Female candidate runs to make change in her life, in Iraq

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 30, 2009 

BAGHDAD — The face of Islam Abbas Faraj, 36, isn't among those on the campaign posters that blanket the walls of Iraq's Diyala province, a stew of Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs and Sunni Kurds north of Baghdad.

She's a woman on a mission, but some things are just too risky.

Last August, Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces raided the government compound where her husband, Hussein al Zubaidi, a member of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party and the head of the provincial council's security committee, was sleeping. They killed the governor and hauled her husband away. They accused Zubaidi of connections to terrorism, and Faraj hasn't seen him since.

That day settled her fate: She decided to run for office and fill her husband's shoes, to use politics to get him released.

"His detention was political, and after he was detained, I decided that I would go all the way and make every effort to reach a position where I can make a difference," she said.

Now Faraj is one of almost 4,000 women who're competing for some 147 of roughly 440 seats on provincial councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

To Faraj, that's not enough.

"I don't know why they consider this to be an achievement, because women make up more than 60 percent of the population," she said. "This is something we are looking to change in the future. If women win, we would have more peace and less violence."

Iraq's women have suffered since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Tens of thousands are widows supporting young children. Many women have been killed, and many more have lost sons, daughters and husbands.

Although she's a woman, she's not guaranteed the female vote, Faraj said. In the tiny villages of farmers and shepherds in Diyala, she thinks, most women will vote the same way the men in their families do.

"Whether the women will be allowed to vote independently or not is an unknown quantity in the equation," she said. "Some men will demand that the women of their family vote as they do, but at the end of the day she has the right, and it's up to each of them whether to use it independently or otherwise."

Still, Faraj is afraid. Campaigning in rural villages means that she's exposed. Three Sunni candidates were murdered in Iraq on Thursday, and her campaigning could leave her two children parentless and alone.

She doesn't use her image anywhere except in handouts with her picture and a picture of her absent husband. She passes them out with her candidate number, 16, and the number of her party list, 265. On Saturday, voters will choose lists, and then check numbers on them that refer to specific candidates.

Faraj lives in the small city of Khalis north of Diyala's provincial capital, Baqouba. The city sits astride a sectarian fault line where tit-for-tat killings by Sunni and Shiite militants forced families to remain in their homes like prisoners.

"It was like a ghost town," she said. "Armed groups, militias and kidnappings and murder were the norm every day."

She said the city had grown calmer. Violence has dropped, but there are still areas where as a Sunni she's reluctant to go because she's convinced that Shiite militias still control them.

Her first campaign rally in the village of al Aswed was the most frightening, she said. There wasn't a female face in the crowd. The meeting with women would be separate. One male candidate from her party spoke to the crowd of about 100, and then it was her turn.

Nerves took over when she stood in front of them. She had to be careful to walk a line of tradition and authority. She needed these men to respect her as a candidate.

She said that all the attendees were wearing the aagal — the traditional headdress that's a mark of manhood — and she told them, "If you intend to overlook my words because I am a woman, then I would rather not speak at all."

The stern looks in the audience broke into smiles, and the men invited her to speak freely. When she'd finished, they asked her to address the women of the village.

Now she's comfortable going anyplace to ask for support.

"Today the challenges that we face as women are not easier than the challenges we have been facing for decades," she said. "Women in Iraq have overcome difficulties while their men went to war (against Iran) in the '80s, and we continue to face challenges. God willing, as we were able to overcome those difficulties and even though politics is a new field for us, we will prove ourselves here as well."

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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