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Female Politicians Fear Exclusion

Women who hold seats in parliament worry they will be passed by when posts in the new cabinet are allocated.
By Zaineb Naji
Women are being deprived of access to political power as parliamentary factions battle over posts in the forthcoming cabinet, female politicians from several parties say.

Female members of parliament say that they have been excluded from the months of negotiations over the cabinet, and that no woman leads any of the top parties or blocs.

The constitutional requirement that women should hold 25 per cent of seats in parliament has not been met; their representation stands at 19 per cent or 52 of the 275 seats. That position is mirrored within the individual political blocs in the legislature.

The limited political power that women have won raises questions about how effective their representatives in parliament and government will be in raising women's issues.

Maysun al-Damalugi, a lawmaker for the Iraqi National List, a bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, believes the dominance of religious parties is affecting female participation.

Women led six ministries in the last cabinet, but she said there is concern that in the new government, "Women will be replaced by men or won't be used at all."

It is probable that a woman, possibly from the Iraqi National List, will be appointed deputy prime minister after female politicians last weekend demanded one of the four posts. The United Iraqi Alliance, the leading slate in parliament, reportedly supports the proposal.

But as a whole, the role of women in government has received little attention as political leaders attempt to pull together Iraq's first permanent cabinet. Serious negotiations over ministerial posts finally began moving forward only this week, more than four months after the parliamentary elections.

The main sticking points have been over the prime minister’s job - an issue resolved last weekend when Jawad al-Maliki was nominated for the post - and the division of ministerial posts among rival groupings. Posts for women have taken a back seat to disputes over whether Shia or Sunni blocs should control the interior and defence ministries, as sectarian violence plagues Baghdad.

Nor have women had much input into the debate. "Women are still unable to affect the course of the political process," said Samia Aziz, a Kurdish lawmaker.

Allawi’s Iraqi National List gave women a quarter of the 25 seats it won in parliament, but not all blocs - even those that espouse more secular and liberal policies - followed suit. The Kurdistan Alliance captured 53 seats, but gave just nine of them -17 per cent of the total - to female politicians. The Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, widely regarded as conservatively religious in outlook, did better with 23 per cent of its seats in the legislature going to women.

One Sunni Arab list, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, has no women among its 11 parliamentarians, while another Sunni Arab coalition, the Iraqi Accord Front, allotted 20 per cent, or nine of its 44 seats, to female candidates.

Jenan al-Obeidi, who represents the United Iraqi Alliance in parliament, said the overall 25 per cent parliamentary quota will be met by allocating discretionary seats. There are 45 such seats in the legislature, held back in principle so they can be distributed to parties that end up under-represented as a quirk of proportional representation.

However, female lawmakers appear less concerned about fulfilling quotas than about their own lack of real power. A female member of parliament is certain to be awarded the ministry of women's affairs, but other than this there appears to be little appetite to hand powerful positions to women.

"Women are hoping to have opportunities to become ministers, but they will have to put pressure on their parties," said Obeidi.

According to Obeidi, the problem of political marginalisation in parliament stems from a longer-term failure to promote women within individual political parties.

"This isn't a new problem," she said.

Female members of parliament across the board have pledged to make women's issues - ranging from domestic violence to employment and education - top priorities.

One of the most contentious issues facing parliament is the personal status law. The constitutional stipulation that no law can contradict Islam worries many women's rights advocates who say women should have the right to decide whether Islamic law governs marriage, divorce and inheritance.

Obeidi said women parliamentarians are considering forming a female bloc to advocate for women's issues and increase their clout in parliament. She said many of her colleagues share similar agendas.

However, there appears to have been no attempt to set the bloc up before the cabinet is formed.

Female leaders have in the past toyed with the idea of creating such a bloc but have never done so. Some have criticised female politicians for failing to challenge their own parties’ agendas.

Mahmood Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, noted that Iraqi society remains patriarchal and reluctant to allow women to win top posts. But he said that if women in parliament are united and come up with common proposals, "this bloc could play an important role".

Zaineb Naji is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.

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