It sounded like a dream job: $10,000 a month, a fleet of fancy cars, a house and best of all, said Nawal Samarai, a chance to improve the lives of widows and millions of other Iraqi women affected by the U.S.-led invasion and its aftermath.
But in a rare show of public muscle-flexing by an Iraqi woman in a high-profile role, Samarai has quit in a rage, saying she had been given a Potemkin Cabinet post created to fill a quota for Sunni Arab lawmakers such as herself, and make it appear that the Shiite Muslim-dominated government cares about women’s issues.
“I tried. I tried hard, but every time I asked for authority they’d tell me it’s not a real ministry, it’s just an office,” the former parliament member said Monday, four days after submitting her resignation as minister of state for women’s affairs.
Samarai and lawmakers who supported her efforts to wield more power say the post to which she was appointed last summer was nothing more than an 11th-floor room in the run-down Council of Ministers building in the fortified International Zone, also known as the Green Zone. Because she was a “minister of state,” Samarai lacked the power of Cabinet members with full portfolios. There are 11 such ministers of state, holding posts that critics say were created to satisfy demands for Cabinet positions from various sectarian and ethnic groups.
“It’s not a real ministry,” said Nada Ibrahim, a Sunni Arab member of parliament. “It’s one room with a woman, no budget, no staff. It’s a trick.”
Unlike other Cabinet members, the ministers of state do not get advisors or budgets to open provincial offices.
Samarai’s resignation underscores the sectarian tensions that remain within the government, where Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party stands to cement its power in the wake of last month’s provincial elections. Candidates from Maliki’s bloc won the most provincial council seats in nine of 14 provinces, according to results announced Thursday.
It also highlights what many women say is the lip service paid them by the Shiite conservatives loyal to Dawa and other Shiite parties dominant in parliament. In August, Inaam Jawwadi, a female member of parliament from the Shiite bloc, called for Samarai’s ministry to be turned into a Cabinet portfolio, but the proposal went nowhere.
Political analyst Ibrahim Sumaidaiee said state ministries were created to satisfy the “thirst for power” among political blocs angling for impressive titles and positions in government. But he had little sympathy for Samarai, who he said must have known what she was getting into.
“This is a fake ministry,” he said.
Instead of complaining about her lack of clout, he said, Samarai should have worked with full ministries such as labor and social welfare to create programs for women.
Samarai, a doctor from the northern city of Mosul, blamed the situation partly on sectarianism and partly on sexism.
When she would complain to Maliki about her inability to do anything with a monthly budget of $7,500 -- slashed to $1,500 in January -- she said he would look away or smile.
In the meantime, Samarai was facing criticism for the government’s failure to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of women widowed since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. U.S. and Iraqi officials have said the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq seized on women’s desperate plight to recruit some as suicide bombers. The number of female suicide bombers grew to more than 30 last year from eight in 2007.
Samarai in September appealed for funds for programs to prevent destitute women from being recruited by insurgents. She also asked for money to open offices in provinces. Working without assistance from inside the International Zone, or IZ, kept her out of reach of most women, Samarai said Monday in an interview.
Her eyes glistened with tears as she described the frustration of confronting widows and not being able to offer them anything beyond promises that she would try to help. She found herself sitting in her small office appealing to nongovernmental organizations for money to launch the programs she had envisioned when she took the position in July.
“It’s shameful for me in Iraq, a rich country, to have to ask NGOs for money,” Samarai said.
The government has stayed silent on the issue. Its spokesman did not return phone calls for comment Monday or Tuesday.
Officials have denied allegations that women’s rights have eroded since the rise of the Shiite power structure. They point out that 25% of seats for the newly elected provincial councils are reserved for women, and that 33% of seats in the parliament were set aside for women after the last national election in 2005.
But women’s advocates say female lawmakers have little real power and are not taken seriously on the floor of parliament.
Parliament member Ibrahim said government officials had asked her to take Samarai’s job since the resignation, but that she refused. Without a staff of advisors, a budget and the clout to press for legislation, she said, it would be a waste of time.
Because minister of state positions come with generous salaries and perks, those in the posts generally do not complain about the lack of power. But Samarai said she preferred to go back to Mosul and return to her medical practice.
“Take it. Take the salary, take the cars,” she said. “It’s better than sitting here in the IZ on the 11th floor, waiting for money from NGOs.”