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Iraqi women feel sidelined despite parliament quota

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BAGHDAD » Iraqi women hoped that last year’s election would cement a larger role for them in the government. But they have less political influence today than at any time since the U.S. invasion.

No women took part in the protracted negotiations to reach a compromise government. And despite holding a quarter of the seats in Parliament, only one woman runs a ministry: women’s affairs, a largely ceremonial department with a tiny budget and few employees.

In the previous government from 2006 to 2010, four women led ministries, and in the government from 2005 to 2006, six did, including the influential ones governing public works, refugees and communications.

"I consider it a disaster," said Ashwaq Abbas, a female member of Parliament from the Kurdish Alliance bloc. "Democracy should also include women, and the rights of women should be developed as the democracy here develops. But what’s actually happened is that the rights of women have gotten worse over time."

Shortly after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki managed to retain his post in December, he pledged to appoint women as ministers.

On the day he announced several members of his Cabinet, one lawmaker declined to accept an appointment to be the minister of women’s affairs because she was outraged that so few women held such positions. In her place, al-Maliki appointed a man on an interim basis and eventually appointed a woman.

Women have long struggled for rights in the Arab world, but Iraq’s Constitution requires that a quarter of the members of Parliament be women. (Roughly 17 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress are women.)

Whether the quota has advanced the causes of women or served as window dressing remains unclear six years after Iraq ratified its constitution. But the inability of Iraqi women to increase their influence in Parliament has underscored wider fears that women could lose standing in other facets of life, too, amid an overall drift toward more religious conservatism.

The biggest barriers for women in Parliament are the leaders of the four blocs that eventually backed al-Maliki as prime minister. Each is made up of several political parties that have leaders who negotiated ministry positions as part of their agreements to join the governing coalition.

"We ended up with a power-sharing government that has all these party leaders rushing in to get their share of the pie, and the leaders are nearly all men," said Reidar Visser, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the author of "A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010."

"As part of the agreements to form the government, party leaders tend to want ministries in exchange for joining the coalition, and there are so many parties in the coalition and only so many posts," he said.

Women have also struggled in Parliament because few have their own power bases. Only five of the 86 female lawmakers got enough votes to win seats without the quota. The remaining 81 were put there by party leaders because of the constitution’s mandate.

"Many of those women who were chosen as part of the political parties were chosen because they were relatives of members of the party," said Safia Taleb al-Souhail, a member of Parliament who is part of the State of Law bloc, which al-Maliki leads.

"The parties didn’t really think to have women inside the party itself, and just chose many of the women, like, two weeks before the election," al-Souhail said. "This is what I meant exactly: there are not a lot of serious politicians."

She said that men from her own bloc often excluded her and other women from closed meetings to discuss strategy.

Several women, including al-Souhail would like to extend the 25 percent quota to the ministries’ leadership, but analysts agree the chances of that are almost nil.

Adelah Homod, a lawmaker from the State of Law bloc who wears a head covering, said that women in Parliament should not complain about their lack of power because few of them had the necessary experience to be part of the government.

Al-Souhail rejected that notion, saying she and many other women had played significant roles in lobbying the U.S. government during its occupation of Iraq.

"We have to start somewhere as a society, and it’s unfortunate that we are starting here," al-Souhail said. "We have much more to go."


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