Women Set to Take More Power Locally

They hope new quota system will give them a foot in the door of provincial politics.

Women Set to Take More Power Locally

They hope new quota system will give them a foot in the door of provincial politics.

Tuesday, 20 January, 2009
Iraqi women are set to take more power in local governments as the country prepares to elect its first provincial councils with guaranteed seats for female leaders.

A law that sets aside about 25 per cent of seats for women in provincial councils is raising hopes of a new era where women hold political power on a local level.

The quota for provincial councils, which will be elected on January 31, is the first in Iraq that guarantees women representation in local governments. The outgoing councils, elected in 2005, were not required to designate seats for female candidates.

“Women candidates who are elected will be in a very critical position,” said Maysun al-Damaluji, a member of parliament for the largely secular Iraqiya list led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. “They will have a double duty of [serving] women and the community.”

Elections are being held in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Polls will not be held in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the disputed province of Kirkuk.

Female candidates are hoping that the new quota will give them a foot in the door of provincial politics. Some maintain it is generally harder for women to penetrate provincial politics than national politics, as local leaders are often chosen by tight-knit communities where men dominate.

While female candidates say they are not running solely as women’s activists, many intend to raise women’s issues while in office. Rising violence and a new religious conservatism have deeply impacted women in Iraq.

In the southern province of Basra, where Shia militias have battled for power, at least 40 women were killed and tortured in 2007 for not wearing the veil. Their bodies were dumped in the streets.

Militias have also stopped women in Basra from working or holding any public positions, according to Suhaila Oufi, a female candidate in the province.

Oufi, a 35-year-old veterinarian who is running with the Al-Dawla Party led by former Basra governor Wael Abdul-Latif, now a member of parliament, said she is campaigning in order to improve women’s rights and public services.

Oufi said she wants to serve “to be a voice for women who have lived under an unjust system and who are always marginalised”.

According to the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq, all political parties seeking office have complied with the requirement that one out of every four of their candidates be female. But Oufi and others have complained that many men oppose the role of women in public office.

A similar quota sets aside one-quarter of parliamentary seats for female leaders. However, even women’s advocates who pressed for the quota admit that women in parliament are not necessarily powerful.

While many political leaders and parties in Baghdad have publicly backed women’s rights, some parliamentarians rejected the women’s quota when they first voted on the provincial election law earlier this year.

Women’s advocates are upset that the final wording of the law, which vaguely states that there must be "a woman at the end of every three winners", could prevent women from gaining provincial council seats. Parliamentarians are reportedly reviewing the law this week, with many pushing for a specifically-worded quota guaranteeing women 25 per cent of seats in provincial councils.

The United States, which pushed for the provincial council elections to boost Sunni Arab representation in local politics, had also pressed for the women’s quota. Sunni Arabs boycotted provincial elections in 2005, giving Kurds and Shias a disproportionate amount of power in Sunni areas.

Halima Abdul Jabber Ismail, a candidate in the largely Shia province of Karbala southwest of Baghdad, says she enjoys popular support. However, she fears she will not be able to win one of the seven seats allotted to women in Karbala because she lacks adequate funds and the backing of clerics.

Women in Karbala “are well-known for their political consciousness, and the people here are quite confident in many of us”, Ismail said.

Not everyone agrees, and some believe that women will serve on provincial councils as figureheads only.

“I think that the women’s quota might help women who are not active and productive,” said Abdul Hasan al-Furati, a member of Karbala’s provincial council.

“Being on a strong list will pave the way for unqualified women to become provincial council members.”

Women’s advocates and politicians say despite the scepticism about their work, women may have greater impact by serving on provincial councils than in parliament, where many serve but do not necessarily have power.

“Women play more active roles [on provincial councils] than in parliament,” said Khawal al-Hasani, a member of Baghdad’s provincial council and chair of the legal committee.

Hasani said that locally women serve on a wider variety of committees than they do at the national level, enabling them to play stronger roles in impacting local issues. Female provincial council members can tackle problems relating to sewage services, education and the displaced, she said.

In past elections, voters chose political lists which then appointed leaders to serve. In the upcoming provincial elections, however, the candidates’ names are being made public and voters can elect individuals.

The public lists have been criticised for endangering candidates, but Jenan al-Obeidi, a member of parliament from the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, said the system enables women to “be in a heated competition with men”.

Lists must guarantee their women candidates seats if they win, which empowers women, Obeidi asserted.

“The women are now challenging the men on the [public] list because the female candidate who gets more votes will have a seat in the council,” she said.

But Azhar Al-Sheikhli, the former minister for women’s affairs, argued that even with the women’s quota, Iraq has “a long way to go” in bringing women to power.

She noted that India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh have had female heads of states, but in Iraq “we cannot see women becoming leaders of a major political party.”

Zaineb Naji is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. Emad Al-Shara, an IWPR-trained journalist based in Baghdad and Karbala, and Basim al-Shara, an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad, also contributed to this report.
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