BAGHDAD, Iraq—Maysoon al-Damluji is a member of an elite club, but one that’s trying hard to become a lot less exclusive. As Iraq’s Deputy Minister of Culture, al-Damluji is one of a small handful of Iraqi women entrusted with real political power in the country today.
‘Iraqi women have always been prominent in the professional world,’ said al-Damluji, who was appointed by the Governing Council. ‘But at the same time, most of them have shied away from political positions because of the violent nature of local politics.’
The fall of Saddam Hussein and the end of the Baath regime last year sparked hope among many that the new Iraq would feature female governmental representation at least close to their status as approaching 60 percent of Iraqi 25 million citizens.
But the results so far have been disappointing, leaving some women’s activists complaining bitterly about a lack of commitment to women’s inclusion by the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, which is run by chief American administrator Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III. The Governing Council, which was hand-picked by the Coalition Provisional Authority, is the interim government of Iraq until elections are held, tentatively this summer. After elections are held, the United States is slated to pull out of Iraq.
‘We want a real place on the political map of Iraq,’ said Samira Moustafa, secretary general of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Women’s League, the country’s oldest women’s rights group. ‘Why shouldn’t we be pioneers in the region on this issue?’
Earlier this week, a group of 45 U.S. congressional members wrote a letter to President Bush warning that women’s rights in Iraq are in danger of regressing.
‘There is a women’s rights crisis on the horizon in Iraq, and we must take action while we still have a say in the matter,’ said one of the signatories, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, in a press release. Maloney, a Democrat from New York, stated her concern that the Bush administration was ‘viewing this situation through rose-colored glasses.’
To date, only one Iraqi minister is a woman--Minister of Municipalities and Public Works Nisreen Mustafa Siddiq Barwari. Al-Damluji is one of a small handful of female deputy ministers. There are no women on the nine-member committee now drafting the Fundamental Law, which will serve as Iraq’s interim constitution until December 31, 2005, when a formal constitution will take its place. But most glaring is the presence of only three female members overall on the 25-member Governing Council.
‘That was a big mistake,’ said Safia al-Souhail, an activist and leader, or ‘Sheikha,’ of the Central Iraqi Beni-Tamim tribe. ‘There should have been at least seven.’
Al-Souhail, al-Damluji and others have come out in favor of a formal quota system for female representation in government. But they claim that the idea has been met with indifference from male Iraqi politicians and outright opposition from the U.S. government.
Al-Damluji says the British government had proposed a 25 percent mandatory female ratio in government, but that the U.S. did not support the idea. CPA officials have said in press reports that a female quota is not in their plans, but have reiterated their general commitment to women’s rights.
Repeated efforts to contact the CPA for comment on the issue were unsuccessful, but U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao spoke out against the U.S. imposing quotas in a visit late last month to Iraq.
‘You are trying to build a just Iraq, built on talent and ability of the people,’ Chao told reporters. ‘So people should be chosen based on their abilities and not quotas. I don’t underestimate the cultural considerations . . . It is an issue that you, as Iraqis, have to come to resolve and come to an understanding.’
Al-Souhail said other U.S. officials have told her quotas were ‘an internal Iraqi issue,’ and complained about a sudden U.S. soft-touch in the wake of a military invasion and overthrow of the existing government.
‘They’re forcing a lot of changes on this society,’ she said. ‘Why not force this as well? They’re involved in every other aspect of society. Suddenly, women’s rights are the red line?’
As for the female members of the council, both Moustafa and al-Souhail levy harsh criticism on the trio. They say Salama al-Khufaji, a Shiite dentistry professor; Raja Habib Khuzai, a Shiite hospital administrator and Songul Chapouk, a Turkomen engineer and activist, are previously unknown female leaders and out of touch with women’s issues.
‘They don’t represent us,’ Moustafa said. ‘We don’t know where they came from.’
Chapouk told me that she and her two female colleagues are often outnumbered on issues relating to women. ‘Sometimes, I feel like I’m alone,’ Chapouk said. ‘But our hands are not tied. We’re braver than this. I’m doing my best.’
All three female members received criticism from some activists for failing to prevent the recent Governing Council vote to annul the country’s relatively liberal personal status law and place issues like marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance under religious authority. The vote—like all council decisions—isn’t made law until signed by Bremer, which al-Damluji said he had promised not to do.
Chapouk denounced the decision, and said she wasn’t there when it was voted on.
‘I left the council for a meeting and when I came back, it was over,’ she said. ‘If I was there, I would not have let it pass.’
But critics point to the decision as proof of the ineffectiveness of the Governing Council’s female contingent.
‘We need discussions and we need negotiations, but we also need powerful women,’ said al-Souhail, who was interviewed by the CPA, but passed over for a Governing Council spot. ‘We need someone willing to hit people in the head with a hammer.’
Al-Souhail said her own personal example, as one of the country’s only female tribal leaders, is proof that Iraqi women can hold positions of power and maintain the respect of her male colleagues. Her father Sheikh Taleb al-Souheil, who was assassinated by Iraqi intelligence agents in Beirut in 1994, had no sons and chose her from among seven daughters to succeed him as head of the Beni-Tamim. He took her along to tribal meetings and made her position as advisor and heir apparent clear to the other sheikhs.
Not all women’s activists, however, believe that a formal quota is the answer.
Moustafa of the women’s league calls them ‘a form of deception,’ said it risks having, ‘the government looking for women just to fill the quota.’
‘Why should we set a number? Why close the door,’ she said. ‘Hiring should be based on qualifications. Maybe 60 percent of the female candidates are better than the men.’
But al-Souhail described this idea as dangerously idealistic. Quotas, she said, are a necessary and temporary evil to help implant a ‘generation or two’ of qualified women throughout the government. She also favors a sliding scale that will ensure balanced female representation in any elected parliament. Similar systems have been instituted in South Africa and Rwanda; the latter recently reached the highest level of female participation of any government in the world when a 49-percent female parliament was elected.
‘If a man gets 150,000 votes and a woman gets 30,000 votes in the same district, I’d chose the woman because that’s a more impressive accomplishment,’ she said. ‘It’s a stage until we can adjust, then little by little we can return to the normal situation.’
Meanwhile, al-Damluji proposes a compromise formula built around the CPA’s plan for a series of regional caucuses by committees which will elect a new transitional national assembly of still-undetermined size later this year. The 15 members of each committee will be chosen by the Governing Council and local officials. Al-Damluji wants priority given to choosing committee members with ‘a known history of equality.’
Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based writer whose work appears in the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle. He is a former editor in chief of Cairo Times newsmagazine.