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Iraq: Women See Challenges, Opportunities In Vote

With two weeks to go before Iraq's National Assembly election, most of the candidate's names have still not been made public for security reasons. But when voters go to the polls on 30 January, and do view the complete lists, they will see something unprecedented in Iraqi history. One of every three names on the candidate lists is the name of a woman. That is in line with requirements that at least 25 percent of the new assembly's seats go to women.

Prague, 17 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- With almost a third of the names on each candidate list, women look set to become a major power in the National Assembly that will be elected on 30 January.

But Iraqi women activists say that whether women in the new assembly actually become a force for change will depend on several factors that, for now, remain unclear.

One mystery is the identities of the women on the candidate lists. As insurgents multiply their attacks in an effort to disrupt vote preparations, most candidates are insisting on anonymity.

Bushra Samarai is the program officer for Iraq at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Amman. She told RFE/RL that over the past weeks, Iraq's major political parties -- traditionally made up mostly of men -- have rushed to find women to place on their candidate lists. At the same time, women active in humanitarian and social work have joined with other professionals -- males and females -- to create independent lists.

Samarai said that as an Iraqi woman, she is pinning her hopes for change on the women independents. "If the list belongs to a certain political party and no matter how these people feels about their beliefs, after all, they have to go under the umbrella of the political party," she said. "But some of the lists are independent and these lists have a mix of people from all different sects and sections of the society. I think we will have a few members in the parliament that would be defending womens' rights, not too many, but a few."

One of the independent women candidates is Hanaa Edward. She is running on a small independent list called Watani (My Homeland) that includes male and female intellectuals, activists, and politicians from across the country. Edward, who is well-known as the founder of the prominent Iraqi humanitarian organization Al-Amal, told RFE/RL from Baghdad that women are taking a great interest in the vote.

"[Women] are talking now within each family. If you enter an Iraqi family home you will see [the women] looking at the TV, and they put it on the discussions about the elections or about the situation in the country, and they are discussing among themselves about what is going on," Edward said.
"No matter what the results are, we have to start -- Iraqis have to start at a certain point. We can't just postpone things. I am optimistic that this will be a first step towards a better future."

Edward said many women have become "politicized" after decades of turmoil in Iraq -- including the 1980-88 war with Iran, the 1991 Gulf War, a decade of UN sanctions, and, finally, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

"We feel these years of war, these years of sanctions, these years of invasion and now occupation are the consequence of the one-party [system] and of the hegemony of males. And we feel this is the time for women to raise their voice, to unite their efforts; that there should be change in the situation and in the policies, towards building peace in the country, towards building safety for their children, towards building a free country and an independent country," Edward said.

But candidate Edward said that she, too, is uncertain how much the election will satisfy women's desire for change. One reason is the difficulty all candidates are having getting their message to voters and mobilizing them to come to the polls. She said her campaigning is mostly limited to "small meetings" because prospective voters fear any large gathering might attract insurgents.

"You have to do small meetings at homes or in schools, or in some other institutions, and contact the media and through the media maybe we can make our announcements to the people or speak about our programs, or we have to make [our publicity] through publications, through posters or calendars, or stickers and so on. Personally, I don't feel this is really satisfactory or exactly how we were expecting to participate in elections," Edward said.

The candidate said that without campaigning, it is particularly difficult to reach women in rural areas -- potentially an important base of support for female candidates.

In many rural areas, women are likely to be told for whom to vote by the family or tribe's male leaders. In such places, women's rights activists are often accused of seeking to liberate women beyond traditional limits imposed by religion and culture. It remains unclear how much information about the election is reaching women in these areas and whether -- both there and elsewhere in Iraq -- family heads will let women go to the polls given the danger of insurgent attacks.

Many analysts say such campaign conditions favor the large coalitions that have been formed by Iraq's best-known political leaders. Most of these leaders have their own well-established religious or secular parties that can get their supporters to the polls.

The strongest of these leaders spent decades in opposition to Saddam Hussein and have dominated the Iraqi scene since his fall. Among them are Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Shi'a-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who heads the United Iraqi Alliance list; interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and the leaders of the two strongest Iraqi Kurd factions.

The stakes for women in the race for the National Assembly are high because the assembly will oversee the writing of Iraq's first post-Hussein constitution as well as choose the next interim government. Iraqi religious parties and women's rights activists have clashed over the extent to which Islamic law should be a basis for resolving divorce and other domestic disputes. Those issues are almost certain to rise again in the drafting of the constitution.

Despite being beset by difficulties, activists like Samarai say the election is too valuable an opportunity for the country to miss. "Actually, I do believe that this election will provide an unprecedented chance for everybody, not only the civil society [but also] the political parties, the independent figures, everybody," Samarai said. "This is the first time in modern history that Iraq really has elections. No matter what the results are, we have to start -- Iraqis have to start at a certain point. We can't just postpone things. I am optimistic that this will be a first step towards a better future."

Campaigning conditions remain most difficult in Sunni-populated areas of central and northern Iraq, where insurgents are most active and some community leaders are calling for a boycott of the poll.

In the Shi'a-majority south and Kurdish-controlled areas of the north, candidates can campaign more widely but still refrain from large-scale rallies due to security concerns.

All Iraqis aged over 18 are eligible to vote on 30 January. That is about 15 million people of the country's total population of 26 million.

Another 4 million more Iraqis are believed to be living outside the country. Eligible expatriates began registering to vote today and will be able to cast their ballots in selected cities abroad from 28-30 January.

[For the latest news and analysis on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]