Safia Taleb al-Souhail has ambitions to be Iraq’s first woman president one day. A month before a poll in which she hopes to win a parliamentary seat, the former exile is upbeat about women’s rights and democracy.
She says the only reason a new Iraqi constitution approved in a referendum last month did not do as much for women as she hoped was a lack of time to negotiate the details, and she is sure changes can be made in the new parliament.
“I believe our situation as women is going to be much better in the near future,” says Souhail, a leading anti-Saddam Hussein activist who was invited to U.S. President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech in February where she made headlines by hugging the mother of a U.S. marine killed in Iraq.
“I’m very serious,” says Souhail, 40, assessing her political chances. “I will run for election for Iraqi president. Of course not this time, but maybe next time.”
Bidour al-Yassri, who runs a women’s organization in the southern Shi’ite city of Samawa, has a very different outlook.
A center to train women as seamstresses that she helped set up with United Nations backing has been attacked with mortars, and her efforts to bring women into the police force under a British training program have angered some local men.
“The men were threatening me, they gathered in front of our office shouting that there are no jobs for men, let alone women,” Yassri said.
Under a quota system introduced before last January’s election for a transitional assembly, at least a quarter of the seats in Iraq’s parliament are reserved for women. But Yassri said politicians in Samawa paid only lip service to women’s interests at election time.
“We tried to encourage women to run for parliament but they refused because they know how the tribes see women — they consider women inferior,” Yassri said.
RELIGION IN THE CONSTITUTION
Despite the fact women ended up with 31 percent of seats after the January poll, a new post-Saddam constitution drafted by the interim parliament was a disappointment to some because it assigns a primary role to Islam as a source for legislation.
Women’s campaigners have denounced wording that grants each religious sect the right to run its own family courts — apparently doing away with previous civil codes — as an open door to give Islam further influence in the legal system.
“It was a mistake,” says Hanaa Edwar, a Christian who is secretary of the Iraqi Women’s Network. “Now it’s religious, and it’s not only religious, it’s also sectarian.”
She and others are pinning their hopes on amendments to the constitution, which will be the first item on the agenda of the new parliament in the first four months after the election.
“We have the chance, especially at the beginning, to re-discuss it, to push for some clarifying articles,” Souhail said. Family law is one area that needs to be standardized so that different religious sects cannot trump Iraqi national law in the area of marriage or inheritance, she said.
“What we’re asking for is not against our tradition or our religion or views in society, but maybe we needed more time to explain it,” Souhail said, playing down the strength of opposition. “I don’t know who’s going to resist it,” she said.
Ethnic and sectarian tensions have dominated the run-up to the December 15 parliamentary election, exacerbated by violence that has touched every community in Iraq, from Shi’ites to Sunni Arabs, Kurds to Turkmens and other minority groups.
At the last election in January, a Shi’ite Islamist bloc took the majority of seats after Sunni Arabs boycotted the vote, raising concerns among secular Iraqis about the influence of powerful Iranian-backed clerics and religious militias.
Zainab Fou’ad, 24, who is studying French at Baghdad University, said parliament had done nothing for women since then. “I believe women’s rights can’t be achieved under a religious government,” she said.
This time, Sunni Arabs are expected to vote in large numbers, offering the possibility of a more representative parliament.
More than 200 parties and coalitions have registered for the ballot, including secular parties and small local groups that have a better chance of winning seats under a new system of proportional representation for Iraq’s 18 provinces.
PUPPETS AND STRONG WOMEN
Every third name on each list must be a woman, a provision Edwar said put some religious parties in a difficult situation.
“Some of them are still saying ‘Why should we put a woman on the list?'” she said.
“The result of the (last) election brought very weak women into the national assembly,” she said. “They were women from the political parties who always said yes to the political parties.”
Edwar, whose organization runs a range of small-scale projects in health, education and women’s rights around the country, says in recent months she has become disillusioned.
She says Iraq should not turn its back on its long history of education among women dating back long before Saddam’s days.
“We need the parties to include strong women. We don’t need a puppet or a tool in your hands, to be used only for your own interest,” she said. “But they don’t like to have strong women.”
Souhail, the first woman on a list headed by secular Shi’ite former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, said the next parliament should be less dominated by big blocs, with more secular voices.
“People at the beginning were angry from Saddam Hussein’s time so everybody wanted to vote for their identity,” she said, explaining the attraction of the Shi’ite and Kurdish blocs. This time, she says, issues will be more important.
In the provinces, women like Souhail, who lived abroad for most of her life until Saddam was toppled, may face another kind of resistance.
Nisreen Youssif, a 41-year-old lawyer, is running for parliament in the southern city of Kerbala, another Shi’ite stronghold. “Many of the women in parliament have come from abroad,” she said. “They haven’t suffered and they don’t know the nature of women in Iraq.”
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Hiba Moussa in Baghdad, Sami al-Jumeili in Kerbala and Hamid Fadhil in Samawa)