Iraqi women in the democratic election

BAGHDAD, Iraq (WOMENSENEWS)–Fourteen women gathered at the Kadhimiya Advisory Council to listen to a crash course in the democratic election process.

“I walk into a room, write down the name of my candidate on a piece of paper and put it in the box. Nobody can tell me who to vote for,” says an Iraqi woman, representing RTIInternational, a North Carolina-based company working on local governance in Iraq.

She displays sample campaign posters and encourages the women to run for political positions.

Nasreen Berwari

Across town later that afternoon, in a well-appointed meeting room at the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works, Nasreen Berwari, the minister, hosts prominent female activists. They are there to strategize about the national conference scheduled for late July that will select the 100-member Interim National Council, a body that will help oversee the government, create checks and balances on the Council of Ministers and the Presidency, but will not be able to pass laws. The Transitional Administrative Law, drafted earlier this year, will serve as the legal basis for the Interim Government.

Losing Work, Gaining Political Ground

Car bombings and mortar attacks rock the country with alarming regularity and force many women–no official tallies exist on how many–to quit jobs or school and retreat into the relative safety of the home. But amid this deteriorating security situation, women have been seizing political opportunities at every level.

At the Kadhimiya District Advisory Council, for instance, Fatma Yakoub was chair of the council for a few months (it is a rotating leadership). The council reports to the Baghdad City Council as well as U.S. military representatives.

At the general information center in the Kadhimiya, Ahlam Ahmed has been working since last year as a liaison between the U.S. military and the community. It is a position that comes with some risk and several times she has been threatened because of her association with foreigners. But she continues with her work.

“I have to,” she shrugs. “I want to do something for my people.”

Six women are among the heads of various ministries that were announced in early June for the Interim Government that formally took control on June 28.

Nasreen Berwari remains as Minister of Municipalities and Public Works, a post she held since last year in the first postwar cabinet and before that in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq since 1999.

Key Moment in December

Berwari notes that the most significant social progress in the past year benefited women, who connected and networked, and became empowered in their solidarity. When a late December decision by the ruling Governing Council, now disbanded, to annul the relatively liberal Personal Status Law threatened women’s rights, in particular issues of divorce, inheritance and child custody, women decided to fight back.

“This incident made women afraid,” Berwari says. “They couldn’t count on the process unless they got active.”

And mobilize they did. The decision was eventually reversed and women’s groups pushed for a mandatory quota system in the formation of the new interim government to assure female representation. They asked for 40 percent and got 25 percent.

Berwari believes that women will only move forward in a sovereign Iraq. “Women are very ambitious and want to be part of the political process. Their achievements need to be protected and enhanced.”

She has already taken steps within her own ministry to promote “gender mainstreaming.” Thirty five percent of the over 40,000 ministry employees, and about half of the engineers, are women.

Hesitating Over Safety

Mishkat Moumin, a law professor specializing in human rights, hesitated at first to accept the position as minister of environment due to safety concerns. Several political figures have been assassinated or threatened in the past months. But after discussing matters with friends and family, assuring her 9-year-old son Yehia that they would still have plenty of time together, and realizing how much the job was related to her human rights advocacy, she accepted.

The soft-spoken minister is active in women’s rights, but believes that gender, ethnic or religious affiliations should not be the main focus when examining the new government.

“Let’s try to stop asking Shi’a versus Sunni,” she smiles, referring to two branches of Islam practiced in Iraq. “We should be asking are they qualified or not? It’s not important if it’s a man or a woman. It’s important if they do the job right.”

Safia al-Souhail agrees. The fiery political activist, who lived most of her life in exile, returned to Iraq last year and is currently a member of the 90-person committee who will invite 1,500 delegates to the upcoming National Conference in July.

“Don’t worry about women,” says al-Souhail. “We will have the 25 percent. But the question is–who will fill this quota?”

Al-Souhail is concerned about political “games,” or women who are put forward to fill the quota but will more likely express the views of a political party than the interests of women.

By early next year, the current plans call for the Interim Government to dissolve and be replaced by a democratically elected leadership who will then draft a constitution. At this point, without the backing of international organizations sympathetic to women’s rights, the fate of women in politics remains unclear.

Al-Souhail is not too worried. The quota system is only a temporary measure, she feels; a good chance to help women prove to the majority of society that they can work for the good of the country and are capable leaders. While the first elections might be difficult for women who are untested in the political arena, by the second elections it should be easier, she believes.

Dana Smillie, a Cairo-based photographer, video journalist and writer, has been covering the region since 1996. Her photographs have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines including Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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