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Iraqi women divided about whether to vote conservative and lose rights

BAGHDAD, Iraq—On Baghdad's college campuses, the poster woman promoting the parliamentary elections Jan. 30 is a pretty student with a swinging ponytail and bare arms.

She's transformed into a black-veiled grandmother on posters in southern holy cities. In conservative western towns, she's a young wife with a baby in one hand and a ballot in the other. Only the slogan is the same: "Your voice determines your future."

Women make up about 55 percent of Iraq's population and they're guaranteed a quarter of the 275-member national assembly after elections. Yet, as the posters reflect, they don't speak with a single voice, and they face many obstacles to transforming their impressive numbers into political power.

Women who belong to powerful Shiite Muslim political factions echo their cleric-led parties' calls for a new Iraqi constitution based on Islamic law, which, strictly interpreted, could limit women's role in society. Secular female candidates, on the other hand, fear that a conservative new leadership could roll back hard-won rights and keep women on the sidelines.

"Educated, prominent men, the ones who describe themselves as liberals, talk proudly about how the new government is going to be 25 percent women," said Hanaa Edwar, a candidate who runs an umbrella organization for about 80 Iraqi women's groups. "But their words are like jelly when they talk about women's equality. They absolutely do not believe that women should have a leadership role in the political process."

Many of the favored candidates are clerics-turned-politicians who served on the interim U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which has since disbanded. Last year, men on the council blocked a law that would have given women 40 percent of government posts.

They also tried to inject religion into the relatively progressive Iraqi family laws, to decrease the amount of money women inherit, cap alimony and make divorce more difficult. Only demonstrations and a veto threat from L. Paul Bremer, the top American occupation administrator at the time, averted the amendment.

While Iraqi feminists foresee another nasty battle on the issue after Jan. 30, many Shiite female candidates said they supported a constitution whose primary source would be Sharia, Islamic law.

Dr. Janan al Ubaidi, a Shiite pediatrician and member of the interim national assembly, argued that a government that looks to Islam for guidance is still capable of protecting women's rights. She said critics of a religion-based constitution failed to recognize Iraq's rich Islamic history.

Al Ubaidi, 43, said a Muslim woman was allowed to negotiate the terms of her marriage, seek work or education, take custody of her children after divorce and keep her own money. Islam views women as individuals, and, unlike many Western societies, most women keep their own names after marriage.

"Equality? We don't believe in equality. We have more rights than men," said al Ubaidi, who's running for office on the leading ticket. "It's all in how you understand rights. If I believe my right is to wear this black robe and you ban it, then my right has been taken."

However, women's rights in Islam are open to interpretation. For example, conservative clerics—both Sunni Muslim and Shiite—use Quranic verses on modesty to justify cloaking women from head to toe.

Some women view the veil, a perennially thorny issue, as a sign of piousness and religious identity. Others see it as a tool of oppression to keep women out of public life. Still others see it as a personal choice, and the streets of Baghdad are full of stylish women wearing scarves in leopard prints or designer logos.

Al Ubaidi sees her long black robes, the de facto uniform for southern Shiite women, as the perfect politician's outfit. At a leadership conference she attended recently in Jordan, consultants advised Iraqi female candidates to dress modestly so that voters would take them seriously.

"We have to admit that men have instincts. They can't ignore a woman wearing beautiful clothes," said al Ubaidi, who covers all but her face. "I want people to listen to my ideas, not my outfit. I want them to see me as a human being, not an object."

A ringing cell phone interrupted a long-winded politician's speech to dozens of quiet, shrouded women recently in the southern holy city of Najaf. As the shrill chirp continued, nearly every woman in the audience extended black-gloved hands to reach for little Nokias hidden in the folds of their traditional robes.

Exchanging winks through the eye slits of their veils, the women commiserated: They might appear cloistered to outsiders, but they're deeply connected to their communities. Many said they were excited about elections that would put women in power, even if their role isn't likely to mirror their numbers.

"I don't read and I don't write, but I'm one of them," said Ratheea Mohammed, 50, whose tribal tattoos peeked out from long black sleeves. "I refuse to believe it's too late for me."

Al Ubaidi joked that male candidates have learned to offer freedom to educated women and electricity to poor ones. While feminists in Baghdad hold sociology seminars for female voters, she and other candidates make humble campaign promises of quick improvements to women's lives.

"I'd be the first to open women's recreation centers. Why not? I like swimming," said candidate Nawal al Ibrahimi, 34, who supervises men in her job as head of a university computer lab in the southern city of Kufa. "I'd open employment centers and give jobs to widows and divorcees."

Even in religiously homogenous southern Iraq, some activists are lobbying for a secular government in which women's role is expanded from minor posts in the ministries of culture or health. Women already are trying their hands at local leadership in hopes of taking office one day.

Marwa al Beqaa, for example, recently started a nonprofit group that she ambitiously named the International Organization for Friendship and Peace. When pressed, 25-year-old al Beqaa admitted that it's mostly just a few friends and her working out of segregated women's sections of Internet cafes in Najaf.

In the past week alone, however, al Beqaa's scrappy group had held voter-education seminars, scored thousands of dollars in foreign aid and given winter clothes to Najaf's poorest residents. But the more al Beqaa achieves, she said, the more she fights with men who want to stop her.

"They think just because I'm a woman, I have to do women's programs," she said, rolling her eyes. "I'm a woman who works for everybody. There is so much energy inside me. If given the chance, I could make the impossible happen."

Al Beqaa, a devout Shiite, said she saw few role models among the crop of Shiite female candidates. Their loyalty to religious parties often supersedes their commitment to women's issues, she complained, making them complicit in continuing oppression.

"Najaf women are the mothers of ayatollahs, the daughters of martyrs. We ran after husbands dragged to jail. We comforted sons who were tortured," al Beqaa said. "Our men still struggle with wounds from the old regime. They're so scared that they make women look on from a distance. The question is: Will we now participate in change or will we stay silent?"

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+women

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