Zainab Al-Suwaij

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–Sunday’s vote in Iraq is being viewed by many women there as an historic opportunity to gain more rights and many put their lives at risk to run for seats in a new national assembly.

In recent interviews here, two female leaders in Iraq, both leaders of organizations that have accepted U.S. support, expressed profound concern that candidates with an extremist religious agenda could prevail and usher in an era on suppression of women’s rights, similar to what has happened in its neighbor, Iran.

Zainab Al-Suwaij and Ala Talabani are two prominent Iraqi women who have worked to train some of the women running in Sunday’s election. Both have long careers dedicated to advocating women’s rights in Iraq. Talabani was interviewed in December and Al-Suwaij was interviewed in December and again last week.

Their most recent efforts include working with other activists in Iraq to ensure that Iraq’s interim constitution recognized men and women as equals. They also took part in helping to gather more than 50,000 signatures calling for 40 percent of positions in national and local government to be set aside for women. The pressure resulted in the 25 percent minimum seats for women being approved in Iraq’s interim constitution.

Both women fear that if extremists are elected, they might consider it a mandate to resurrect measures such as Resolution 137, an initiative defeated by the current governing authority in Iraq. They say it was an attempt to restrict women’s rights by extremist religious leaders who wanted to enforce Sharia law, which recently has been interpreted to limit women’s rights, instead of civil law. Al-Suwaij said Resolution 137 would not have allowed women to leave their houses without asking for permission from their husbands, while Talabani pointed out that the resolution would have allowed men to marry several women without going to a court.

Ala Talabani

“We would have been in a worse situation than the women of Afghanistan before the American occupation,” Al-Suwaij says, referring to the lives of Afghan women under Taliban rule.

Resolution 137 was defeated this past March, but some candidates running hope to put it back on the table and one of its supporters has declared he wished to become president.

Many other women living in Iraq also have told the press that they felt Sunday’s election could provide them with a chance to help form a government that would empower women and the opportunity is worth the risks.

Iraqi insurgents have launched a campaign to intimidate voters and try to disrupt the poll, and female candidates were particularly targeted. As a result, many Iraqi women were afraid to mention to friends and family that they were running for office, according to news reports. Other candidates are sending their families out of Iraq for safety. One female candidate was killed in December, and another was kidnapped and held for ransom. A third managed to survive an assassination attempt in May, but lost her son in the attack.

The national election will establish a 275-member transitional national assembly that will select a cabinet, a prime minister, and a president. The national assembly will work much like a parliamentary system, though its most important job will be to write a constitution and to have it ratified by Iraqis before the end of 2005. If needed, it can extend the process for another six months. If a constitution is not ratified by then, its mandate will expire and new elections will be held for a new assembly that will start the process again.

When Iraqis voted, they didn’t choose a specific name from a list of candidates. Nor did they select a political party, in the traditional sense. Instead, they chose one of the 111 “lists” that have been certified by the Independent Electoral Commission. The most popular of these lists are loose coalitions of multiple political parties and interest groups. They may contain as few as two names or as many as 275. To choose a list, voters stepped behind a curtain, checked a box on a single ballot with the name, number, and identifying logos of the 111 lists, and then dropped the ballot into a plastic box. A lottery determined the order in which lists appear.

Iraq has a population of more than 25 million people, but 40 percent of them are under the age of 14. About 8 million Iraqis voted on Sunday, out of about 14 million eligible voters, according to Bakhtiar Amin, Iraq’s human rights minister. Only 250,000 of the 1.2 million eligible expatriates registered to vote.

At least 80 percent of registered female voters cast their ballot in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, said Shireen Amedi, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party¹s Women¹s Union, one of the two main political parties in the Kurdish area. However, Shwan Mufti, head of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq in the Kurdish area, did not know how many women had registered.

A Dozen Women Ran Publicly

About a dozen women with established national profiles ran publicly. The rest ran in secret. After withdrawing their names publicly but remaining candidates privately, these candidates will assume seats if their lists get enough support.

Al-Suwaij, who lives in Cambridge, recently returned from a one-month trip to Iraq, where she works with Iraqi women from around the country to train them in democratic practices and women’s empowerment. The one-year project is being financed by $1.5 million grant from USAID. Twenty-five of the women she worked with ran for office.

“They were very enthusiastic and asked for training about minority rights, public speaking, how to lobby for resources, how to mobilize people,” Al-Suwaij told Women’s eNews. “Some of them have not had the opportunity to study higher education, but they are very smart and capable.”

Still, as violence continues to grow in Iraq, Al-Suwaij is worried about the candidates’ safety. “All of them are at high risk. There have been attempts to assassinate some of them. People have been trying to shoot them. Some of them think that some car explosions were directed at them.”

Al-Suwaij says that some of the candidates feel that their opportunities to run for office would never have happened under former ruler Saddam Hussein and are a direct result of the U.S. occupation. She says that all of the candidates, however, are extremely worried about the current violence in Iraq. They hope that the multi-national forces will not leave Iraq until Iraqi forces are better able to protect civilians.

Talabani directs the Center for the Empowerment of Women in Suliaymania, about an hour’s drive from Baghdad, also funded by USAID. She trained about 75 women in political leadership and some ran for office. She doesn’t have the exact numbers because many women dropping out of the race due to fear.

Long Way to Go

Talabani says that despite running in the election, the women of Iraq have a long way to go before Iraqi men treat them as political or social equals.

“In this first election, the candidates will be elected based upon religious orientation,” Talabani told Women’s eNews in December. “This will be a party-based election, not based upon their points of view on issues or projects.”

Both Al-Suwaij and Talabani have spoken out against the efforts of some conservatives and religious extremists to limit the role of women in the new Iraq. “Some are using violence–shootings and car bombs–to try to stop women from being elected,” Al-Suwaij said.

Despite the many battles ahead for equality, both women are hopeful of the role women could play in Iraq. “We, the women, are building bridges among cultural, ethnic, and religious divides,” Talabani said.

Maria Cristina Caballero, a freelance journalist and writer, is a fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government.

For more information:

Women for Women International–
First Post-War Survey of Iraqi Women Shows Women Want Legal Rights; Dispels Notions That Women Believe Tradition, Culture Should Limit Their Participation
in Government:

Women in Iraq Seize Political Opportunities:

Iraqi Women Realize New Rights Amid Security Concerns: