UN Special Representative in Iraq Ján Kubiš has complained of a lack of female representation in the new Iraqi government following a session of the parliament on 25 October in which 14 ministers were sworn into the new cabinet.
In a statement, Kubiš welcomed the partial formation of Iraq’s new cabinet by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi but voiced deep concern at the lack of female representation among the ministers announced so far.
Kubiš noted that “there are excellent, well-qualified and experienced females active in the political life [of Iraq], and ignoring their potential is to miss important opportunities.”
Abdul-Mahdi suggested two women for the justice and education portfolios, but both were rejected along with six other nominees by the lawmakers who asked the prime minister for replacements.
Abdul-Mahdi was supposed to have considered reopening a ministry of women that had been closed by his predecessor, but so far he has made no mention of his plans.
Under the electoral law enacted after the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi women were given a quota of 25 per cent in the national parliament and other elected local councils.
In the five national elections that have taken place since then so far, few female candidates have gained the votes necessary to win their seats, and most of them have filled their seats thanks to the women’s quota allocated to their lists according to the proportional representation voting system.
Some 2,600 women candidates ran for the 83 seats reserved for women in the 12 May elections.
The number of candidates provoked a backlash from anti-feminist elements or doubters, a largely hidden but common trend challenging gender equality.
During the election campaign, posters of female candidates were defaced and photographs allegedly of candidates wearing revealing clothing were spread online.
That vandalism was apparently the work of conservative elements in the male-dominated society. It underlined the fact that women’s contribution and participation in the parliament has not been duly acknowledged.
While sitting in the legislature could in theory give women an important role, the question is whether Iraqi women have been able to make their voices heard and have a share in crucial decision-making.
Records have shown that a higher percentage of females in Iraq’s parliament has only provided women with symbolic participation, and the lack of women in decision-making positions percolates up to the top.
As parliamentary records since 2006 show, most women members have had little effect on legislation, largely siding with their parties and blocs during debates and decision-making.
“Women are often taken advantage of and are kept in the background. If you are outstanding and hardworking [but] do not belong to the royal families of Iraq (of which we have so many), then they will create a sexual scenario to ruin your reputation,” Hezha Khan, a Kurdish activist, told the Kurdistan-based Rudaw news outlet.
Many activists have even demanded that the quota system be abolished, arguing that quantity should not come at the expense of quality and blaming the system for bringing unqualified women into politics.
Meanwhile, those Iraqi women who are in politics are exposed to abuse by politicians or political groups. A recent case in point was that of former MP Shatha Al-Abbousi who faces charges of embezzlement and forgery in regard to the May elections.
According to audio recordings leaked to a local newspaper, Al-Abbousi was brokering between candidates and senior members of the Independent Elections Committee to buy seats in the current parliament.
The tapes reveal dubious connections with militia leaders and underhand business, but they also reveal the vulnerability of women in Iraqi politics and how they are used by politicians of influence.
But while the lack of women’s representation and leadership roles underscores the empowerment deficiency, Iraqi women face a range of other challenges such as growing anti-feminism in the country and even high-profile killing.
The latest woman to be killed was Tara Faris, a fashion model and social media star whose carefully crafted lifestyle and fashion photographs drew more than 2.7 million followers on Instagram.
Faris, a former beauty queen who was voted one of Iraq’s most-followed social media stars, was shot three times in September while at the wheel of her white convertible in an upscale Baghdad neighbourhood.
A week earlier, a women’s rights activist, Suad Al-Ali, was killed in Basra, gunned down on the way to her car. Meanwhile, two beauticians, Rasha Al-Hassan and Rafif Al-Yasiri, died in mysterious circumstances in Baghdad one week apart in August.
Former Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi acknowledged that that the deaths were not random events and pledged to hunt down the attackers.
The killings have triggered fears of an organised witch-hunt targeting outspoken women or females resisting the traditions of a conservative society and aiming at silencing them.
Shimaa Qassem, a former Miss Iraq, said she had received death threats days after another Iraqi model was shot dead.
Another model, Jihan Hashim, voiced similar fears for her life, saying she was planning to leave Kurdistan for a safe haven abroad.
However, the status of the Iraqi women who comprise 57 per cent of the total population has declined steadily since 2003. Iraqi women have suffered economic and social difficulties due to conflicts, violence and economic hardships.
In addition, religious, political and economic conflicts have taken their toll on Iraqi women, including in the form of physical abuse, domestic violence and honour killings.
Early marriage is another serious issue that Iraqi women face, as the country’s post-Saddam rulers have started flouting an existing law that forbids child marriage.
The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF has estimated that approximately one in five girls in Iraq are married before the age of 18. While poverty and conflict could be behind the phenomenon, newly rising conservatism is believed to be the main driver of child marriage in Iraq.
Members of the ruling Shia parties have tried several times over recent years to change the law in order to allow marriage for girls as young as nine, which they claim would be in line with Islamic Sharia law.
The measure was blocked after opposition by national NGOs and international human rights groups. Yet, it is widely expected that Shia religious politicians will try to reintroduce the bill to the new parliament.
Fifteen years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the protracted political conflicts and the failure to rebuild the country have had devastating consequences for Iraqi women and girls.
The façade of women’s empowerment and participation in politics cannot hide the reality that women continue to face ongoing hardships and discrimination in conflict-ridden Iraq.
From imposing veiling and abusing females for wearing makeup by the Islamist groups in power to segregation in the public sphere, Iraqi women are being seriously discriminated against in almost every major area.
As a result, women’s empowerment in Iraq is a myth not only because they are still underrepresented at the decision-making table, but also because across professional fields and in real life they are still not free from social, economic and political pressures or constraints.
The post-Saddam political system dominated by Islamist Shia groups is particularly accountable for the regression of the status of Iraqi women, regardless of the country’s circumstances.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Reality or myth of female empowerment?