Challenges and hopes: The women standing for Iraq

Challenges and hopes: The women standing for Iraq
In-depth: Nearly a third of the 7,000 candidates in Iraq's elections are women - but many have had campaign posters torn down and faced threats and abuse, writes Marta Bellingreri.
6 min read
11 May, 2018
Electoral posters in the streets of Mosul [Alessio Mamo]
"I will not tell you my name, so you can't think that I came here to collect votes," Leyla Saleh tells residents of Madina al-Qadima in the Mosul's labyrinthine Old City district.

As a candidate for the al-Nahej Democratic Party, a new and independent party born to run in the May 12 Iraqi parliamentary elections, Leyla Saleh regularly visits the Old City, severely damaged in the nine-month battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group.

Those meeting Saleh in their destroyed homes are among the few who have returned to their original neighbourhood, while the large majority is still displaced - either in the east of the city, in camps elsewhere in the country or even abroad. But Saleh has a great passion for the Madina.

"I graduated in archaeology and protection of antiquities at Baghdad University in 1999, and one of my priorities in this electoral campaign is to talk about the reconstruction of Mosul," she said. Her master's thesis a few years later focused on the ancient Jewish-built houses of the Old City and she is currently searching for funding to rebuild them.

One of the 215 female candidates running for the eight seats in the parliament from the Nineveh province, Saleh faces a variety of challenges.

"As a woman belonging to a big tribe, it was not easy at all to take this decision," she told The New Arab.

"My tribe, the Sabawi, is based in 15 villages in southeast Mosul, near the town of Qayyara. First, they do not accept women running for elections as they prefer men to represent the community. Second, they are villagers who claim to be in opposition to the people living in the cities. This opposition increased after [the Islamic State group]. They see me as a villager and so they do not support my decision at all to run in Mosul's elections."

Saleh can only depend on the voters of the Somar neighbourhood, where she lives and works.

"My votes will mainly come from widows or divorced women who are alone and not influenced or forced by their husbands, fathers or elder brothers.

"There are still people here with the IS mentality: they reject the idea that women are equal to men."

Leyla Saleh, candidate for the independent al-Nahej al-Democratic Party in the Old City of Mosul [Alessio Mamo]

In the 2014 Iraqi elections, there were only 19 female candidates in Mosul. Today there are 215. The past four years of the Islamic State group's oppressive occupation, displacement and war have not discouraged Mosul's women from moving forward.

Read more: Iraq's election: A new future beyond sectarianism

But despite this progress, female candidates have not had an easy electoral campaign in the capital, Baghdad, or in many other cities. To the contrary, it has been described by many here as the harshest campaign since the 2003 parliamentary elections following the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Professor Intidhar Ahmed Jassim is competing for a parliamentary seat as part of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's "Victory Coalition". However, a "sex tape" was published, supposedly showing the candidate, which led Intidhar to withdraw her candidacy to "preserve her reputation". 

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Another candidate, Hala Qassim al-Yasseri, from the "Civilised Alliance" led by Faiq al-Sheikh Ali, had a video of her dancing at a private party with her husband shared on social media. This did not, however, stop Hala from pursuing her campaign. 

Online harassment and threats made against women candidates led the UN to condemn "defamation and violence" in the election.

Blonde-haired Iman al-Marsomi is one of the candidates facing online harassment. She stands calm and proud, while Iraqi social media platforms show no mercy towards her, for being a Muslim woman not wearing a hijab. 

Read also: Invasion, occupation and Islamic State: How four Iraqi women's lives have changed in 15 years

The daughter of a Kurdish mother and a Sunni father from Baghdad, Marsomi's campaign office sits in the middle of a large Sunni area, al-Azamiyya. She is a candidate with al-Majd, another new independent party.

Marsomi speaks of her concern over sectarian issues. "Iraq is not one, I hope there will be again unification in the future, since both Sunnis and Shia are rejecting this government," she said. Sunnis have been treated as second-class citizens, she said, especially after three years of Islamic State group violence.

"It all started with the US invasion in 2003; Americans did not love nor understand our country, they just created chaos."

At the al-Mansoor Hotel in Baghdad, another candidate, Ala Talabani, is meeting supporters and citizens. She shares Marsomi's concerns: "In Iraq, still we have Sunnis voting for Sunnis, Shias for Shias and Kurds for Kurds. This will only change when the Sunnis will vote for Shias and vice versa."

In Iraq, still we have Sunnis voting for Sunnis, Shias for Shias and Kurds for Kurds. This will only change when the Sunnis will vote for Shias and vice versa

"But the change will come," added Talabani, the niece of the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani.

"Whatever coalition will win, it will only and truly win if it believes in one people and in the state of law," she said. "The common enemy is corruption. It will take time and maybe if we start now, we will see it end next generation."

Falluja TV's programme Sijal Intikhabi, ["Electoral Debate"] invited three women candidates on air with TV presenter Zaid al-Azomi - who, like many journalists, is also running for a seat in parliament.

The New Arab visited the programme, in which guests are encouraged to stop the recording and start again if something goes wrong.

Widian Ismaili, not used to speaking on TV, does exactly this when asked about her education. To encourage her to restart, the presenter tells her what to say - encountering protests from the other two guests: "Are you telling her what her elections' programme is?"  

Women in Iraqi public debates often suffer from mansplaining - even when not intentionally performed by their male counterparts. Intentions good or bad can sometimes be misunderstood.

Female candidates have also had their posters slashed, removed or disfaced on the streets of all Iraqi cities, especially in Baghdad. 

Nineteen lists across seven provinces are led by women and around 29 percent of the 7,000 candidates running in elections are female.

Political parties must field female candidates to make up this percentage as Iraq's laws say that 25 percent of MPs must be women. But in the 2014 election, 22 female MPs won their seats by themselves, without help from the quota system.

Saleh remains in her beloved Madina in Mosul.

"There are too many challenges, but as we have always done, we will continue our work," she says. "Parliament or not, we have a lot to do."

Marta Bellingreri is a freelance researcher and writer, with a PhD focused on gender studies in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @MartaDafne