2011 looks grim for progress on women's rights in Iraq

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 31, 2010 

BAGHDAD — When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki introduced what he called a national partnership government two weeks ago, he included allies and adversaries, Arabs and Kurds, Shiite Muslims and Sunnis. One group, however, was woefully underrepresented.

Only one woman was named to Maliki's 42-member cabinet, sparking an outcry in a country that once was a beacon for women's rights in the Arab world and adding to an ongoing struggle over the identity of the new Iraq.

Whether this fledgling nation becomes a liberal democracy or an Islamist-led patriarchy might well be judged by the place it affords its women.

Nearly eight years after American-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, Iraq's record is decidedly mixed.

Maliki's last cabinet included four women, and since 2005 the Iraqi constitution has set aside one-quarter of legislative seats for females. Of 325 lawmakers elected in March, 82 were women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Yet analysts said their political contributions so far have been limited, and activists and female lawmakers seized on their exclusion from the new cabinet as a sign of women's continued struggle to find a place in Iraqi public life.

"It's a mockery," said Hanaa Edwar, a founder of the Iraqi al Amal Association, a leading women's rights group. "Especially when you take into consideration that this is a retreat from the previous cabinet…it's really a slap in the face for all of us."

The lone woman in the cabinet, Bushra Hussein, was named a minister of state, a relatively low position without a portfolio or budget. Another female lawmaker, Vyan Dakheel, told McClatchy that she was offered the post of minister of state for women's affairs but turned it down because that ministry was "just a show…without real power to serve women"; it's now being filled temporarily by a man.

After Maliki announced his lineup, Alaa Talabani, a female lawmaker from the northern Kurdistan region, delivered a rousing condemnation of the selection process to a packed legislative chamber.

"The Iraqi women feel today, more than any other day, that democracy in Iraq has been slaughtered by discrimination, just as it was slaughtered by sectarianism before," Talabani said, her voice quaking with emotion.

Maliki returned to the lectern somewhat red-faced and said, "I had hoped that this cabinet would have more women than the last." He demanded that party leaders propose female candidates for the handful of vacancies remaining in the cabinet.

The U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Jim Jeffrey, said of the one-sided list: "It surprised us."

Yet many believe that nominating women to cabinet posts — which control the all-powerful government ministries and their massive budgets _ simply hadn't occurred to the male-dominated ranks of party leaders.

For decades, Iraq led the region in promoting women's rights, beginning in 1959 with the passage of an extremely progressive civil liberties law and the appointment of the first female minister in the Arab world. Even Saddam was a friend to women in the 1970s and 1980s, passing strong legislation against sexual harassment and bringing huge numbers of women into the workforce as part of a drive to industrialize Iraq.

Now, however, Iraqi women are finding their hard-won freedoms limited by a society increasingly governed by religious conservatives. Many Iraqis say that politicians at the local and provincial levels, whether they hail from Islamist parties or merely take cues from them, are putting pressure on women to circumscribe their public role.

In Wasit, a mostly Shiite Muslim province southeast of Baghdad, women hold nine of 28 seats on the provincial council. Earlier this year, one was in a car accident and had to be carried to safety by her bodyguards, an incident that could have been construed as indecent.

Afterward, the female council members asked to employ a male member of each of their families to serve as a "mahram," or chaperone, when they traveled on public business "to avoid embarrassment," said Zaineb Raheem Abeed, a council member.

"She was pulled, pushed, lifted and dragged by men who do not have any relation to her," Abeed said of the lawmaker in the accident. "This is very embarrassing and not acceptable in our society, as you know."

Last month in Baghdad, a headmaster of a boys-only high school told parents that the school was struggling to field teachers for Arabic, math and biology classes because of pressures from the Baghdad provincial council, which is dominated by members of Maliki's Shiite Islamist Dawa party.

The headmaster, whose name is being withheld to spare him from recriminations, said that council officials were opposed to women being alone in classrooms with teenage boys.

"Some of our most successful teachers are women," the headmaster told a parent-teacher meeting. "If they have no objection teaching boys of this age group, I don't see why they should be discouraged."

A member of the Baghdad council, Mohammed al Rubeiy, said that while such policies weren't explicit, "there are high-ranking people who are pushing in that direction."

"If Iraq were to move on the same trajectory that it's currently on…then, yes, it is moving toward a situation in which freedoms will become more limited," Rubeiy said.

"But Iraqi society by its very nature has both people like Hanaa Edwar and Islamists. And it is my belief that Iraq will never be ruled completely by Islamists."

The tension between the two sides bubbled over last month in Kadhmiyah, a section of northern Baghdad, where local Islamist leaders erected a provocative display outside a major Shiite shrine. It shows four mannequins wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering for women, while behind four mannequins with uncovered heads are laced with burns, shackled in chains and have red strands lapping at their feet to simulate a fiery afterlife.

The message to women is clear: Dress modestly, or burn in hell.

"It's a reminder that there is a heavenly reward for those who are committed to the instructions of the Koran," the Muslim holy book, said Hazim al Araji, the head of the social committee for the hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's political organization, which helped sponsor the display. "And there is a punishment for those who don't."

Almost immediately, a rival campaign sponsored by secularists erected signs urging Iraqis not to impose the hijab, some carrying the message: "Baghdad Won't Become Kandahar," a reference to the capital of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"They want to fight and punish Islam with their ideas, which are far from the beliefs of Iraq and the Iraqis," Araji said. "What they are selling will never find a market here."

Edwar, whose organization opposed the hijab campaign, said that Sadrists and their allies "want to put the whole Iraqi state under the cover of religion." It's part of a larger fight over the future of Iraq, she said, but for now she's focused on lobbying political leaders to nominate women for the cabinet vacancies.

"This is a unique opportunity for us," Edwar said. "If we don't use it we will lose a lot of our achievements."

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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