Iraq's new government lacks female ministers

UN Special Representative Jan Kubis lamented the lack of women among the 14 ministers who have been appointed.

Veiled women in the northern province of Raqqa, Iraq (photo credit: REUTERS)
Veiled women in the northern province of Raqqa, Iraq
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The government of Iraq recently said on its Twitter account that it would be working with the Iraqi people to “strengthen access to justice for all, build equality, empower women,” and carry out other missions. Many noticed one problem with “empowering women” – the new cabinet has no women ministers.
The government appears to have almost no women anywhere near the center of power. UN Special Representative Jan Kubis lamented the lack of women among the 14 ministers who have been appointed.
Iraq’s lack of women is surprising, since the law in Iraq mandates that women must hold 25% of the seats in parliament. During the elections in May there were 2,600 women candidates running for the 83 seats that are reserved for women. Yet even though women competed in large numbers and there were large numbers of new female candidates, they don’t seem to have secured high positions in government.
For instance, compared to some European countries or the US, there is a higher percentage of women in Iraq’s parliament, but the lack of women in ministerial positions shows how that doesn’t percolate up to the top. The organization Our Secure Future, which supports women in leadership, argued in June that while quotas can make a difference to women in politics, “one of their most common criticisms is that they provide women with only token participation.”
When the new prime minister of Iraq Adel Abdul Mahdi held a cabinet meeting outside the Green Zone on October 25, a sign of increasing security in Baghdad, he was mocked on Twitter by one user for having a “new government without women.”
Oddly, Mahdi was supposed to have considered reopening a ministry of “Women” that had been closed. Rumors also said he was considering appointing four women to high positions. But they didn’t seem to make it on the final list. For the UN this appears to have been a constant concern going back months. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) had held meetings in September encouraging a more “robust” participation of women.
But the Iraqi parties have been busy jockeying over other issues. The appointment of the young speaker of parliament, Muhammad al-Halbusi from Anbar, seemed to show that a new era might be coming to Baghdad. Barham Salih was elected president in early October. A Kurdish politician who had left the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to form his own party, he was seen as a promising president, but his election was only secured after infighting among Kurdish parties and accusations between the parties that Iran’s shadowy hand was trying to manipulate the presidency.
This is a constant theme in Iraq. Iran’s role and the role of foreign powers is seen behind the different choices for high level positions. This is because Iran has played a key role in the lives of many of the Shi’ite militia leaders who have risen to prominence in the second-largest party, the Fatah Alliance.
In addition, some of the politicians such as Nouri al-Maliki are close to Iran’s leadership. To confront Iran, the US has also been active in discussing the new government, publicly and behind the scenes, with the anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk making several visits over the summer as parties fought for power. It was because of this that it took so long for Iraq to form a government after the May elections.
But in the battle for control, men won out most of all. The lack of women in the cabinet formed in late October has been called a “big shame” by analyst Hanar Marouf. “Lots of old, bald men,” wrote Ruwayda Mustafah, wondering where the women were. And many others have joined the chorus of disapproval. Will patriarchy never end, people ask on Twitter. But one woman also tweeted that even had one or two token women been included, it would not have eroded the patriarchy throughout society.
Now, attention moves to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s cabinet, which will also be formed soon. The Kurds run their own autonomous region in northern Iraq, which recently had elections. Deputy-Prime Minister Qubad Talabani urged more women to be included in the next cabinet. Some 30% of seats in the KRG’s parliament are reserved for women. But the regional capital of Erbil, like Baghdad, also lacks women at the highest levels. Layla Ali Abdulazziz, a candidate from one of the Islamic parties, characterized the lack of women at the highest levels as meaning women represent more a “decoration” in the parliament. At least for the now, the KRG can learn from Baghdad’s shortcomings and appoint a woman to the new cabinet.