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

Men Stifling Women Voters

Activists fear a combination of violence and chauvinism will keep Iraqi women from the polls.
By Jasim al-Sabawi
Noor, a 23-year-old from Tikrit, has never voted. Her father cast a ballot in her name during the constitutional referendum in October, though she had wanted to do it herself.



"My father wouldn't let [me] vote because of the security situation, and the voting centre was far away," said Noor. "With any luck, I will get to participate in this election."



As Iraqis prepare to elect their first permanent parliament since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, activists worry that women like Noor are too influenced by the men in their lives. They say that during both the referendum and the parliamentary election in January, men simply voted on behalf of their female family members – a practice that is against the law.



Ali Isa Omran, spokesman for the Salahaddin office of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, insisted that such breaches of the rules are rare. “According to the regulations, no voter is allowed to carry more than one identification card," he said.



But in Salahaddin and other provinces, electoral monitors, women's activists and people on the street claimed that men had voted for female family members in past polls.



"I voted for my wife and all of my family members, because our traditions don't allow women to take part in such activities," said Faris Abdullah Hassan, a 35-year-old who works at odd jobs in Haweeja, in northern Iraq’s Kirkuk province. "The security situation is bad, and I can't risk my family's life."



In Tikrit, a Sunni Arab stronghold in Salahaddin province and the home of Saddam Hussein, United States military helicopters hover above the city to monitor security and watch for insurgents. Although Tikrit now counts as a relatively stable, many residents reported that men cast ballots for women because they feared violence at the polls.



"I can go downtown whenever I want, but on referendum day my husband wouldn't let me," said Amal Abdul-Jabbar, a mother of five in Tikrit. "He voted for me."



While some argue that men fear women voting more than they fear violence, others see safety fears as a legitimate concern. In Salahaddin, a majority Sunni Arab region, some predicted that the relative calm in the area would bring more women to the polls.



"We didn't expect the referendum day to pass safely, so if you ask any person why they didn't go to the polls, they would say it was because they were scared," said Hana Ali, a 32-year-old primary school teacher in Bayji, north of Tikrit. "But we will see women actively participating in these elections. Women will vote."



In Sulaimaniyah, a predominantly Kurdish city in northeastern Iraq, insurgent violence is rare but the problem of women voting independently still exists.



The issue is not just one of men casting ballots on behalf of their wives and daughters, or of women not voting, women's activists said. It is also a question of the extent to which men influence women's votes.



The electoral commission does not track voters by gender, but Imad Ahmed, deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government's Sulaimaniyah administration, estimated that more than half of voters for the constitutional referendum were women.



However, according to Payman Izadin, spokeswoman for the Kurdistan Women's Union, many women are voting because they are following the guidance of their husbands or other male figures such as political party leaders. She predicted that voter turnout would be high among Kurdish women in the upcoming election, but questioned how much of it would reflect independent women's voices.



"Women in Kurdistan are not economically free - men are still the breadwinners," Izadin maintained. "If a woman is not economically free, she cannot vote independently."



"Kurdish women do not have the ability to vote freely," agreed Bahar Karim, a 35-year-old housewife and mother of three children in Sulaimaniyah whose husband has voted for her in the past. "Women must vote as their husbands do."



Several women's groups have launched media and educational campaigns encouraging Kurdish women to vote. The USAID-supported Iraq Civil Society Programme also held two seminars in Sulaimaniyah to talk to women about voting in the upcoming elections. In Salahaddin, civil society organisations such as the Women's Council go door-to-door to talk to housewives and rural women.



While female political leaders are not abundant in Iraq, their voices carry weight.



"I personally make women aware of the [civic] responsibility they carry on their shoulders," said Suhad Fadhil, the only woman on Salahaddin’s governing council. "Women should defend their rights themselves. They cannot wait for others to defend them."



Jasim al-Sabawi is an IWPR trainee journalist in Haweeja, Kirkuk province. Amanj Khalil is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah.