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WATCH: Female candidates are in the race for a whole lot more than just filling quotas. (Reuters and RFE/RL video)

There's been significant attention paid to the role of women in this weekend's parliamentary elections, both as voters and as candidates. Much of the discussion has centered around how Iraqi women will participate in the vote. There's been some concern over the potential for Iraqi men to unduly influence the votes of their female relatives. A number of citizens speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq admitted that such pressure was commonplace.

One citizen, Abu Milad, told RFI that he was sure his wife would vote for whomever he votes for. Hussein Abdel-Rahman, a young college student, admitted that he will attempt to sway his sisters' voting choices, but attributed this phenomenon to the nature of Iraqi society, which is dominated by what he calls the "Eastern view" of relations between men and women.

Another citizen, Abu Yasser, said he still does not know which candidate he will choose. Because he has a big impact on the voting preferences of both his male and female family members, he said, they are likewise confused and undecided over which candidates to vote for. Abu Yasser said he worries that his family members will decide to choose a candidate on their own, and then regret their choice later.

Citizen Samir Hanna recognized that he could not force his wife to choose a particular candidate. "In the end, she will vote secretly, and she probably disagrees with me anyway."

Young women from a village in Diyala province told RFI that many women in rural areas were being told that they were not allowed to leave their house to participate in the elections. They added that the male members of many households had collected the voter registration cards of all the women in their family, and planned to cast ballots on behalf of their female relatives, in addition to their own.

Radio Free Iraq has also reported record levels of female participation in the election, both as candidates and activists. According to Iraq's Independent High Election Commission, the number of female candidates running for election in 2010 -- over 2,000 of the more than 6,000 total candidates -- represents "a significant increase compared with the number of women contesting seats in the 2005 elections." Radio Free Iraq surveyed the opinions of female citizens who spoke about and their preferences for the election, and many frankly acknowledged that they were looking to vote for "capable female candidates who could prove that the presence of women in the legislature could be trusted." Other women, such as Raghad Omar, disagreed, invoking the principle of equality between the sexes and telling RFI that "it is important to choose the candidate who will best serve the community and fulfill their program, regardless of whether the candidate is male or female."

Some observers told Radio Free Iraq that they believe Iraqi women will vote for female candidates in large numbers in order to better represent their interests and secure their rights during the next parliament. Environment Minister Nermeen Othman, who served as Minister for Women in the previous government, said that despite the obstacles put in place by "powerful male parties," she expected that many female activists and scholars would be elected this year, and would serve as "outstanding participants" in the next parliament. Not everyone agreed, however -- Dr. Hana Al-Fatalawi, adviser to Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and a candidate for the State of Law coalition, ruled out the possibility of women voting mostly for female candidates, arguing that Iraq is still a tribal society governed by the control of the tribe and clan, which would have more of an impact on the choices of female voters.

In Kirkuk, RFI reported that over 100 female candidates will contest the election. Many of these candidates told RFI that women's issues in Kirkuk have gotten lost among the other political conflicts which dominated most of the election campaign. However, Kurdish candidate Aalia Rashid warned that the path for female candidates "is not strewn with roses," and said that women who are elected will face difficulty and discrimination in their duties as representatives. She called on female representatives to form a "women's block" in the next parliament, so as to "not only follow behind the men in the political narrative."

-- Alex Mayer

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