When security in Iraq began to erode, the effort to politically empower women fell by the wayside.
When security in Iraq began to erode, the effort to politically empower women fell by the wayside. Alaa al-Marjani/AP
In Iraq, women have long fought to grab a significant share of seats in the country's parliament. With elections scheduled for early March, many female lawmakers in Iraq say they are still struggling to be accepted.
In recent years, the women's movement has gone through an advance and a retreat. In 2004, the American occupational authority, led by Paul Bremer, established a 25 percent quota for female representatives in Iraq's parliament. When the country's security began to erode the following year, however, the women's movement fell by the wayside.
The quota is still in effect, but women's advocates say there has not been much progress since.
"Development, particularly women's issues, froze. So it's almost like we are just picking up now," says Manal Omar of the U.S. Institute of Peace. "It was very difficult for women to be able to step forward. Their primary objective was to stay alive."
Omar has worked with women's nongovernmental organizations in Iraq for many years. "The quota succeeded in bringing women leadership into a visible sphere," Omar says. It was an important step for Iraqi women, she says, but quotas don't guarantee that women's rights will be protected.
"Women's leadership doesn't always mean women's rights defenders," she says.
Hana Edward, a longtime women's rights activist who now runs an NGO in Baghdad, is frustrated by the makeup of Iraq's female parliamentarians. She says the women currently occupying seats in Iraq's parliament were voted in for the wrong reasons.
"The majority have been chosen not from the women's movement," Edward says. "They were chosen because of family, tribal or narrow political party relations. They are not from strong women leaders; they are just women who want to obey what their leaders say."
In the March elections, Iraq's constitution may prove to be a major obstacle for the Iraqi women's movement — Article 41 in particular. It gives judges the power to interpret Iraq's family law — a law that acts as the foundation of women's rights in Iraq. Women's groups are concerned that conservative judges could use this provision to restrict women's rights in certain parts of the country.
Faiza Baba Khan, a Kurdish political thinker now running for a seat in parliament, says religious influences in Iraqi politics are another big challenge for the women's movement. "As Caesar said, 'Religion is for clerics and politics is for politicians,'" Khan says. The two, she insists, should remain separate.
The campaign season has not officially begun, but unofficial campaigning is already in full swing. So far, none of the candidates have included improving women's rights as a central issue to their platforms. The issue exists only on the periphery.
Safia Suheil, already a member of the Iraqi parliament, suggests an indirect strategy. Female members of parliament should address issues that would improve everyone's quality of life, she says, rather than address women's issues head-on.
"I believe we should really insist on working together as women politicians," she says. Women, both in and out of government, should work with the men to pass social welfare law.
Khan agrees that addressing women's rights indirectly may be more effective. "I prefer to start to develop financial independence for women," she says.
If women are financially secure, Khan says, the rest of the problems will be solved gradually.
Despite slow progress and formidable obstacles, Iraqi women are not lowering the bar. Suheil says it is time for women to take on more important positions in the Iraqi government.
"It's about time to see a woman heading a position of minister of defense," she says.
NPR's Susannah George contributed to this report.