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If you were to stroll through the streets of Iraq ahead of this week’s parliamentary elections, you may be encouraged by the number of female faces on political posters; an indication that women are feeling motivated to have their voices heard on important issues, and have a hand in shaping the future of their country. As Iraqis get set to cast their votes to choose their next Prime Minister and President on May 12, much attention has been paid to the increased number of female candidates vying for one of the 329 seats in parliament. However, female candidates have been subjected to harassment, defamation of character, and intimidation to dissuade them from continuing their political campaigns.
One of only a handful of democracies in the Arab world, Iraq’s constitution contains a quota that guarantees female participation in parliament, which sees one quarter of seats earmarked for women. Almost 2,600 female candidates are vying for a position this election, a figure which represents roughly 36 percent of the 7,100 total candidates. The number of registered candidates has increased considerably across the board each election cycle since the American-led international coalition overthrew former President Saddam Hussein in 2003. Improved security conditions have allowed for social issues, such as women’s rights, to finally be addressed. Yet, despite best efforts, women’s issues have continued to worsen since 2003, according to the UNDP.
Many female candidates’ political posters have been vandalized, while provocative photos and videos have circulated online, causing candidates to withdraw from the race. It appears that these are tactics employed by individuals who feel disgruntled by the notion of female law-makers, in an attempt to discredit their bids to hold a position of power.
At first glance, this may appear to be an attempt to stifle progress towards the advancement of women’s rights in Iraq. However, some have speculated that this harassment is an indication that these women are perceived to be a genuine threat to the status quo. “Those behind defamation, cyber bullying and harassment are trying to scare you off, afraid of educated, dynamic, qualified, courageous and open-minded women candidates that rightfully claim their space and meaningful role in political life of Iraq,” said Jan Kubis, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Iraq. Others claim that some female candidates have been used instrumentally to defraud voters, with major parties pushing attractive female candidates who lack political acumen in an attempt to distract the public from claims of corruption in the big blocs.
Women account for 57 percent of the total Iraqi population. In a country that has experienced a long history of conflict, the population ratio has become skewed, as many men have lost their lives during war. One in every 10 households are headed by a widow, a fact that demonstrates the importance of having women’s representation in parliament, as they are often the heads of their households and should have a voice in policy making. This election could be a turning point for the advancement of women’s rights in Iraq; the harassment that female candidates have experienced is just one of the many hurdles these women have had to overcome in their fight against institutionalized marginalization. However, it is hoped that their strength and resilience will continue to inspire a new generation of women to be politically active.