- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

BAGHDAD — For the women of Iraq, Sunday’s election represents a landmark of sorts, with at least a quarter of the 275 seats in parliament reserved for women and campaign rules requiring one female candidate for every two men running for office.

One of those candidates, Zakia Khalifa al-Zaidi recalled the days of Saddam Hussein, when she would wrap herself in an all-covering black abaya as a shield against the watchful eyes of secret police as she went about the dangerous task of recruiting members into the country’s outlawed Communist Party.

Now, as a 72-year-old firebrand candidate for parliament, she finds herself again forced to dress in traditional religious attire, this time to protect herself from the scornful gaze of Islamic militants who prowl the streets as she campaigns for office.

“I’ve been threatened with death,” said Mrs. al-Zaidi, the top female candidate on her party’s list. “Some insurgents might find me somewhere. We don’t know where the bullets will come from. The women now are all scared.”

Women once were obliged to join Saddam’s Ba’ath Party if they wished to enter political or civic life. Today, they have the opportunity to participate in thousands of parties and organizations.

But Iraq’s ongoing violence and various cultural wars have complicated women’s prospects in the elections. Security concerns have made campaigning nearly impossible. Because of Iraq’s traditional society, women are more prone than men to stay home because of fears of election-related violence.

Beyond that, Iraqi women said chauvinism persists, and many women fear they will be relegated to the background regardless of how many seats they hold in parliament.

“The political parties make nice promises, but we think it’s just for elections,” said Hero Anwar, a 34-year-old employee of an aid group in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. “In the past we got some high posts, but it was just for show. It wasn’t real power.”

Iraq’s female candidates met with U.S. congresswomen at a training forum in Amman, Jordan, this month. Before the meeting, the candidates were nervous about quarrels erupting between women of secular and religious backgrounds or different ethnic groups, said Salima Khafaji, a candidate for parliament on the mostly Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance list, which is likely to dominate the vote.

Instead, she said, she was warmed by the spirit of unity rather than the noisy, testosterone-driven politics sometimes practiced by Iraqi men.

Despite sharp differences of opinion, she said, they were able to lay the groundwork for a new type of politics.

“We realized that we all had one aim, to improve the situation of women in Iraq,” she said.

Indeed, although they sometimes hail from very traditional religious backgrounds, the Iraqi female candidates so far have been focused on nuts-and-bolts issues that affect all Iraqis.

At a debate organized by the U.S. Embassy in the religiously conservative city of Najaf on Tuesday, veiled female candidates discussed the benefits of computer and language classes to help build the economy of country’s poor south.

“I am running as a candidate to defend the poor and raise the plight of the dispossessed. I am talking about a class that has nothing,” said Anwar Uboud-Ali from the Loyalty to Najaf bloc.

All the candidates agreed the new constitution must make women’s rights permanent.

“It is our first opportunity for women to represent ourselves and have our voices heard,” said Nasran al-Fatlawi, a candidate also running on the United Iraqi Alliance list.

One of the dismaying ironies of the post-Saddam era, Mrs. Khafaji said, is that the problems that befell women in the home are now rampant throughout the country.

Mrs. Khafaji, a dentist who runs a charity for women and children, said domestic violence has decreased since the U.S.-led invasion, while street crimes against women have multiplied.

“Because the last regime was so repressive, the violence was directed at family,” said Mrs. Khafaji, whose 17-year-old son was killed during an assassination attempt against her last summer. “Now it’s directed in crimes on the civilian population.

“Back then our enemy was known,” she said. “Now we have a lot of enemies. We don’t even know who our enemies are.”

• This article is based in part on wre service reports.

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