The conflating reality Iraqi women's representation and rights

Compared to men, women in Iraq currently have lower rates of participation in the labor force 19% and higher rates of unemployment at 12% and illiteracy at 62%.

An Iraqi woman holds up her hand decorated with henna inside her beauty shop in Basra (photo credit: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS)
An Iraqi woman holds up her hand decorated with henna inside her beauty shop in Basra
(photo credit: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS)
 Iraqi constitution article 49, section 4 states: “The elections law shall aim to achieve a percentage of representation for women of not less than one-quarter of the members of the Council of Representatives.” Since 2005, the Iraqi constitution guaranteed women 25% of the seats in parliament based on the quota system. According to the World Bank, one in four members in the Iraqi parliament are women.
However, in the 2018 elections, as many as 1,983 women ran for elections and only 83 women won seats in parliament. Although the quota system was implemented to guarantee women’s participation in government, their participation has not translated into advancing women’s status in access to education, jobs and legal protection. Compared to men, women in Iraq currently have lower rates of participation in the labor force 19% and higher rates of unemployment at 12% and illiteracy at 62%. In the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index of 2018, Iraq is ranked No. 147 above Pakistan and Yemen in women’s to men’s rights in education, healthcare, economic participation and political empowerment.
Has female representation in Iraq improved the status of Iraqi women?
In the Iraqi government, the Department of Social Protection for Women was established in 2009 as a part of Iraq’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and is currently the only branch that focuses primarily on women’s affairs, since the Ministry of State for Women was abolished in 2014. Last June, Iraqi politician Hanan al-Fatlawi was appointed as an adviser for PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi to represent Iraqi women affairs in Iraq and abroad. Her appointment came as a surprise to most Iraqi males and females who questioned the qualifications that allowed her to obtain such a position in the Iraqi government. Iraqi females started a hashtag, “Hanan al-Fatlawi does not represent me,” on social media in a campaign to protest her position. Al-Fatlawi has 2.2 million followers on Facebook and 1.2 million on Twitter in addition to a support base among her counterparts.
Al-Fatlawi served as a parliament member since 2010 under Nouri al-Maliki and became affiliated with Islamic parties. During her time in parliament as a representative from Babil Governorate, al-Fatlawi became controversial for her sectarian rhetoric. She is still known for her phrase of retaliation politics saying: “those who kill seven Shi’a, I want seven Sunnis killed.” She was one of many Iraqi politicians accused of corruption and escalating tensions with the Kurdistan regional government. But for better or for worse, al-Fatlawi currently holds the highest position in government as an Iraqi female politician.
Al-Fatlawi created her political party, “Eradaa Movement,” in 2015 in the hopes of leveraging the next election. When it comes to advocating for women, al-Fatlawi has no memorable achievements outside leveling the playing field among political and religious agendas. In fact, In 2017 Hanan mocked protests against a bill to encourage polygamy by giving financial incentives to men as a solution for the increasing number of widows, divorced and unmarried women. Her aggressive behavior of inciting insults toward those who criticized her and, more recently, blocking them from her Twitter feed has become her trademark since she was elected in parliament.
However, in the 2018 election, she lost her membership in parliament after three candidates from her party won more votes. Eradaa Movement is alleged to be a part of the Alliance of Building and Reconstruction that is currently led by Hadi al-Amiri, who is also the head of the Badr Organization’s political party.
Women in Iraq post-2003: visibility in political participation
Since the 2003 war and the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s government, Iraqi women became visible in the political arena. However, women in Iraq are now less free than they were under the regime of Saddam Hussein. In their book, What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq, Nadje Sadig al-Ali and Nicola Pratt argue Iraqi women’s lives and rights have been exploited since 2003 for competing political agendas that have put them on the center stage (p. 81). Al-Ali says the perception of women’s role in rebuilding Iraq post-2003 by US officials, political actors within Iraq, and international agencies and NGOs professionals has resulted in the regression of women’s empowerment and the reconstruction of patriarchy.
In political representation, sectarian and ethnic divisions among political parties and the violent fragmentation of political authority in Iraq allowed women to become largely marginalized in political institutions and their rights eroded (p. 87). Some female observers, such as Iraqi-American influencer Zainab Salbi, highlighted the contradicting nature of Iraqi women’s reality with their visibility in political participation. Iraqi-born co-founder and president of the Iraq Foundation Rend al-Rahim says women’s influence in parliament continues to be challenged by a male-dominant culture in politics and society along with the lack of nurture and support for women’s leadership. Women’s participation in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has also been limited to some achievements. In 2018, women won 32% of seats in the Kurdish cabinet and last February, two females, Vala Fareed and Muna Kahveci, were elected as speaker and deputy in the Kurdistan Region Parliament.
Freedom and women’s rights
Women in Iraq continue to struggle for their rights in laws, especially in the Personal Status Law of 1959, has guaranteed rights in terms of marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody. Amendments added since have been based on religious interpretations by clerics and tribal leaders who discriminate against women. In 2014, the Ja’fari law was introduced by the Iraqi Council of Minister to legalize underage marriage for girls as young as nine years old under Shari’a law. Following the defeat of ISIS, the result of a long and brutal battle has had a great impact on increasing vulnerability of women and girls in different parts of Iraq. Al-Ja’fari law was reintroduced again in 2017 and parliament rejected it due to pressure from human rights advocates, who cited violations of human rights against women and children.
Recently, what has been seen as a manifestation of tribal misogyny against women, the condemnation of the appearance of unveiled females in a football stadium in Karbala by official political and religious authorities have given prominence toward excluding females from appearing in public spaces. Most of Iraq continues to be a discriminatory, dangerous and unstable environment for its non-conservative female population. In the autonomous Kurdistan region, women enjoy relative freedom compared to the rest of Iraq, but still struggle with overcoming traditional practices of female genital mutilation (FGM) and honor killings. Human rights advocates are now calling for protection of women in Iraq who have been victims of domestic violence, underage marriage and sex trafficking in cities. While security appears to have improved in some parts of Iraq, in 2018 four high-profile women in Baghdad and Basra, including model Tara Faris, were murdered.
In a big and complex country such as Iraq, women play an important role in ensuring the post-conflict stabilization. It has been 15 years since the quota system has been established and progress toward ensuring women’s rights has not manifested into tangible results on the ground. Women’s representation in government has predominantly operated as nothing more than a facade to cover up for the government’s deliberate neglect for improving the status of women and to maintain its ongoing corruption within its system.
Growing up in Iraq, I did not perceive al-Fatlawi and other women parliamentarians, such as Jamila al-Ebeidi putting the polygamy bill and ‘Aliyah Nassif for throwing a shoe at a male parliament member, or ‘Awatif Ni’ma for inciting sectarian violence as female role models. Rather, it was Vian Dakhil who cried out for the protection of her Yazidi community and Sarwa Abdel Wahid, who became the first female candidate running for the Iraq presidency, who take action and set an example of Iraqi women’s leadership. If Iraqi women are to feel empowered and legally protected, they must have strong female leadership that put women’s interests first. Yet, Iraq’s current female politicians represent the failure of the Iraqi government and demonstrate the flaws in its quota system.
For Iraq to embrace democratic values, they must emphasize appointing women in leadership positions based on their qualifications of maintaining standards of professionalism and activism in advocating for equality and rights to all Iraqi women. The problem with the current female leadership in Iraq is that their participation alone is viewed as an accomplishment whether or not they project a fair representation of Iraqi women or vote on laws for advancing women’s rights.
The writer, originally from Baghdad, has a master’s from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in contemporary Arab studies, and is a research assistant with the International Organization for Migration.