Iraqi Women Feel the Heat

On Jan. 30, 2005 a woman in Iraq gave birth to a baby girl. "We named her 'Elections' because she came at the same time as the elections," the mother told Abu Dhabi TV, referring to Iraq's first historic, democratic and free elections.

But when the elections dust settles, baby 'Elections' could be growing up in a country that is not much different than before she came into this world. In fact, she may find more, not fewer, obstacles in her path towards freedom.

Following the elections, little has changed. Fearing rape, murder and kidnappings, many Iraqi families, especially women, have fled Iraq to neighboring Syria, where close to 350,000 Iraqi refugees reside. My own female relatives fled there, fearful of what the future Iraq may look like.

Aside from the security breakdown, women in Iraq have other major concerns regarding their political and social future, but if they play their cards right, Iraqi women still have hope as all the country's various factions attempt to rebuild their nation.

Although at the national level, only one woman, Nesreen Berwari, was appointed to the Cabinet of Ministers, the Iraqi interim elections law required that all parties who ran in the general elections include women on 25 percent of their candidates list. Once the votes are tallied, this may mean that one quarter of the 275 National Assembly seats will be granted to women. This is good news, especially compared to some of Iraq's neighbors, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where women are banned from even voting in elections, let alone participate as candidates.

But because these Iraqi women were on party lists – mainly conservative religious parties – they will need to toe the party line, thus potentially prohibiting creativity and independence in the formation of the Iraqi government and constitution. In fact, no woman was appointed to the 24-member constitution drafting committee which wrote the current interim constitution. Women can only hope the next committee will be more inclusive.

Locally, however, things are better, especially in Baghdad, where more than 80 women serve on city, district and neighborhood councils. Meanwhile, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have sprouted in the country, offering assistance to Iraq's female population. The U.S. State Department devoted $10 million to educate Iraqi women on democracy and institution-building, but the fruits of these projects have yet to be seen. Also, the current occupation and security chaos has put a strain on such activities.

Meanwhile, Iraqi women have complained that even the most basic services are stacked against them. For example, Al Iraqiya TV reported that many women have complained that Iraqi officials are making it difficult for them to acquire passports. According to the passport administration, to obtain a passport, Iraqi women must have a male guardian present during the application process. However, many women in the country lost their husbands, fathers and brothers in the current and previous wars.

'They should make this easier for us,' complained one woman wearing a black headscarf. 'We Iraqi women are tired. This is a chance for us to see other countries, see the world, see other people. For how many years have we been imprisoned?'

Although many difficulties lie ahead for Iraqi women, their future looks bright. These elections, regardless of their flaws, were a positive step towards ensuring the participation of women at the highest levels of society. Yet, if the past is any indication of the future, Iraqi women could be sidelined as various factions in Iraq vie for power.

Democracy will not be easy to establish quickly let alone a substantial, positive place for women in Iraq. We cannot discount the countless years of oppression and the thirst for social, political, and economic change in Iraq. All citizens will have to compromise at some level, though this does not imply tolerance for the ways of old, recognizing that at times, a people must take small steps before leaps and bounds are made.

For the future of the country and the future of baby Elections, let us hope that women in Iraq are given a chance to break out of the prison that has held them hostage for so long.

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