Iraqi women face uphill struggle in election campaign
"There are no photos of women on posters or in leaflets, the men have forbidden it. They have the power," complained Jumana Mal Allah, a candidate for Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress in the Shiite holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad.
In other areas, posters with photos of women have been pulled down, prompting one candidate on the Iraqi Teachers' List in the province of Diwaniyah, Hanaa Kazem, to complain to the electoral commission.
"This type of misfortune has happened to several candidates," said children's doctor Maha al-Bedairi, a Communist candidate in Diwaniyah.
Some women opted not even to try to have their pictures used in election material.
"Samarra is a very conservative town, and to avoid gossip I did not include my photo," admitted Ban al-Samarrai, a 37-year-old teacher standing for the secular Iraqi National List.
With UN help, Iraq is holding the elections in 14 of its 18 provinces – the first vote in the country since 2005. Some 15 million Iraqis are eligible to elect officials for 440 seats.
To increase the proportion of women in politics, the electoral law states that at least 25 per cent of each party list must be female. Of the 14,431 candidates, 3,912 or 27.12 per cent are women, the electoral commission says.
"Twenty-five percent is not representative of the female population. Society still discourages women from getting involved, regarding them as weak," said Batul Nayef, a Baghdad candidate for the Sunni "Children of Mesopotamia" list.
There is also the problem of intimidation by extremists, said Suha Jarallah, who has received death threats because of her role as head of campaign group the Forum of Iraqi Women.
According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, violence against women remains a serious problem in Iraq, where particular targets include female politicians, civil servants, journalists and women's rights campaigners.
Wahida al-Jumaili, a candidate for a Sunni list, is only too aware of the problem.
"One day in 2006 I was returning home in my car when Al-Qaeda shot at me but missed. As I believe in what I do, I continued politics in secret," the businesswoman said.
Her worried family has urged her to quit politics, but she said she is "resisting." In this campaign, Jumaili has not been threatened "so far."
Haifa Al-Samarrai, a candidate in Samarra, said that since she began campaigning, "I fear an assassination attempt or a kidnapping."
On December 18, Nahla Hussein, head of the women's section of the Kurdish Communist Party, was found decapitated in her home in Kirkuk.
According to Bayda Abed, a Communist candidate in Nasiriyah, "the entry of women into politics is a challenge to those seeking to oppress them."
Campaigner Jarallah has no time for Iraqi women who "give up their rights because of tradition, habit, education or a lack of character."
And Jumaili recalled nostalgically: "Before the 2003 invasion, women and men were more equal, women could more easily choose their job, travel... Today there are many obstacles because of religious parties."
Women are expected to take a fair number of the 440 seats, but their final tally may be below 25 per cent. Results are expected on February 3.
If a party wins one or two seats on a provincial council, nothing stipulates that a woman has to be appointed. But if a party wins three seats it has to include a woman among its three nominees.
Any list that wins more than three seats must allocate a third of them to women, but can also round this proportion downwards.
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