Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Breaking the Habit of a Lifetime

A Sunni Arab housewife whose community boycotted the last election describes why she took part in this one.
By Inam Ali

In the past, we had social freedom, so we forgot the need for political freedom. Now we have political freedom – but there is no society left.

I voted in this election because I have seen bombs in Baghdad where people rushed to rob the injured, not to rescue them. I am 60 years old and this is the first time I voted.

People may think I am naïve but in fact, I see things very clearly. I might not be an expert in politics but I am old and I know the way the world works.

I voted for a cultured leader, someone who would restore Baghdad’s essence as an Arab city. Our family is Sunni. We are Arabs, we think in Arabic, we cook Arab food.

We ignored the last election in 2005 and our boycott helped unfamiliar, alien faces come to power. They wore black suits and made Baghdad a miserable city. Under them, even the weather turned bleak.

I never thought a time would come when going out in the street could get you killed. My children risk death every day when they go to school or to work.

Baghdad was a paradise once. I could show you my pictures: the way we dressed in the past, the way people were. I used to go to the cinema with my husband, to the theatre and the ballet.

We went to sports clubs and swimming pools and we stayed out late on Abu Nawas, the main promenade along the Tigris. Now all that is gone, along with stories, values and a whole class of people.

Most of our original neighbours in the Karkh district left because they could afford to. We preserved our security by sacrificing all the best things in our lives. We do not socialise freely. Imprisoned in our homes, even our food has lost its flavour. We feel as if we are buried alive.

Until now, elections have been irrelevant to my life: anyone who spoke of democracy under Saddam Hussein was deluded, or in denial. This time, I voted because I do not want my descendants to suffer as we have done.

On the morning of election day, we heard mortars and bombs going off. The attacks were meant to keep the Sunnis away from the polls but they had the opposite effect, instead strengthening our resolve. In fact, I would have voted that day even if someone had told me there was a bomb inside the polling station.

I went to cast my ballot in the early afternoon, along with my eldest son. My husband took advantage of my absence from the house by smoking as many cigarettes as he could.

He does not smoke openly while I’m around, as he knows I disapprove of the habit. When I came back from voting, his face was almost invisible behind puffs of smoke.

Later that afternoon, my daughter-in-law and my son went to the polling station. My husband was the last to vote. He had been fretting all day over whether or not to go, and we had a big argument about it.

In the previous week, a neighbour who was running as a candidate had promised my husband a lift to the polling station on condition that he voted for him. Soon afterwards, another friend had visited our house, again offering my husband a lift provided he voted for a certain candidate.

In both cases, my husband avoided the obligation by saying he did not feel well and was not planning to leave the house on election day.

Our sons eventually persuaded my husband to vote by assuring him the coast was clear and none of his contacts would spot him on the way to the polling station.

He got dressed and left in a hurry, minutes before the polls closed. For a man in his late sixties, the ten-minute walk turned out to be a challenge. He came back a different person, his face reddened and covered in sweat.

Then he gave his broad, toothless smile, and my spirits soared. Looking back, it was a special day. It was the first time I can remember the entire family sitting together, talking about politics.

I cooked rice, flavoured with carrots, and we watched the news and the debates on TV. I realised that the tension of living through the recent conflict has probably contributed to my high blood pressure.

Since then, I’ve heard the news about which blocs are winning and the one I voted for is not among them. My vote did not change anything.

I find this very upsetting. Just when I learnt to be passionate about politics, it seems this election will break my heart. I fear for my sons: in four years’ time, will things be worse for them?

But at least I have a clear conscience. I have broken the habit of a lifetime and voted for the future I prefer.

Inam Ali is the pseudonym of a woman in Baghdad, who asked for her real name to be withheld.
She was interviewed for this report by Mohammed Furat, IWPR’s local editor in Erbil.