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

Glass Ceiling for Female Kurdish Politicians

Campaigners say women in northern Iraq are underrepresented in leadership posts.
By Shorsh Khalid
  • Former minister for Martyrs and Anfal affairs Chinar Sadullah is one of many women leaders who are concerned about the lack of female representation in top government posts in  Iraqi Kurdistan.
    Former minister for Martyrs and Anfal affairs Chinar Sadullah is one of many women leaders who are concerned about the lack of female representation in top government posts in Iraqi Kurdistan.
  • Kurdish women's activists are concerned that few women in Iraqi Kurdistan serve in leadership posts.
    Kurdish women's activists are concerned that few women in Iraqi Kurdistan serve in leadership posts.

When the new cabinet of the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, was announced late last year, activist Khana Rahim had her pen ready to note how many of the new ministers would be women.

“I wanted to write down the names…because I expected more women than there were in the former cabinet,” Rahim, head of the Assuda Organisation for women’s rights, said.

“When I saw there was only one woman appointed, I was shocked. I realised our government had taken another step back on women’s issues.”

Dismal female representation in the KRG has become a widespread complaint from politicians and activists like Rahim. Critics say the Erbil government has backtracked on campaign promises to expand the role of women in the new administration.

Following regional elections in July 2009, the KRG dissolved the ministry of women’s affairs and reduced the number of ministerial posts from 42 to 19. In the old cabinet, there were three women ministers and in the new just one. And while there are 37 female lawmakers in the 111-seat Kurdish parliament, activists claim the most senior posts are almost exclusively reserved for men.

“We were three women in the last cabinet and we wanted to see this number grow. To have only one woman in the cabinet is an unfair share of power and it doesn’t reflect our society. We should have a real voice in power,” said Chinar Sadullah, the former minister of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs who was replaced by a man when the new cabinet was selected by KRG prime minister Barham Salih in October.

“Political parties made promises about involving women in the government, but this was all election propaganda. I hope people don’t forget these promises. We are fed up with words and speeches. We want real steps to be taken for women.”

Minister of Cultural Affairs and KRG spokesman Hadi Mahmud said there hadn’t been a deliberate move to restrict the number of women in the new cabinet.

“It was not in our hands. All of the political parties that decided to be part of the KRG sent men as their candidates for cabinet positions. We could not force parties to nominate women for ministerial posts,” Mahmud said.

Arif Rushdi, a senior official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, party, said Kurdish political groups are reluctant to nominate women for high office because they don’t seem to believe that they’re capable of holding such posts.

“We want to make progress in women’s participation in leadership and we admit we have failed to do this,” Rushdi said.

“The PUK will introduce a quota system for women at the next [party] congress that will include them in the party’s leadership committee.”

Although a quota system requires that 25 per cent of seats in the Kurdish parliament be held by female lawmakers, few are in the top echelons of the parties they represent. Of all the Kurdish parties, only the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union, KIU, has a woman in its party leadership.

“The political parties have not given many leadership positions to women and in the media there is a negative view of women. We could bring so many Kurdish women out of their homes, if through the media and awareness campaigns women were given a chance to speak out,” said Bekhal Abubekir, head of the Kurdistan Sisters Organisation, a KIU-affiliated NGO formed in 1994 to promote women’s rights.

According to Chinar Muhammad of the Rasan Organisation, an NGO devoted to empowering women, the male-dominated nature of Kurdistan society prevents women making real progress as politicians or professionals. She claimed that when women are appointed ministers, they tend to get
“soft” portfolios rather than substantive ones.

Asos Najeeb Mahmud, the current minister of social affairs, declined several interview requests and did not answer emailed questions from IWPR on women’s roles in the KRG. The now-defunct ministry of women’s affairs has been subsumed by the social affairs ministry.

“Having one woman in the KRG means our role in government and the political process has declined. I agree with women who blame the political parties for not including more women. But at the same time, today's women and activists must blame ourselves. We have not paved the way for women to have a greater role in government,” Muhammad said.

The government has responded to stern criticism from activists and civil society groups on the lack of female cabinet ministers by proposing to establish a panel of women to advise policymakers.

Mahmud said the KRG plans to announce in the coming days a 15-member board of women that will be overseen by the regional premier, Saleh.

“Through this board, Kurdish women will have a real role in government and their voices will be heard. They will monitor all ministries in terms of women’s viewpoints and rights,” said Mahmud without giving a specific date for the board to begin operation.

Former minister Sadullah has low expectations of the proposal.

“I don’t think establishing this board will do anything. It is a public relations move. It will have nothing to do with solving women’s issues,” Sadullah said.

Pakhshan Zangana, a former lawmaker and leading women’s activist who is said to be the leading candidate for the board’s secretary post, also has misgivings.

“We still don’t know what the main agenda of the board will be. We insist that we don’t want the board to be compensation for the dissolution of the ministry of women’s affairs,” Zangana said.

“But if the KRG is serious in supporting this board we can do many things for the women of Kurdistan.”

Shorsh Khalid is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah.
IWPR Iraq local editor Hemin H Lihony contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah.  

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