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Harassment in parliament and violence beyond: The struggles of Iraq’s female parliamentarians

Harassment in parliament and violence beyond: The struggles of Iraq’s female parliamentarians

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Shaima*, 44, from Najaf province, was woken up at her marital home by her father calling, “Wake up and get ready, we are going to the diwan today.”

Shaima tells Raseef22, “Doubts began to fill my mind, as the diwan is typically reserved for tribe leaders’ and is off-limits to women, with the exception of the cleaning staff.”

My father's photo instead of mine

Shaima works as a school principal. For her safety, she declined to share when her appointment to parliament began. She explains, “The political bloc to which my father, brother, and husband belong needed to nominate a female candidate, and they chose me. I sat in the diwan while my ‘guardians’ spoke with my cousins and local people on my behalf. They made vows and divided the votes between me and the other candidates from the bloc.”

She adds, “They used my father's picture for campaign materials instead of mine, and voters were told, ‘Vote for your candidate, the daughter of Hajj so-and-so, sister of so-and-so and so-and-so, and wife of so-and-so'.

Shaima's situation as a parliamentarian was not dissimilar from her experience running the school at which she works. “If my guardians asked me to pass a student who doesn't deserve it, can I object? It would be illogical for me to refuse because we were raised to obey orders.”

Shaima was woken up at her marital home by her father calling, “Wake up and get ready, we are going to the diwan today.” There, she discovered that the political bloc to which her father, brother, and husband belong needed to nominate a female parliamentary candidate, and that she had been chosen

The office handling citizen affairs was managed by Shaima’s husband with the help of her brothers. They decided who within the community to help and who not to, while she was confined to attending women's social councils or events held by her father or father-in-law. According to her, “My monthly salary was divided between the party, my father, and lastly, me.”

“I am not satisfied with my service during my four-years in parliament. My name was not known in the streets, but us women objecting to our families' demands would lead to the end of our careers, violence, or even death,” Shaima admits.

Husbands accompany their wives to parliament

Raseef22 spoke with another former female parliament member, Rezan Sheikh Dler, who shared “During my tenure in parliament, I saw husbands accompanying their wives to the parliament, to the television channels, and to conferences, while the wives waited for a green light from their husbands before sharing their opinions. Their decisions were based on their husbands' approval.”

She adds, “Female parliamentarians reach the parliament dome through their political parties, so controlling them is highly probable. Generally, most female parliamentarians are not active, and during important decision-making, regardless of whether they are absent or present, their party signs decisions on their behalf.”

According to Dler, the number of active female parliamentarians who have been vocal about women's rights over the past twenty years can be counted on one hand. Vocal women face smear campaigns, are subjected to fear and discomfort, while silent female parliamentarians are considered assets to their political parties.

Female parliamentarians do not represent Iraqi women

Activists and women's rights advocates argue that female parliamentarians do not represent Iraqi women, who according to the famous Iraqi saying, are “worth a thousand men” due to their strength and endurance. Despite the odds and the violence, Iraqi women have managed to elevate their status and make significant strides. Mona Saeed, a leading Iraqi cultural writer, refers to quota parliamentarians as mullahs.

She points out that many female parliamentarians in the council represent the interests of political parties rather than the interests of Iraqi women. They contribute to passing laws that restrict and weaken women's roles, such as the proposal to amend Article 57 of the Personal Status Law, which strips mothers of child custody after divorce.

Active female parliamentarians who have been vocal about women's rights face smear campaigns and are subjected to fear and discomfort. Generally, female parliamentarians are also subjected to harassment and blackmail within the parliamentary dome.

Saeed notes that for the most part, female parliamentarians refrain from engaging with local women, which prevents them from understanding the issues they face. A number of female parliamentarians, mostly from Kurdistan, do however engage with local Iraqi women.

Saeed recently attended a conference organized by the Iraqi Women's League (IWL) in Sulaymaniyah. She recounts, “We discussed the main challenges faced by female parliamentarians. Three women parliamentarians from previous terms explained the reasons for the failure of their programs aimed at improving the status of women, empowering them economically, and alleviating the injustices faced by women through the enactment of protective laws such as the Domestic Violence Law. Such developmental programs for women were hindered by the lack of approval of female parliamentarians affiliated with Islamist parties and their refusal to vote, with many giving a response in the Iraqi dialect: 'We're behind our breadwinner'."

She further describes their involvement in the political process as haphazard, highlighting their lack of knowledge in law and politics. She also observed their lack of concern for their outward appearance compared to parliamentarians from neighboring countries, who contract with fashion companies to ensure a suitable appearance befitting their status, whether veiled or unveiled.

The family's control over the female parliamentarian's vote

Riyam*, 40, from Mosul, recalls, “After ISIS left Mosul, I participated in training and development courses, thinking that my family's attitude towards me had changed after they allowed me to engage in political work.”

She breaks down into tears, while revealing her body covered in bruises from the violence her brothers have inflicted on her. “After being nominated for parliament as an independent candidate, I gained considerable popularity. This was no small feat. I grabbed hold of the opportunity and clung to it. I promised voters that I would be their best representative and make their voices heard.”

She adds, “After my popularity became evident, the ambitions of the party to which my brothers belonged surfaced. Suddenly, I found myself forced to join them due to the severity of the abuse and violence. I knew that continuing to refuse meant death, as my brothers were flaunting their weapons all the time during that period.”

“During my tenure in parliament, I saw husbands accompanying their wives to the parliament, to the television channels, and to conferences, while the wives waited for a green light from their husbands before sharing their opinions.”

Riyam ran for parliament as a candidate for what she describes as the "corrupt party," but after winning, they forced her to resign in order for another female candidate to take her parliamentary seat. According to Riyam, the candidate who replaced her did not have any understanding of politics.

She concludes, “Religious political parties insist on keeping women oppressed and silenced so that we do not pull the rug from under their feet and undermine their power.” When asked why she did not file complaints with the security center regarding the violence, she explained, “All our cases end up with a pledge on a paper to not harm or abuse us, which does not protect us. Despite getting this pledge, dozens of women have died, and their cases are recorded as honor killings.”

Seizing women's quotas in parliament

A quota system is used to allocate 25% of parliament seats for women. Bushra Al-Obaidi, a law professor, considers the quota “a serious breach of the equality principle enshrined in the Iraqi constitution.” According to her, there has been manipulation of women's quotas in every electoral cycle. The law stipulates that the candidates with the highest votes in the electoral district win, regardless of gender. However, the highest votes for women are counted within the quota seats, even though women who receive the highest votes should not be counted as part of the quota.

According to a study by the British LSE center for studies, “the scope of women's rights advocacy has declined due to female candidates being tied to political and party agendas,” despite the increase in women's quota seats in the 2021 elections by 14% above the guaranteed 25%, winning 95 seats.

Hawkar Jetto, general coordinator of the Shams Network for Election Monitoring, tells Raseef22, “We urgently need to empower Iraqi women economically, so that they are prepared to make decisions without reverting to a mandatory guardian.” He acknowledges that female parliamentarians face pressure from their families and political blocs. Through his role at Shams Network, Jetto communicates with Iraq’s female parliamentarians regularly, and has observed instances where they avoid attending sessions, citing travel or illness, to avoid being forced into making unwanted decisions.

He continues, “The authority over women in decision-making positions has reached the point where the Kut Provincial Council in Wasit proposed a law allowing female parliamentarians to appoint a male relative to accompany them in sessions, under the pretext of protection. This is a hidden message that a woman cannot protect herself in our society, so how can she make decisions?”

He believes that Iraqi society desperately needs the presence of women in political life, and once quantity is achieved, then they can then focus on quality. Jetto condemns the negative impact that defamation campaigns and bullying have had on female parliamentarians, from the beginning of their political involvement. Fake pornographic videos of female candidates are circulated on social media during elections, which has led many to withdraw and others to reconsider running despite having the qualifications.

Jetto confirms that the High Commission does not care whether candidates (regardless of whether male or female) have a political background or any relevant knowledge. According to election laws, candidates must be at least thirty years old and hold a high school or university degree. The Commission relies on political blocs to present their candidates along with their political programs.

Amira Al-Jaber, an activist and journalist working in civil society organizations aimed at developing women's capabilities to engage in the political process, advocates for specific criteria to be met by candidates. She says these criteria should be measured by years of experience in understanding citizens' issues, or the Commission should involve candidates in training courses before running for office, adding, "It is unreasonable for a candidate to enter parliament without knowing what to say or do." Mona Saeed accuses the Commission of colluding with political parties in corruption, forgery, and vote theft.

Psychological advisor Ikhlas Jebreen confirms that female parliamentarians face extremely difficult conditions, making them susceptible to serious psychological disorders. She confirms, “More than one female parliamentarian has consulted me, suffering after they were forced into making decisions by their families.”

She adds, “Some may suffer psychological crises because their reputations have been tarnished. Two years ago, a female candidate, who was divorced by her husband after she obeyed her father when he encouraged her to run for parliament, came to me. During the campaign, her picture was displayed across a busy area, and a group of young men violated her image, with one going as far as to perform a sexual act on the image, filming it then posting it on social media, which caused her severe psychological distress.”

According to Jebreen, one of the most common conflicts female parliamentarians face is the inability to balance the demands of their families and husbands, both of whom seek to exploit her position and control her decisions, often leading to many divorces after taking office.


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