Iraqi Elections, But Where Are The Women?


Iraqi women have been well known for their pioneering role in Iraqi society since the 1930s. They became members of political parties (especially the Iraqi Communist Party), actresses, singers, newscasters and lawyers. Their position was boosted when the first Iraqi (and Arab) woman was appointed minister in 1959, a year after the revolution that overthrew the monarchy. In 1967 a new constitution gave women equal voting rights. Between 1980 and 2003, under the Baathist regime, there were five parliamentary elections for the National Assembly, in which the percentage of women in the Assembly varied between 6.5% and 13%. However since they were all Baathists, they followed the instructions of their party.

Following the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, the US civilian governor Paul Bremer introduced a law fixing women’s participation in parliament at 25%. In the country’s first governing council in 2003, appointed by Bremer, three women were chosen, out of 25; but their selection was made on sectarian and ethnic background, not merit. Iraq’s permanent constitution, approved in 2005, fixed the percentage of women MPs at 25% (paragraph 5, article 49). Thus in the first election of 2005, 73 women gained seats out of 275 (26.5%).

In the 2010 elections there were 82 women MPs out of 325. Yet only four women candidates got enough votes (30,000) to actually win their seats: the rest were appointed as part of the 25% quota (some appointees only won around 100 votes). This quota did not apply to the cabinet where numbers varied according to the wishes of the prime minister: one woman out of 25 male ministers (2003), six out of 31 (2004), six out of 36 (2005), four out of 37 (2006); that dropped to only two out of 42 in the present (2010) cabinet.

Women, once present in the legislative, played a passive, if not negative, role and were loyal to their parties and coalitions; the vast majority did not express independent views. As one female academic said, “women parliamentarians do not speak their mind or give recommendations; they simply echo the views of the man who heads their coalition. In other words they only represented the interests of their coalitions or parties.”

As the dominant coalitions were mainly conservative, religious-sectarian and ethnic, and women voted in line with their policies, parliament unsurprisingly failed to support any law in favour of women’s right. Sometime a majority even voted for laws that encroached on women’s rights or abolished previous progressive laws, and the supposedly secular women kept silent. For example in 2003, during the time of Paul Bremer, a religious party, the Supreme Islamic Council, introduced law no. 137, which replaced a progressive law — no. 188 of 1959 — which gave women equality in regard to inheritance, divorce and the guardianship of children. Fearing the governing council would approve law no. 137, women activists appealed to Bremer who intervened to block the law.

Yet in 2005, when the drafting committee of 69 (which had only nine women) discussed the permanent constitution, even the women’s own representatives failed to include women’s rights. What is more, they failed to amend or block article 41, seen as damaging to women’s rights. Taking advantage of article 41, the present Minister of Justice — himself a member of a conservative-sectarian party al-Fadhila — issued in February 2014 a new law, known as the Jaafari (Shia) Personal Status Law (which does not apply to Shia only but applies to whoever goes to court and verbally accepts the rules of the law, article 246).

This law, which was approved and passed by the cabinet, legalised the marriage of girls at the age of nine (article 16), rather than at 18 as previously. Equally the new law did not recognise the marriage of a Muslim man to a non-Muslim woman as legal (article 63), even though Islam allows this and even gives the woman the right to preserve her own religion. Under the new law, other articles related to inheritance, divorce, guardianship of children and multiple marriages that also favour men over women have been passed — with the approval of women ministers. Now parliament is likely to ratify the law, thanks to the domination of the religious parties and the attitude of their female members.

The present Minister of Woman’s Affairs has even stated that she does not believe in equality between men and women, and both she and a female colleague in cabinet voted for the law.

Women MPs have not just approved regressive laws, they have failed to raise essential issues such as that of women prisoners who have been detained illegally and subjected to torture, beating, and sexual and personal abuse. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report for 2014 (titled “No One is Safe in Iraq”), the number of women prisoners and detainees in Iraq is 4,500. The report also says that women suffer a double burden due to their second-class status in Iraqi society.

The abuse of women by the Iraqi security forces and violations of their rights by the judiciary have become increasingly contentious issues. When this was raised in parliament, after campaigns by HRW and other international organisations, some women MPs came out against the HRW report, saying female detainees have a “tarnished reputation” and do not have the right to be defended. Worse, the 82 women MPs did not even mount a campaign to investigate the cases of female detainees, let alone visit, defend or protect them. Instead, it was male MPs who have raised this issue and visited prisons where women were detained.

Some women MPs were even involved in encouraging sectarian killings. For example Hanan al-Fatlawi — a member of the present parliament from the Prime Minister’s coalition, State of Law, who has been nominated for the coming elections — stated in a TV interview that she would like to see equality in sectarian killing: “If seven Shiites get killed, I want to see seven Sunnis killed in return.”

Even sadder, women MPs, the few secular ones included, have paid no attention to serious issues facing Iraqi women such as the high number of widows, the rapid increase in divorced women and the questions of sexual trafficking, honour killing, displaced women and orphans. According to international and official Iraqi statistics there are more than 3.5 million widows, 4.5 million orphans and more than 2 million displaced families, 17% of them headed by women. Not to mention the victims of domestic violence — 63.3% in Iraqi Kurdistan and 45.1% in the rest of Iraq. None of these groups of people (widows, displaced, victims of domestic violence, detainees, etc.) are expected to vote for women in the forthcoming elections, despite the attempts of women nominees to attract their support. Even if women from these groups participated in the elections, they would be following their male guardians rather than voting independently.

In one exceptional case, Maha al-Douri — a member of Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition who was elected to a parliamentary seat — was active in combatting corruption. When she discovered she was the intended target of an assassination attempt, she accused the government of being behind it.

For the coming 30 April parliamentary elections, 9,045 candidates will be nominated for 325 seats — divided between 39 coalitions headed by men only. In total, some 2,270 women will be nominated (although their names are already registered as future nominees for the elections). Out of this huge number, only 81 women will be able to enter parliament.

The result of the elections is expected to be similar to previous ones, with low voting for women. The vast majority of women who will enter the new parliament will be nominated by their (winning) parties, to comply with the 25% quota provided for in the constitution. As was the case in the previous elections, the majority of successful women MPs will again be subordinate to their conservative-sectarian-ethnical parties.

If this happens, the future of Iraqi women will remain bleak, their sufferings will continue, and the notorious Jaafari Personal Status Law will be approved by the new parliament. Yet another setback to woman’s rights and their role in 21st century Iraqi society.

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