BAGHDAD -- If words become deeds, Iraqi women could have an unparalleled opportunity this year to move into government employment.
That is because 2012 is the year the government has set for implementing new hiring quotas for women as civil servants.
The quota system, approved by the Iraqi cabinet on December 5, requires that 50 percent of the hires at the Health and Education ministries be women. And it sets a 30 percent quota for women hires at all other ministries.
"Obviously, widows and family providers have been prioritized at all the ministries," says Ibtihal al-Zaidi, the minister for women's affairs. "If a female applicant for employment is a widow, holds a Bachelor's degree, and fulfills the employment criteria, she would be preferred over others."
The new quota system, which echoes a 25 percent quota system for women in Iraq's parliament, hopes to help the large numbers of women who are unemployed in Iraq today.
How much of the new quota system will actually be implemented is unclear, however. Women's rights activists say large obstacles exist for women seeking employment in any field.
"We hope the initiative will be implemented, but on a practical level it faces stumbling blocks. I do not believe that these percentages will be achieved. The stumbling blocks facing women will prevent them from being appointed," activist Nahida Abd al-Karim says.
"Maybe with the passage of time and with the removal of these stumbling blocks, the percentage might be achieved. But at present, there are difficulties. We need more awareness, more preparation and training for women, to enable them to undertake their responsibilities in their jobs."
Iraq Now More Conservative, Like Neighbors
One of the biggest obstacles is the rise in conservative attitudes toward women as religious parties dominate Iraqi politics. Baghdad resident Muntaha Saad says discrimination against women in the workplace is an everyday fact of life -- including in government ministries.
Minister for Women's Affairs Ibtihal al-Zaidi
"There has been some disappointment among women applicants, both with regard to their education and their employment, in that they are not achieving their rightful levels," she says.
"There is 'apartheid' against women at all of the ministries. Many women who are suitable for appointment as directors-general or bureau heads have not been allowed to advance," Saad continues. "Women have established their capabilities, and now men are jealous of women; they have to compete with them, while trying to remove them from their path."
Opinion polls in Iraq show a society torn over what the role for women should be. A survey commissioned by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute in February and March of last year found that 94 percent of the respondents believed women should be allowed to enter highly skilled professions, while 90 percent supported a woman's right to vote.
But the survey of 2,400 people revealed deep anxieties about other things. Only 40 percent of the respondents agreed that women should be allowed to travel wherever and whenever they want -- something often necessary for holding a job. And only one-third agreed that women should be able to wear whatever clothing they like.
Whether these attitudes toward women will grow more conservative is an open question.
Iraq could model its views on women along the lines of its biggest regional neighbors, which range from officially Shi'ite Iran to the east to officially Sunni Saudi Arabia to the southwest. In both countries, women's professional roles are limited by concerns over mixing between the sexes and dress codes, though women in Iran have far greater personal freedom.
Conversely, Iraq could model itself on its own not-so-distant past. In the 1950s, Iraq -- newly flush with oil wealth -- plowed money into universal education and became the first Arab country to have a female minister. The country was known for its high number of female teachers, professors, doctors, and civil servants.
Many of those professional women lost their positions or emigrated during Iraq's recent decades of troubles. But how the new quota system is implemented will now tell much about whether their sisters return to work or remain at home.
with contributions from Charles Recknagel in Prague