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Women and the Iraq Election: Traffic Accidents and Assassination

March 6, 2010
Campaign billboard in Baghdad

Campaign billboard in Baghdad/ Ali al-Saadi for AFP

Tomorrow Iraq will hold its second parliamentary election since the 2003 US invasion of the country. Headlines in the mainstream US media have focused on how the election will predict Iraq’s political direction once US forces withdraw, and on the violent attacks that some have carried out to discourage voters from going to the polls. Just this morning, for example, a car bomb killed three Shiite pilgrims.

While following the news coverage this week I wondered about what was missing—information about the role of women in this election. Iran’s election and subsequent political uprising last summer made me cognizant of how women in the region are becoming increasingly crucial political trailblazers, but the US media is often slow to pick up this side of the story. So I went in search of information about women’s roles in the Iraq election, and sure enough there are plenty of stories that haven’t been covered on the evening news.

Iraqi women are becoming more visible as candidates in this election, figuratively and literally. The constitution adopted by Iraq in 2005 includes a quota for women in parliament: 25% of 325 seats. As NPR reports, the quota has led more women’s rights activists to run for office, but other women candidates seem chosen in an “obvious attempt by the parties to make up the quota.”

The women candidates who are invested in women’s rights often emphasize that the changes they want to see are not elements of Western influence, but rather a return to the rights Iraq women enjoyed decades ago. Candidate Juman Kubba told NPR:

[Women] have been accustomed to having rights. I mean, my late mother attended university in the 1940s… Iraq was the leader, over the past century, in the Arab world or the Muslim world, with regards to women. There were some tendencies over the past seven years to take step back, but I don’t think you can destroy progress of decades in seven years.

Many women candidates are choosing to campaign without wearing hijab or abayas, instead showing their faces and wearing Western suits in their campaign appearances and posters. This has garnered a lot of attention from voters, as Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports:

Female candidates’ uncovered faces have also had unintended consequences: in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a Turkman candidate’s photograph has led to several traffic accidents at a major intersection.

The candidates who chose not to cover their faces say they see the hijab as a reminder of the control of fundamentalist militias that rose to power after Saddam Hussein’s fall and forced women to cover their heads under threat of violence. (I haven’t seen any word yet, however, on whether this is alienating women voters who choose to wear the hijab as a sign of religious faith.)

That threat of violence is still very real for women who dare to become public figures. A month ago on February 7, candidate Suha Abdul Jarallah was assassinated by unknown assailants in Mosul, an act which the United Nations condemned.

In this YouTube video also from AFP, candidate Sabah Abdul Rasul talks about her campaign (click the link to watch, embedding of the video is disabled).

Nada Hatem Farhan

Nada Hatem Farhan/Jane Arraf, CSM

As for women voters, some are more hopeful than others. The Christian Science Monitor interviewed one young woman, 19-year-old high school student Nada Hatem Farhan who wishes she could go to law school but is not hopeful for any expansion in the opportunities available to her. She says that her nation’s culture will not change unless its security and economy improves:

Nada says the most important issues for young people are security and the lack of jobs – both, she says, are keeping young people, and particularly young women, out of university.

“The families are afraid – because of the security issues they don’t want to send them to a place that is far away and also there is no incentive because even after they graduate, what about employment? There is no motivation for the families to allow them to go to school.”

We regret that a transcript of the linked YouTube video is not available.

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