In Iraq, security trumps women's rights
Ahead of the Dec. 15 vote, some Iraqi women say safety is a bigger issue than political participation.
On the second floor of Love Hall, a building here used for wedding receptions, women from Iraq's northern Nineveh province gather for a conference on women's role in the nationwide election this Thursday.
But the event quickly veers away from its stated agenda and becomes a gripe session about life in Iraq today. There are few jobs, poor services, no safety net for the least fortunate, and above all, no security, say the women in this majority Christian town.
The assembly of about 80 women - many in traditional black abayas and a few sporting Western dress - reflects how basic needs are dominating the average Iraqi's political outlook and placing goals like women's rights and interests on a secondary level.
"We need more jobs for the women, yes, but we need more jobs for the men, too. It's a problem for everybody in Iraq today," says Rana Zeki, one young unemployed woman.
In some ways, the place of women in Iraq would seem to be improving. The new parliament must be 25 percent female, according to the new constitution; political parties are required to make every third candidate on their list a woman.
But the new constitution is also worrying for many. Approved in an October referendum, the charter assigns a primary role to Islam in the writing of new Iraqi law. Worse, in some eyes, it creates the right for religious sects to run "family courts" empowered to decide such family issues as marriage law, inheritance, and child custody.
"We are very wary of this rising influence of religion and policies based on religion," says Nadia Al-Jadir, manager of the national Women Advocacy Program, a Baghdad-based organization that seeks to increase women's participation in all aspects of Iraqi society.
She adds that the quota for women in the national assembly may be a step forward, but not in the cases where political parties simply fill seats with weak women. "Some of them are just like dummies sitting in the parliament," she says.
For some women at the Dec. 3 conference, women are simply being called on to do more. The requirement for a quarter of the new national assembly to be women offers new opportunities, some say, but also new responsibilities.
"Not only is the woman taking care of the kids and the house, but now she must take care of politics and the economy as well," says Yusula Al-Dulaime. "Women's tasks are bigger now and the door is open, so we need all women to participate."
But others disregard such gains on paper. No political party is led by a woman and no prominent woman leads any of the more than 200 candidate lists in the election, they lament.
Candidates are making appeals to them, though, saluting them in particular as the backbone of the family and a source of strength in the country's most difficult hours.
On Saturday, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a former US ally and Shiite leader, tried to woo women voters by issuing a statement in which he lauded women for their role in the country. "There is no way to build the new Iraq without putting women in leading roles. The women of Iraq have been marginalized for decades, yet they have maintained their roles as patient mothers and active sisters in the struggle for liberation, democracy, and human rights."
Other candidates are not to be outdone. Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister and secular Shiite heading the election's top secular list, has in the third spot on his list Safia Taleb Al-Suhail, the Iraqi woman who attended President Bush's State of the Union speech.
As conference organizers sat patiently at a head table with a banner proclaiming, "For a better Iraq, for a better future, please don't hesitate to participate in the elections," women rose to air their issues.
A group of widows say they have tried to start a sewing co-op, but can get no government help for supplies and finding customers. Another woman, Nidal Yousia, takes the microphone and says there are now enough organizations in Iraq to educate women about their rights. "What we really need now," she concludes, "is to educate our men about the rights of women."
Others say a general deterioration of living conditions is making life tough for Iraqi women. "Education is really what will improve the place of women, but it's difficult to insist on that when it is difficult to be out safely after 5 o'clock," says a doctor from Mosul, who asked that her name not be used.
The poor state of personal security has a tangible impact on the conference. Organizers had expected as many as 250 participants. Instead, only about 80 women showed up.
Even the chairwoman of the Nineveh Women's Center, Hanan al-Qadow, declines to appear on camera and abruptly decides to call off a scheduled press conference. It's an understandable precaution, given that her predecessor heading this organization, largely funded by the US government, was killed last year.
Still, as participants file out of Love Hall, Ms. Qadow smiles and offers an upbeat conclusion. Encouraging an "active voice for women" will take time, as will Iraq's democratization, she says, but there is progress.
Pointing to the quota for women parliamentarians, she says, "Ten birds in the hand are worth more than 25 birds in the tree."