By Charlotte Bruneau
BAGHDAD – A powerful mix of insecurity and traditional prejudice against more liberal female politicians put Awatef Rasheed off running for parliament when she returned to Iraq in 2014 after years abroad.
Seven years later, with Iraq less unstable, Rasheed has decided to contest a Oct. 10 election for the assembly, even if abuse and intimidation of women would-be lawmakers persist.
Today, she is one of the 951 women, representing close to 30% of the total number of candidates, running for election to the country’s 329-seat Council of Representatives.
Passing a new domestic violence law, and more representation for women in the executive branch of government, are among the goals of some of the would-be female lawmakers.
For Iraq’s women politicians, elections can be an excruciating experience.
Rasheed scrolled through her smartphone and looked at pictures of one of her campaign banners that had been ripped up, with the tear precisely crossing the image of her face.
“Out of 38 banners we put up in my city of Basra, 28 were damaged and four disappeared”, she said.
Back in 2000, Rasheed had fled Saddam Hussein’s regime to Canada, where she first started to campaign for women’s social and political empowerment. It led to a career path she continued after returning to Iraq.
But at the time “political parties did not easily accept women like me, who have a gender perspective”, she said, adding her family also worried about Iraq’s political violence.
Discrimination still looms large, although Iraq this year introduced steps to protect women candidates. They can directly report violence to judicial investigators instead of having to notify the police first. The interior ministry has dedicated hotlines to receive complaints from women candidates.
Human rights activist Hanaa Edwar said in elections in 2018 female candidates were subjected to defamation, smears and threats, abuses which deterred some from running this year.
Edwar had worked to advance women in politics in 2003 after Saddam’s fall, in a campaign that sought a gender quota of at least 40% in parliament and government. In the end, a quota was introduced guaranteeing women 25% of parliamentary seats.
Nada al-Jubori, a medical doctor and politician, has been elected to parliament through the gender quota twice since 2005.
“Defending women’s issues has never been easy”, Jubori told Reuters from her office in Baghdad’s Adhamiya neighbourhood.
She cited years of violence, sectarian strife and tribal pressure as additional challenges for women trying to put their agendas forward in parliament.
Religious political parties expect their female members to be adopt their mostly conservative social agenda, she said.
Ola al-Tamimi, 35, an engineer and candidate of the secular National Awareness Movement, is among a new generation of women entering politics for the first time. To her, passing a new domestic violence law is a pressing issue.
“Women remain marginalised and the amount of domestic violence in Iraq is dangerous,” she said. “Passing a law against domestic violence is very important, and it really requires the unity of women.”
Women’s rights advocates who have campaigned for a domestic violence law for about 10 years want to introduce shelters for victims of domestic violence and stricter punishment of so-called honour crimes, for example the murder of a woman accused of shaming her family. But opposition, mostly from religious parties, means no law has so far been adopted.
Beyond parliament, Jubori wants to see a better representation of women in the executive. In the current government, only three women have ministerial positions.
According to Jubori, more women should be nominated to top jobs in public institutions to enable them to acquire political capital and visibility over time. “They will get the chance to become better known and increase their resources, so that in future elections, we won’t need the quota anymore.”