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

Illiterate Women Doubly Disenfranchised

They are at mercy of male relatives and complicated voting system.
By Zaineb Naji
Suad Kadhim is surrounded by a dazzling array of election posters that tell her nothing about whom she should vote for.



The 48-year-old widow sits outside a university building in Baghdad, begging for handouts from passersby with which to feed her seven children.



Though keen to cast her ballot, Kadhim is illiterate and therefore cannot make sense of the political posters plastered on the wall above her.



The January 31 provincial elections are the talk of the town in Baghdad but Kadhim feels left out. She has been begging for a living since her husband was killed in 2006 in a sectarian attack.



“I don’t know anything about the nominees whose posters are up everywhere,” said Kadhim. “I can’t figure out what is written below their pictures. I don’t know how I’m going to vote.”



Over 14,000 candidates are running for seats in Iraq’s provincial councils elections, slated for January 31. Polling will be held in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces. There are 57 seats up for grabs in Baghdad.



In the previous election in 2005, citizens could only vote for alliances, not personalities.

This time, coalitions and candidates are competing in a new system that will allow voters to elect alliances as well as individual nominees.



That means voters have several choices. They can cast a ballot for a coalition, which will then choose its representatives. Or voters can pick a coalition as well as check the names of preferred candidates within that alliance. Or they can choose an individual, independent nominee to serve in the provincial council.



Coalitions and their candidates will be represented on the ballot paper by their names and by numbers. Independent candidates, however, will only be identified on the ballot paper by a number.



Many are concerned that the system, while offering the electorate more options, could be confusing for voters – particularly for those who cannot read.



But the main problem for illiterate Iraqis is that they have difficulties following the campaigns and choosing candidates.



Awatif Ali, 32, works as a maid and cannot read. She believes Iraqis will be electing a president or prime minister on January 31.



In past elections, Ali has memorised the number of her preferred coalition in order to vote. She has supported Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and relied on the endorsements of the Marjayiah, Iraq’s powerful Shia religious leaders.



But Sadr does not have a coalition in this election, and the Marjayiah have not endorsed candidates this time around, instead encouraging Iraqis to decide on their own.



Some voters are under the impression that they will be punished by the government if they do not vote. In Baghdad’s impoverished Sadr City neighbourhood, for example, rumours are rife that those who do not vote will not receive their government food allowances.



Ali said she is not a fan of the electoral process, noting that past elections have not led to a better quality of life and services. But she said she will cast a ballot because she fears she will be taken to court if she does not vote.



Illiteracy is a growing concern in Iraq, particularly among girls and women. One-quarter of Iraqis aged 16 to 26 cannot read or write, according to the government.



The figures suggest a dismal regression in a country which 20 years ago was declared by the United Nations to have eradicated illiteracy.



The former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had overseen an aggressive compulsory education campaign, threatening Iraqis with imprisonment if they did not attend government-mandated courses that taught reading and writing skills.



However, Iraq’s costly wars and UN-imposed sanctions in the 1990s crippled the education system.



The chaos and violence that engulfed Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003 kept children out of school, with attendance rates dropping to 45 per cent, according to the ministry of planning and development cooperation. Most of the drop-outs are girls.



Shahid al-Jaberi, a member of the parliament’s education committee, told the Iraqi newspaper Al-Siyah that more than four million Iraqis cannot read or write. Iraq’s population is estimated to be 27 million.



The Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq, IHEC, will allow family members or polling station supervisors help illiterate voters cast their ballots, according to Hazim al-Badir, an IHEC official.



He said the IHEC is trying to reach illiterate citizens through radio and television campaigns that tell voters how to fill out the ballot paper. It is also reminding them they need to bring government-issued identity cards to the polling centre.



Hana Edward, a women’s activist who leads the non-governmental organisation Al-Amal, expressed concern that the families of illiterate voters will tell them which candidates to choose. Women could be particularly vulnerable to family pressure, she said.



Edward said educating women will help them participate in civic life. Education should continue after the polls, she said, “so that [illiterate voters] can be involved when newly-elected leaders make decisions”.



Zaineb Naji is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad