“Life would get better.” Women throughout Iraq told themselves that constantly during the first, cautiously hopeful months of the US-British occupation of their country.

As the electricity blinked on and off, the water stopped running and desert-camouflaged tanks churned up the narrow streets of the ancient capital, women consoled themselves with the thought that these troubles could only be temporary. Especially for women, the Iraqi future was bright.

In 2006, as the occupation wears on into its third year, most would agree that reality has not been so kind. The problem is not only the occupation, not only the al-Qaeda militants streaming into Iraq across the porous border to commit acts of terrorism, and not only the “rejectionists” who send their message of opposition to the new Iraqi government with violence. Much attention has been paid to change at the level of formal politics — for instance, the clause in Iraq’s new constitution requiring 25 percent of the National Assembly to be female. But women in Baghdad have more quotidian concerns: they worry about venturing outside their homes without a headscarf and black cloak, they fear to appear pushy in public and they hesitate even to wear colorful lipstick. In the spring came reports of women being fired from jobs simply for showing their hair. Most women’s lives have indeed changed, as Iraq has been transformed from a largely secular state living under a dictator to a sectarian state living under fear, but most women feel that change has not been for the better.

A prominent exception is Adiba Musa, 35, a member of Parliament elected on the slate of the religious conservative and populist movement of Shi‘i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. As she holds a “national” seat, her constituents are the millions of poor Shi‘a in Baghdad and southern Iraq. “Personally, I don’t see pressures upon women here,” she said, her face peeking out from her long, black, flowing abaya. “The rights won by Iraqi women have been pretty good, considering the unstable, crazy situation.”

Musa is one of 75 women in Parliament, and, as such, one of the most powerful women in the country. Her tenure began under the transitional government that took office in January 2005. She claims that her words matter and will continue to matter as she takes her seat in the four-year parliament elected in December. But her voice was rarely heard in transitional assembly meetings, drowned out by the chorus of male decision makers.

No women head political blocs in the present parliament, and no women were present at the backroom meetings in the spring of 2006 where members furiously negotiated for top cabinet positions. Men ultimately decided who would lead the country.

Yet Musa countered that Iraqi women’s rights compare favorably to those in conservative Islamic countries in the region, and favorably even to liberal democratic nations. “We have equality in the workplace, and women are guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in Parliament,” she said, pointing to the lack of gender quotas in most Western countries. She praised the United Iraqi Alliance, the powerful coalition of Shi‘i slates that includes the Sadrists, for seeing the advantage in that quota, and helping to prepare her and others for office in a very short time period. “The Islamists have had a positive effect on women’s rights so far,” she said.

Safiyya al-Suhayl, 40, is not so impressed. One of 25 parliamentary deputies from the secular Iraqi National List led by former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, she has watched closely as women’s rights legislation and initiatives have been built. In the assembly’s first session on May 4, 2006, after three months of closed-door negotiations to form a government, she asked the speaker of Parliament why he made no mention of women in his acceptance speech and why no women sat in the front rows of the house. The speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Islamist, dismissed her, saying that heads of political blocs sit in the front, and no women headed the blocs.

“Even the Iraqi Women’s Affairs Ministry is only a civic organization, dressed up to look like a government agency,” al-Suhayl said. “It’s supposed to address the needs of 60 percent of the population, but there is not even a budget. The new government didn’t want to think about women’s issues.” Al-Suhayl said that women have found some success in the new government, but only after pushing repeatedly. Even then, as with the State Ministry for Women’s Affairs, the success is hollow. “We have managed to get women to be ministers and general directors [in ministries],” she noted. “But we have not managed to get women in roles where they have real power, where they will be taken seriously, and where they will be considered equal to men.”

Looking at the perilous security situation, and the lack of interest in issues beyond security, she wonders if it is too late. “We should have pushed for a stronger women’s representation in the parties,” she said. “There should have been conditions. There aren’t.”

Barqa Mahdi al-Juburi, 46, the deputy minister of electricity, is among the dwindling number of women still in powerful positions in the ministries. She recalled that in the days of the Iraqi Governing Council, selected by the Coalition Provisional Authority in July 2003, there were seven female ministers and deputy ministers. Now, with a popularly elected government, there are only three. Al-Juburi sums up what many are feeling when she states: “The problem is that our society cannot accept the idea of having women in places of authority. Sometimes I think the government is on one side, and the people on the other. They simply don’t understand each other.”

Thirty-seven year-old Sundus ‘Abbas Hasan, director of the Women’s Leadership Institute, noted that women practically ran Iraq for 23 years between 1980 and 2003, while the men in charge were consumed with fighting wars. Women, unofficially, supervised schools, banks, hospitals and factories, though formally they were not allowed to occupy decision-making positions. “On one hand, they needed women to reconstruct the country, but on the other they wanted to exclude women from decision making,” she said. “It was an insult, but the traditional male mind cannot endure seeing women in high posts, making the decisions.”

“It never occurred to me that under the banner of democracy I would face problems about the role of women in society,” Hasan exclaimed. A new crop of leaders was rising — or, more accurately, returning to Iraq from exile, many from the more open West. “I thought the first thing they would do is think of the natural rights of women in society, to keep society from collapsing,” she continued. “But we noticed a deliberate absence of women in the decision-maker posts.” Parliamentarians and judges are fond of quoting the Qur’an, but few quote its provisions related to the rights of women, she said. “There is no worry about Islam itself, but there is concern about the future period of Islamists. I’ve already been told women are not suited to politics, that they should devote themselves to other things. And this came from a politician. We need some very strong female symbols.”

Asked about gender relations in post-Saddam Iraq, Hasan laughed. The constitution, indeed, might usher in a set of “beautifully” written laws. “There is no doubt that we have in place the laws to guarantee equality between men and women,” Hasan declared. Old Iraqi law contained such articles as one that made it impossible for the children of an Iraqi woman to become citizens if she was married to a foreigner. Now that law is gone. “But there is no application of the law on the ground. People ignore our constitutional protections, and there is no recourse.” Hasan praised those sections of the old family law that protected women in the event of divorce.

Azhar al-Shaykhli, 48, the state minister for women’s affairs, is one of the highest-ranking women in Iraq. Before the war, she was a professor in the International Studies Center at Baghdad University. Now, when she talks about the role of women in society, she talks of “the many chains that cast dark shadows on women’s freedoms.” Some of the obstacles that women face are identical to those facing men, she notes — chiefly, pervasive insecurity. “The terrorist attacks do not differentiate between male and female victims,” she said. “Can women safely leave their homes to teach school or to work in politics even in these conditions? No, no one is safe.”

Largely because of that threat, everyone is facing the same economic pressures. Government services — sewers, electricity, traffic control — deteriorate further every day. And women are restricted to smaller and smaller worlds. “Women only have time and ability to be concerned with how to provide the necessities of life for their families,” al-Shaykhli said.

Security concerns are also why Dunya Jalil Kati‘, a 32 year-old lawyer, no longer dreams of an idyllic future. “There was freedom during the years before the occupation,” she said. “It was not absolute freedom, but there was space.” Under the old regime, she was not allowed to go to certain government offices to file her clients’ paperwork, for instance. But the limitations of those times are nothing compared to what she deals with now.

Because she is a woman and a mother, she receives constant threats of violence against herself or her children from opposing attorneys’ clients, who believe that she will be easily frightened. Because of the regular gunfire and frequent bombings around the city, often directed at government buildings, “I can’t even go to a courthouse, or a police station, safely. Today, I’m limited to corporate registrations.”

If her freedom as an attorney is constrained, her personal freedom as a woman is gone. “People talk about the veil, how we must wear the veil for safety,” she said. “But I don’t see that it makes any difference. The government makes promises they will not keep. Security has gone from bad to worse.”

Since the invasion, al-Shaykhli said, women themselves heralded the necessity of veiling. “It’s as if they’re saying that without a veil, a woman has no dignity.” But ultimately it is still a personal choice, she said.

Iman al-Musawi, 44, is not so sure. An activist with the Humanitarian Organization Union, a non-profit that caters to widows and children, she also heads up public relations for the Iraqi Commission for Civil Society, a non-governmental organization that oversees 700 active non-profits. She wonders whether any of the women’s advancements will last, whether the 25 percent of parliamentary seats to be occupied by women are just meaningless tokens. “What have these women [in Parliament] done to benefit women? I don’t see anything,” she said. “We’re already beginning to step back. We’re beginning to suffocate.”

From the first moments after the invasion, the talk was of the freedoms that would be established, al-Musawi said. “It was only talk. These freedoms do not exist,” she said. “I fear the talk if I go out onto the street without a scarf.” She does not cover her hair all the time, but since the invasion she wears a nondescript black scarf over her blonde tresses when she walks in certain parts of Baghdad. Her fair hair and green eyes draw too much attention from passing men.

At first she threw the scarf haphazardly around her head, hair still peeking out of the front. Now she winds it tightly around her head and tucks in every stray strand. She does not want a repeat of what happened to her sister. When her sister appeared in court, the judge looked at her and told her to go home, put on a veil and take off the dark brown shade of lipstick. “Are these the foundations of a nation that will honor women’s rights?”

How to cite this article:

Huda Ahmed "Women in the Shadows of Democracy," Middle East Report 239 (Summer 2006).

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