Iraqi Women Gear Up For Greater Role In Politics

Man looks at poster of Iraqi woman candidate in March elections i i

hide captionIn this photo from February 2010, an Iraqi man in Baghdad looks at a campaign poster for a woman candidate running in Iraq's March elections. By law, 25 percent of Iraq's parliament must be female — which means replacing men who would have won seats.

Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images
Man looks at poster of Iraqi woman candidate in March elections

In this photo from February 2010, an Iraqi man in Baghdad looks at a campaign poster for a woman candidate running in Iraq's March elections. By law, 25 percent of Iraq's parliament must be female — which means replacing men who would have won seats.

Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

When Iraq finally forms a new government, one thing is certain — there will be many new faces. Only 62 of 275 incumbents were re-elected.

In particular, some of the new faces will be women. By law, 25 percent of the parliament must be female. In some cases, that means replacing men who would have won seats — which isn't always welcome news to the men.

Overlooking the southern end of the Tigris River's hairpin turn through Baghdad, Hind al-Bideri recently inaugurated the first women's cafe in the capital.

The all-female waitstaff blends up fruit shakes and serves tall water pipes full of apple-scented tobacco to the students and families who drop in.

Bideri says women would be embarrassed to smoke a pipe in front of a male waiter, but that at her cafe they can relax. Despite the Chinese lanterns and the laser lights on the wall, there is a serious side to what Bideri is doing. She says all her waitresses are breadwinners, including Bideri, who has taken in the children of two brothers killed by death squads in 2006. Still, she is optimistic.

"Iraqi women have the ambition. We just need security," says Bideri.

She approves wholeheartedly of the Iraqi law that mandates women should occupy 25 percent of the seats in parliament — even if that bruises some male egos.

Iraqi activist Hanna Edward agrees. She says the group of 82 women entering Iraq's next legislature are much more qualified than those in the previous parliament, many of whom were party apparatchiks.

This time, it was the highest vote-getting women who got in, and a complicated system determined which men they replaced.

That didn't go down so well with the men, says Edward, who says the elections committee has been deluged with letters of complaint.

But not all of the men are opposed in principle.

Mustafa al-Hitti ran for parliament in conservative Anbar province, and he admits that many of his supporters are not pleased that a female candidate will replace him. Hitti is trying to take the loss in stride.

"I don't feel angry for that. I am a supporter for women in Iraq. One of my themes was to raise [women's standard of living]," he says.

Hitti ran as part of the secular list led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister. But it may come as a surprise, though, that the top women vote-getters — and most of the women who won their seats without a boost from the quota — are from religious Shiite parties.

Afaf Abdel-Razzak will be replacing Hitti in Anbar. She has effectively gone into hiding since she won, and would only be interviewed by phone. Groups such as al-Qaida still operate in Anbar and might target a female politician. She has been moving between Anbar and Baghdad, until the new parliament opens and her official guard detail begins.

Abdel-Razzak is a teacher; as a lawmaker, she is hoping to promote education along with women's rights.

"At the beginning it wasn't conceivable that a woman could run," she says, adding that now, even in Anbar province, people will get used to the idea of having women be their voice in parliament.

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