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Iraqi News Diverse Iraqi Women Seek Political Parity

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Quota Ensures 25% of Lawmakers are Women, But Days Before Election, Female Politicians are Far from United.

(AP) The minute Friday prayers are over, a crowd of women worshippers clothed in long black cloaks swarm around parliament member Maha al-Douri, peppering her with questions and requests. She is their access to power.

Under a U.S.-backed quota requiring that at least one quarter of Iraq's lawmakers be female, women have carved a foothold in the Iraqi political system. The country is holding its second parliamentary elections under the system on Sunday.

But women have found that sheer numbers in parliament do not always translate into more power for women - especially when they so rarely agree with one another. And, because many people write off female candidates as simply being part of the quota, it doesn't necessarily earn respect either.

"The quota was very important in the previous elections because we live in a male-dominated society and the quota was necessary to give women a chance to have a political role," al-Douri told The Associated Press at the offices of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the Shiite slum of Sadr City, where the prayers were held last week.

"But in the future this quota should be removed and women should compete equally with men, because women politicians have proven their competence and reliability in politics," said al-Douri, who is running for a second term on the slate of al-Sadr's party.

The quota was established under intense U.S. pressure to give women a greater voice in the political process - though critics questioned why Iraq was forced to go further than even the United States, where women make up only 17 percent of the House of Representatives and 15 percent of the Senate. It first applied in Iraq's 2005 parliament vote.

Still, changing attitudes takes far longer in Iraq, where deep differences remain over the role of women, especially in politics.

Maysoun al-Damlouji, a prominent Sunni lawmaker, said the quota should be extended to other branches of government such as the judiciary and the executive. Still, she acknowledged its drawbacks.

"Women have been brought to parliament who do not necessarily believe in women's rights or even the quota that brought them into it," she said. "Now, people have the impression that women were brought in to fill a vacant space, and that they were not very effective."

The women in parliament come from a wide variety of parties and ideologies - from Islamic fundamentalists to secular liberals - meaning there's hardly a consensus on a "women's agenda."

Al-Damlouji said an attempted caucus of female lawmakers largely failed because they could only agree on two broad issues: the need to educate women and stop violence against them.

"We disagreed on almost everything else," she said with a wry smile.

Under the system, every fourth candidate on each political bloc's election slate must be a women, and 25 percent of the 325-member legislature will be female. The same applies to provincial parliaments formed in elections last year. In parliaments in other Arab states, an average 10.9 percent of lawmakers are women - ranging from none in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to 27 percent in Tunisia, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which monitors parliaments and other government bodies.

Finding men who openly support women and their right to be in politics is a tough job in a country dominated by fierce tribal and religious politics.

One is Ala'a Makki, head of the education committee. Makki - who touts how he is equally proud of his six daughters as his two sons - describes himself as an Islamist but says he is fed up with the religious parties who dominated politics after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and used religion as an excuse to keep women from positions of power.

He pointed out that Islam's Prophet Mohammed "was taking advice and consulting with women around him, and the consultation was real consultation. I mean, he built decisions on that consultation," he said. "I'm not liberal. I'm Islamist. But I understand that women should have a real role."

Across Iraq, women candidates' posters compete for space with the men's. Some are conservative religious women like al-Douri, clothed from head to toe in black cloaks known as abayas, sometimes even with gloves to hide their hands, pictured staring solemnly or in a moment of action in parliament.

But there are just as many posters of women with their hair uncovered, sporting business suits and makeup. In the northern city of Kirkuk, police have reported traffic jams in an area where one particularly attractive candidate has posters hanging.

Female politicians have not been exempt from pre-election violence targeting candidates. Suha Jarallah, running on the secular list of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, was shot and killed in the northern city of Mosul by gunmen about three weeks ago.

Jenan Mubark, an independent running for the first time, says the political parties exploited the quota the first time around to pack the parliament with women they could control.

"They used the quota against women, not for women," she said. "These kinds of parties, they prefer that they have very weak woman, just to say yes."

If she wins a seat, Mubark said she plans to push legislation that will create employment opportunities for divorced, widowed and unmarried women - a particular problem in a country having gone through so much violence.

She'll also lobby against implementing an article in the Constitution that would allow religious leaders to make decisions in such areas as child custody, divorce and marriage - a source of discord between secular and religious female lawmakers and candidates.

An insult triggered one of the first incidents where women showed their political might. The former Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, known for insulting political figures across the board, made a quip in parliament about Iraqi women not being effective leaders because they're distracted by thoughts of their husbands getting another wife. The response from the Iraqi women was swift and unified: they boycotted the parliament session, robbing it of a quorum and effectively ending political work till they got their apology. It worked.

"We walked out and refused to go in, although he apologized later on. We demanded he leave the session, which he did. And that's when we walked in," said al-Damlouji. "And I think it taught him a small lesson."

Whether he learned a lesson or not, al-Mashhadani said Iraqi women are oppressed due to their low representation in the political party structure, but said in the future he expects women to take higher positions in political parties, like Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom.

"They have the talent, capability and ability ... and they can do much more in the parliament," he said.


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