No Matter The Vote, Iraqi Women Win

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Because of a constitutional mandate, 25 percent of the seats in the Iraqi parliament must go to women. Host Liane Hansen speaks with author Christina Asquith about the role of Iraqi women in Saturday's election, and the major ballot issues that will affect women in the country.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Because of a constitutional mandate, 25 percent of the seats in the Iraqi parliament must go to women. So in this election, there are 82 seats available. Christina Asquith is an adjunct professor of women in Islam at the University of Vermont. She spent 18 months covering the war in Iraq as a freelance journalist. Asquith recently published a book about some of her experiences with the women in Iraq, called "Sisters in War: Love, Survival and Family in the New Iraq." Christina Asquith is in the studios of Vermont Public Radio in Burlington. Welcome to the program.

Professor CHRISTINA ASQUITH (University of Vermont; Author, "Sisters in War: Love, Survival and Family in the New Iraq"): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: If you were to look at the best outcome of this election, one that would benefit women of Iraq the most, what do you think that would be?

Prof. ASQUITH: You know, it's difficult to say what will happen, but I think that in general, if you have a more secular government rather than conservative government, I personally think women will be better off. The big question coming up for the future government in Iraq is going to be over Article 41 in the constitution, and the role of Islamic law.

And right now, the Islamic candidates very much support the role of Islam in the constitution and in the government, whereas the secular candidates are much more moderate in their position about this. Now, that can mean many different things for women. Up for discussion is the age which women will be allowed to be married, divorce laws, child custody laws.

I mean, the question is: Who is going to be interpreting Islam, and what kind of interpretation are they going to have of it? If you have a woman who interprets the Quran - or a man, for that matter - who has a very moderate interpretation of the Quran, you might see them making an Islamic case on behalf of women to raise the marriage age closer to 18 than 14, or even 9. You could also see, however, a conservative Islamic candidate using the Quran and Islam to make the exactly opposite case.

HANSEN: Employment, for example, for divorced, widowed and unmarried women.

Prof. ASQUITH: That's a huge issue, whether or not women will be able to work. Again, I think a secular government would take a more favorable stance towards professional career women, but it doesn't always have to be the case. It just really depends on the candidate.

HANSEN: Given that 25 percent of the seats in the parliament will go to women, does this quota, this mandate, work for or against women? Because one of the candidates that's running, an independent, Jenan Mubark, said that the political parties exploited the quota the first time around, and packed the parliament with women that could be controlled.

Prof. ASQUITH: They did do that, but I - hands down - would say the quota has been absolutely fantastic for women. Because I think we have to imagine what the situation would be like if not for the quota. I think we would see almost no women running. It would be just difficult for women to get an edge in, get a foot in the door. I mean, it's still very post-conflict in Iraq right now. When you bring up women's issues, people tell you there's no time for that; this isn't the time. We need to talk about security, we need to talk about oil, we need to talk about employment. We don't have time for women's issues right now.

not running on women's issues. You see all of the candidates talking about the same thing, which is basically security, stability, rule of law. So I think that, you know, the women, while they may have been quote, unquote used the first time around, that's happening less and less now as women are able to re-emerge. They're really coming forward. And if not for the quota, I just don't think we would see women at all.

HANSEN: Christina Asquith is the author of "Sisters in War: Love, Survival and Family in the New Iraq." It's published by Random House. She teaches about women in Islam at the University of Vermont, and she joined us from Vermont Public Radio in Burlington. Thank you very much.

Prof. ASQUITH: Thank you so much for having me.

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