Covertly Running for Office in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

It is a measure of how unsafe it has become for women seeking office in Iraq that one, in a moment of grim humor, joked recently that she was afraid her husband would find out she was a candidate.

Aside from about a dozen women with established national profiles, female candidates in Iraq’s upcoming elections are running in secret, forced underground by the threat of violence.

Insurgents have taken aim at male and female candidates alike in their effort to disrupt the landmark Jan. 30 vote, but women have been particularly vulnerable, facing the wrath of religious conservatives as well.

One female candidate was slain near her Baghdad home in December. Another was kidnapped and held for ransom. Salama Khafaji, a prominent Shiite activist and candidate, survived an assassination attempt in May in which her 17-year-old son was killed.

Many women refuse to acknowledge, even to friends, that they are on slates vying for seats on the new national assembly. Fear has bred an inverted sort of gamesmanship. Dozens of women have withdrawn their names publicly but remain candidates privately, ready to assume seats if their slates garner enough support. Voters will pick among slates, not individuals, and each slate will be allotted assembly seats based on how many votes it gets.


Behind a closed door guarded by armed men, Songul Chapouk and Raja Azzawi wrapped up a rare women’s candidate forum last week at the Oil Ministry by taking questions from the crowd, made up almost entirely of ministry employees because the event wasn’t publicized.

“Why don’t we know anything about the women candidates?” one woman asked. “Why are there only slates and numbers, but no one knows who’s on them?” Chapouk, who served on the Iraqi Governing Council that was in place until June, could only shrug in dismay.

“It’s a shame to see some women stay away from the political process,” she said. “Today, Iraq is free. I understand security is bad, but we must face it and take part in this great opportunity.”

Much will be at stake for Iraqi women as the new assembly writes a permanent constitution.

In the past, Iraq’s civil laws have given them explicit equal rights in such areas as voting, attending school, owning property and aspects of family life. Early last year, however, religious conservatives pressed to revoke some of those rights, leaving matters of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance in the hands of clerics.

The effort failed narrowly but could be revived, women’s advocates warn.

At least on paper, the election offers women an unprecedented chance for political power.

They are guaranteed at least a 25% stake in the 275-seat assembly. Female candidates are in high demand because of the mandate, said Hassan Bazaz, a Baghdad political analyst.

More than 50 parties approached a female friend of his, he said, all begging to include her on their lists. The Iraqi Independent Democrats jettisoned one woman after discovering she had signed on to two other slates as well as theirs.

Leading slates have snapped up most of the women who are established activists or hold positions in the interim government. Already well-known, they can run openly -- up to a point.

Sawsan Sharifi, agriculture minister in the current government, is the top woman on the slate headed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

She interacts with voters in her ministerial role, talking to farmers about their concerns. Beyond that, however, her campaigning has essentially been limited to appearances at tightly controlled news conferences, she acknowledged.

Maysoon Damluji, the top woman on the Independent Democrats slate led by former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi, said she, too, had not ventured beyond structured party rallies.

“I simply cannot walk on the street alone, even with security,” said Damluji, an architect who returned to Iraq in 2003 after 22 years abroad.

The stifling circumstances make it doubly tough to push her platform, which calls for a more open Iraqi society that embraces the free flow of ideas, books and media.

Damluji, who is deputy minister of culture in the interim government, said her family was caught between pride and worry over her role in the election.

Her brother in London sends her e-mails quoting Benjamin Disraeli on the perils of aspiring to high political office. Her other brother, who remained in Iraq under the old regime, has joined her on the Independent Democrats slate, two spots below her on the ranked list.

Beneath the elite tier occupied by Sharifi, Damluji and a few others, the vast majority of female candidates remain a mystery, shrouded by fear.

Many have sent family members from the country, worried they would become targets as the election draws near.

“They find it funny that people are advising them to go out and campaign,” said Manal Omar, director of Women for Women International in Iraq, a support group.

There is ample concern that unknowns voted into the assembly will be token lawmakers, satisfying appearances but giving women little real power.

“The 25% is an insult. Democracy does not work that way, by putting a certain number,” political analyst Bazaz said. “They’re just going to grab anyone. They’re going to go by quantity, not quality.”

Those who lobbied to secure as much as 40% of the assembly for women view 25% as a compromise and say the quota simply provides a crucial foot in the door. Once in office, women will develop stronger voices over time, they say.

“After a while, even yes-women become their own women,” Damluji said.

Although the Iraqi women’s movement has deep roots, originating in the 1920s, and the 1970 constitution accorded women important areas of equality with men, women held virtually no significant posts under Saddam Hussein.

They have had more involvement in Iraq’s interim government, but the surrounding society has seen a surge in Islamic fundamentalism. Women’s rights activists have been threatened.

Businesswoman Zeena Qushtaini was killed and authorities discovered her remains wrapped in a head scarf she had refused to wear in life.

Iraq’s known women candidates defy pigeonholing, running the gamut of sects and ethnicities.

The deeply devout Khafaji always dresses in traditional black robes. Damluji, more secular, refuses to cover her blond-streaked hair with a veil. Azzawi, a lawyer, attended the candidate forum in a conservative black business suit, accented with hot-pink, stiletto-heeled boots and a matching hot-pink head scarf.

Most take pains to stress that Islamic law, or Sharia, which leading Shiite clerics are pressing to make the basis for all future legislation, is in many ways supportive of women’s rights.

Still, they sometimes face hostility from men who see them as unfit for office.

At the Oil Ministry forum, a man chastised Chapouk and Azzawi for running for the assembly. “If a woman has to go on a delegation outside the country, who will be there to take her place in the house, as a wife?” he said.

Both women answered that they would be able to balance political work with their responsibilities as wives and mothers. “Questions like these encourage me more,” said Azzawi, with a small smile.

Another man in the audience quickly raised his hand, apologizing for the first. “I believe women can do better than men as leaders,” he said. “They have a more humanitarian way of seeing things.”

Even for highly educated, professionally accomplished women candidates, the political arena can be daunting. They have been on an accelerated learning curve in the last 20 months.

“I was talking to one woman, and she said, ‘Keep in mind, I’m a gynecologist and you’re putting me in a room with people who have been politicians for years,’ ” Omar said.

International efforts to tutor Iraqi women on politics sometimes go awry.

Last week, 20 female assembly candidates traveled to Jordan for a two-day retreat with a U.S. congressional delegation. On the first day, designed as a clinic on campaigning, the Americans arrived with armloads of signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts, ready to dispense get-out-the-vote tips.

As the Iraqis described their day-to-day reality, however, talk of sponges with candidates’ names on them seemed absurd. “If it wasn’t so completely embarrassingly out of context, it would have been funny,” said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, a Walnut Creek Democrat.

The Americans got the education: Only one-quarter of the Iraqi attendees were running openly, they learned. Half of those on slates had removed their names from public lists after they or their families received threats.

Even after the U.S. delegation returned home, they remained under orders not to reveal the identities of the Iraqi women they met.

Tauscher came away moved by the Iraqis’ commitment.

“None of the 20 women I saw were going to be tokens or place-holders for someone else,” she said. “This is not a casual thing. No one is willing to be just a figurehead after going through all this.”

Chapouk, running as an independent, and Azzawi, a candidate on the National Democratic slate, both say their reason for soldiering through this strange, bloody campaign season is to act as watchdogs for the rights of women.

“We need to be there to fight for them,” Azzawi said.

Despite the risks and the inability to run a proper race, Damluji has no regrets about leaving her successful practice and teaching job to take part in Iraq’s electoral experiment.

“To be part of something new,” she said, “the feeling is unparalleled.”