Kurdish Women Hit Glass Ceiling

Political parties pay only lip-service to women’s demands for greater political clout.

Kurdish Women Hit Glass Ceiling

Political parties pay only lip-service to women’s demands for greater political clout.

Saturday, 2 February, 2008
Despite a reputation for courage on the battlefield, Kurdish women are unable to penetrate the upper echelons of power in the region’s top parties and government, according to politicians and women’s activists.

Iraqi Kurdistan is widely considered the most liberal part of the country for women. Kurdish women have served with the Peshmerga guerrillas for decades, and one of the six Kurdish ministers in the Iraqi national government is female.

However, only one of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s 44 ministers is a woman, and neither of the two powerful parties has a female in its ruling politburo.

Although women are trying to break the glass ceiling, they say they are blocked by Iraqi Kurdistan’s male-dominated political world.

The two dominant parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP - have failed to appoint women to high-level positions either within their parties or in government, according to critics.

Most women in the KDP and PUK – largely secular parties that have fought for women to have equal constitutional rights - hold only low-ranking positions, at best in local party branch offices.

“As a socialist, democratic party, we have thought about the fact that we need to promote women politicians within our party,” said Emad Ahmed, a member of the PUK’s 15-member politburo. “The situation is upsetting.”

Shireen Amedi, the only female member of the KDP’s committee, one level lower than the politburo, said women are active in the party but find their fellow-members are reluctant to support them if they are nominated to a leading post. In turn, female party activists are unwilling to push for more power.

The KDP last held a party election in 1993, while the PUK has not held one since 2000.

Women say tradition still holds back their political careers.

Politics is still considered the domain of men in northern Iraq, said Pakhashan Zangana, a female member of the Kurdistan Communist Party’s politburo.

Mihabad Qaradakhi, formerly equality affairs advisor for Iraqi Kurdistan’s prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, agrees.

“Women being involved in politics in Kurdistan is considered shameful for her family, because the patriarchal mentality is dominant,” she said.

She argued that the lack of women in high-ranking position has adversely affected women throughout the region.

When the semi-autonomous region held its first election in 1992, the law made it a condition for political factions to have seven per cent of their candidate lists made up of women. For Iraq’s parliamentary election in 2005, a higher quota of 25 per cent was stipulated.

Kurdish women are now lobbying for more power within the parties.

Four months ago, 30 female members of the PUK submitted a proposal to the Kurdistan parliament that would force political parties to allocate 25 per cent of their leadership seats to women.

The assembly has yet to respond to their demands.

“If it was approved, this quota would be a positive step towards empowering women,” said Zangana.

The PUK women’s association declined IWPR’s repeated requests for an interview.

A handful of women in the region who enjoy support from their husbands and families have been able to gain some power. Hero Ibrahim, the wife of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and a longtime member of the PUK, heads a media empire and a children’s organisation.

However, Najeeba Mahmood, an independent politician and head of women’s affairs in the non-government Kurdistan Development Organisation in Sulaimaniyah, said no woman can reach a high-ranking position purely on her own merits.

”Unfortunately, the Kurdish parties have a tribal mindset,” she said. “A woman only becomes a leader if she comes from a prominent tribe or a political family.”

Qaradakhi held a similar view, saying, “It is impossible for a woman to occupy a high-ranking position unless there are many men supporting her.”

Vian Dzayi, a PUK member of the Kurdistan parliament, admits that she was granted her seat in 2005 as a reward for her family’s long history of involvement with the party. She was an English teacher before entering the assembly.

“It is true that I have never been actively involved [in the PUK] but my family and I have served the party. That is why I was appointed to this post,” she said.

Barham Omar is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.
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