IRBIL, Iraq (WOMENSENEWS)–Sitting in a dark room without electricity or heat Fatima reproaches visitors who offer only their pity.

“So, what are you going to do for us?”

Nongovernmental organizations and many journalists had come to visit Khanzad House, the only woman’s shelter in Irbil, but there have been few resources to help improve their lives.

Fatima–for her protection only her first name has been used–has not seen her seven children in over a year. Each time she dares to call them on the phone, her husband and brother threaten to kill her.

She is one of many who have sought refuge here from abuse or death threats.

The women in Khanzad house represent a microcosm of Iraq. There are Kurds and Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites. Violence against them knows no sectarian or ethnic boundaries.

Many women here doubt that the country’s new national assembly, despite its high proportion of women, will be focused on giving the women in the shelter more protection from domestic abuse. Instead they expect the government to be focused on ethnic and religious politics in the coming year.

Ethnic, Religious Elections

Women won about 33 percent of the seats in Iraq’s transitional national assembly on Jan. 30, exceeding the required minimum of 25 percent.

But Baghdad-based Hanaa Edwar, a pioneer on women’s issues and head of an independent women’s party who also runs a network of 80 Iraqi women’s groups, is not necessarily impressed.

“Many elected women . . . they don’t have any interest on women rights,” Edwar said.

Some of the female candidates were asked to run in order to fill a 25-percent female quota, despite little experience as politicians.

Several of them, like many of their male counterparts, are just loudspeakers for the political parties they represent, some women’s leaders complained.

“I want a woman who believes in women’s rights,” said Ala Talabani, who runs a non-governmental organization on women’s empowerment in Sulimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The elections, Talabani said, were not decided on the basis of issues or politics, but on ethnicity, religion, nationality.

“Kurds voted for Kurds, Shiites for Shiites, Sunnis for Sunnis, Turkomen for Turkomen.”

The Kurdish Way

Ala Noori, a Kurd elected to the national assembly, confirmed the impression that at least some female politicians will represent their regions more than their gender.

Noori was originally from Kirkuk before her family was displaced under Saddam Hussein’s regime in the mid 1970s. The gap she sees between Kurds and the Arabs of Iraq will follow her to Baghdad.

“I will fight as a Kurd first before fighting as a woman,” said Noori.

Kurds won the second largest bloc of seats in the Iraqi parliament, giving them a powerful voice in the say of Iraq’s future. Jalal Talabani, one of their two most prominent leaders and a longtime opponent to Saddam Hussein’s regime, was appointed interim Iraqi president.

Kurds have struggled with Arab, Persian and Ottoman occupation. The four million Kurds in northern Iraq have a different language, culture and history from the rest of the country.

Compared to Iraqi women, many Kurdish women boast greater equality with men. In a long history of conflicts and struggle against Saddam, they fought either on the frontline or to support the household when men disappeared.

At the end of the first Gulf War, after the bloody repression of an uprising in the Iraqi Kurdish region, the United Nations created a “no-fly” zone for Iraqi planes. Under this semi-autonomy political and non-governmental women’s organizations flourished and women became more involved in politics and in the work force.

Religion Strengthened

At the same time, however, religion was strengthening in northern Iraq, leaving Kurdish society with a politically complex attitude toward ethnic identity, women’s rights, Sharia law and secularism; all of which are expected to hinder consensus on the Constitution and women’s role in society.

Shirin Amadi, secretary-general of the Kurdish Women’s Union and the highest ranking politician in the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish parties, said the region’s shift toward religion occurred within her own life, from the time of her childhood to when she had children of her own.

“When I was young I read Marxist books and didn’t fast but now I oblige my kids to fast. I guess Iran and Iraq influenced us all, as well as poverty.”

Since semi-autonomy in 1991, there were two significant legal changes for Kurdish women, said Talabani, the interim Iraqi president. One stipulated a man had to obtain permission from his first wife in order to marry a second and the other that honor killings would be treated as a first-degree murder.

Layla Miraul is an electrical engineer, a wife, a mother of two and an active member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union.

At 32 she ran as a Kurdistan Islamic Union member for the Irbil governorate council but her party did not receive enough votes for her to win. She organizes activities and training of high school girls on topics ranging from morality to computers.

She also teaches Sharia law, a legal code based on the Koran and teachings of the prophet Mohamed that many interpret to provide that women should receive half the inheritance a man does.

Her favorite section of the Koran is the part that speaks about the virtues and sufferings of Maryam, mother of Issa (Jesus).

“I believe that Sharia grants maximum women’s rights and total human rights,” Miraul said. A woman in Iraq goes from her father’s house to her husband’s and is the responsibility of the men therefore she does not need as much inheritance, Miraul argued.

As for Sharia’s allowance for polygamy, Miraul said it is better for men to be allowed to marry four wives, otherwise many women could miss out on opportunity to be married.

“If secularism is fully applied then women will lose their role in the family and their role in the community. We will start to have a moral crisis,” Miraul said.

As for Fatima at the women’s shelter: She rarely goes outside. If she does, she is fearful and fully covered.

She wishes to go back to her husband for the sake of her children; but even the police advise against it.

With no unified political voice speaking for women such as her, either at the local or national level, all she can do is wait.

Cyrille Cartier was working at Reuters in Washington D.C. before freelancing in Iraq.

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