Female Representation: Iraq

>> Friday, January 30, 2009

With our own major economic problems little has been said about the upcoming elections in iraq. Saturday is the provincial election in iraq and among the 14,400 candidates about 4,000 are women. I have written before on the rates of women in parliaments around the world. Surprisingly Iraq has a law that mandates at least 25% of the parliament consists of women.This law also exists to ensure 25% representation on local councils. This law has obscured the battle that women fight for political and legal rights in Iraq.

The provincial elections in Iraq will be a test for women because of the way the elections will be run in this cycle. Previously Iraq used a party list system where the voters picked a party who would then pick who occupied the council seats. Now the lists are being made public and this increased transparency has led to both advantages and disadvantages for the female candidates.

The first and most obvious issue is the possibility of assassination or other threats by hard line militias. This is a serious threat as an article in the NYT illustrates,

Some female candidates have had their posters splattered with mud, defaced with beards or torn up, but most have been spared the violence that has claimed the lives of two male candidates and a coalition leader since the start of the year. But on Wednesday, a woman working for the Iraqi Islamic Party was killed when gunmen burst into her house in Baghdad and shot her 10 times in the chest, according to an Interior Ministry official.
Liza Hido sat on a municipal council but was forced to quit in 2006 after receiving threatening e-mail and text messages on her cellphone.

She is running again this year but, still concerned for her safety, she is keeping her campaigning discreet, putting up no posters and making no public appearances. Instead, she restricts herself to private gatherings.

The lives of these women in Iraq are under constant threat from the hard liners. For example in Basra for women were killed in 2007 for not wearing a veil. They also struggle against the dominant male culture who tend to view women as domestics, sex objects and child bearers. This makes election to public office difficult. The oppressive cultural issues have led some women like Bushra al-Obeidi, a law professor at Baghdad University to abstain from participating.

She feels the odds are stacked against women, starting with laws she views as discriminatory and derogatory toward women — one allows a rapist to largely escape punishment if he marries his victim. Ms. Obeidi also has little faith in the commitment to gender equality among the current political leadership, which is dominated by religious parties.

“I assure you,” she said, “they are against women. They are lying to us.”

Her views on the uphill struggle that the women face are justified. There are concerns over the women who will eventually come to sit on the council. Apparently the women chosen on the larger party lists, and are likely to receive the highest level of support, are largely chosen for their tribal connections and not for their merits as representatives. This has been the case to a large extent in the parliament where women are present but lack the ability to make an impact.

Despite the obstacles that these women face in running for election there are many devoted woman's rights activists who are attempting to fight against the the militias and culture. The Times tells the story of, Mahdiya Abed-Hassan al-Lami,Amal Kibash and the story of Suhaila Oufi and Halima Abdul Jabber Ismail is found here. They have adopted the mentality that the only way to change the situation for women in Iraq is by being active, by working within the system.

But even if they win, they face numerous hurdles, particularly the entrenched attitudes of most Iraqi men, who view women as either sex objects or child bearers who have no place in the rough-and-tumble arena of politics. “This is the mentality,” said Safia Taleb al-Suhail, a member of Parliament and the daughter of a prominent Shiite tribal leader assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen in Lebanon in 1994. “We have to change it. How can we change it? By fighting.”

I think that the only way for women to advance their rights inside iraq is to fight, to take part in the system. The principles of the social movements in america have made it clear that only through struggle and commitment to change will things get better. If the qualified women like al-Obeidi refuse to get involved because of the daunting obstacles then its hard to see things changing. I know that's easy to say since i live in America where i dont have to fear for my life for going out in public. I cannot condemn al-Obeidi but i can support the women who do risk the reprisals to fight for the woman's rights by getting elected.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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