeping. They killed the governor and hauled her husband away. They accused Zubaidi of connections to terrorism, and Faraj hasn’t seen him since. She decided to run for office and fill her husband’s shoes, to use politics to get him released. “His detention was political, and after he was detained, I decided that I would go all the way and make every effort to reach a position where I can make a difference,” she said.
Faraj expresses skepticism of how meaningful the figure of 4,000 women candidates really is. “I don’t know why they consider this to be an achievement, because women make up more than 60% of the population,” she said. “This is something we are looking to change in the future. If women win, we would have more peace and less violence.”
She said that in the villages of Diyala, most women will vote the same way the men in their families do. “Whether the women will be allowed to vote independently or not is an unknown quantity in the equation,” she said. “Some men will demand that the women of their family vote as they do, but at the end of the day she has the right, and it’s up to each of them whether to use it independently or otherwise.”
Faraj admits she is afraid. Three Sunni candidates were murdered in Iraq on last week, and her assassination would leave her two children parentless and alone. Faraj lives in the small city of Khalis north of Diyala’s provincial capital, Baqouba. The city straddles a sectarian fault line where a cycle of killings by Sunni and Shi’ite militants forced families to remain in their homes like prisoners until very recently. “It was like a ghost town,” she said. “Armed groups, militias, and kidnappings and murder were the norm every day.” She still feels threatened when campaigning in rural villages.
The New York Times spoke to Safia Taleb al-Suhail, a member of parliament who led a group of female lawmakers that lobbied to ensure that the constitutional provision that mandates that 25% of all parliament seats go to women is also applied to provincial councils. Suhail, the daughter of a Shi’ite tribal leader assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen in Lebanon in 1994, returned to Iraq after the regime’s fall to participate in shaping her country’s political future. Suhail was among those who lobbyied Iraq’s US administrator at the time, Paul Bremer, to include the quota for women in the country’s first transitional constitution. It was preserved in the current constitution because as the only way to assure the participation of women in a male-dominated culture. But the final version of the law regulating the provincial elections omitted the quota for women when it was published in October, sparking a new political struggle.
Mahdiya Abed-Hassan al-Lami, a women’s rights advocate and candidate in Baghdad running on the slate of former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, told the Times that while she supports the quota system, it had been manipulated by the major political parties to marginalize women. Most of the women chosen for the slates are there because of family and tribal connections. “If women are simply followers, they cannot fulfill their roles properly,” said Lami, who is a teacher and a devout Shiite. Her campaign has focused on reaching out to her network of women, particularly in some of the most destitute slums of Baghdad. (CNN, Jan. 31; McClatchy, Jan. 30; NYT, Jan. 29)
Women gain ground—in suicide bombings
In the 72 hours before the provincial elections, US and Iraqi forces targeted more than 100 people suspected of attempting to disrupt the balloting. Iraqi officials announced the arrest of a woman they said was responsible for recruiting dozens of female suicide bombers. At a press conference, Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta showed a video of the elderly woman, identified as Sameera Ahmed Jassim, in which she described recruitment methods.
More than 30 women blew themselves up in Iraq last year compared to eight in 2007, according to US military figures. US and Iraqi officials blame the increase on Sunni insurgents running short of male recruits and turning to women for the missions. Suspected suicide bombers were among those rounded up in the sweep conducted in the 72 hours leading up to the elections, said Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the commander of US forces in Baghdad and its surrounding region. (LAT, Feb. 3)
See our last post on the women in Iraq.