Iraqi women raise voices - for quotas

Women in the interim government push for guaranteed representation in drafting a constitution.

As an exiled opposition leader, Safia al-Souhail battled most of her life to get rid of Iraq's old government. Now she's fighting to get into the new one.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Ms. Souhail has been pleading a new cause: quotas for women in Iraq's new government - in the cabinet, in the national parliament, and in drafting the constitution. "They have seats for Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Assyrians," says the human rights activist, "and they didn't think that they should have a seat for [half of] the country?"

On Oct. 7, Souhail and women from around Iraq presented their demands to Paul Bremer, the top US administrator in Iraq. They wanted women to make up at least one-third of the committee drafting Iraq's new constitution, as well as "all political institutions," including the parliament and local councils.

But while such quotas featured prominently in Afghanistan's draft constitution, unveiled Nov. 3, the Coalition Provisional Authority has declined to support the idea in Iraq. "There are no plans for quotas," a CPA official says. "But we are planning on empowering women through ... women's organizations, democracy trainings, and involving them in the political process."

Without strong US support, especially in the opening stages, experts say women may be left out of Iraq's new government. "US support is very important, because you're talking about an interim authority," says Julie Ballington of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm. "Because of the moment of history, it's the political will of the big players that determines whether quotas will be considered."

In recent years, an increasing number of countries, especially those shifting from dictatorship to democracy, have used quotas to make sure women are elected to national parliaments. In South Africa, after the African National Congress required women in lists of candidates for the 1994 elections, the proportion of women in parliament jumped to 27 percent, from 3 percent. In Rwanda, which set aside seats for women at the local and national levels, the number of women in parliament hit 49 percent in this year's elections - the highest level in any government in the world.

But in "postconflict" countries, quotas can cause tensions between transitional administrators and those they are supervising. In East Timor, a network of women pushed for quotas between 1999 and 2001, the period under UN administration. At their urging, the UN required quotas for local councils and civil service. The National Council, selected from the local councils, was 40 percent female.

When it came to quotas for the committee writing a new constitution, however, the UN balked. Citing objections from some Security Council members, the UN argued that quotas contravened free and fair elections. East Timorese opinion was divided. In the end, the National Council - including most of its women members - voted against quotas in the committee.

In the Arab world, only five countries have electoral quotas, four of them in North Africa. Worldwide, the average proportion of women in national parliaments is 14 percent. In countries with quotas, it is 17 percent. In the 22 Arab League member states, the average is 3.5 percent.

Unlike most Arab countries, Iraq has a long tradition of women in public life, dating back to the monarchy. Even under Mr. Hussein, the number of women in civil service jobs reached 40 percent. But the quality of their healthcare, education, income, and liberty deteriorated.

The disparity between public presence and private welfare makes some Iraqis skeptical of quotas. "Given the current situation of Iraqi women, it might be a little bit difficult," says Hiwa Osman, editor of the Iraq Crisis Report. "We are living in a patriarchal society, and to inject female elements at the top of the government will not change the situation of women on the ground. If you create a healthy environment in which female leaders can emerge, that will be much more effective."

Souhail disagrees. "We have to have a quota," she says. "This is the only way to force them to have a number of skillful women. After people have become more educated to this, they won't need it."

Her own experience bears this out. As the daughter of a powerful tribal sheikh, who helped her father plan a coup against Hussein, Souhail is an increasingly influential voice inside Iraq. Her father led a Central Iraqi tribe called the Bani Tamim. When he was killed by Iraqi intelligence, she became the tribe's political representative, a highly unusual role for a woman. To Bani Tamim members - approximately a million - she is "the Sheikha."

But while "Sheikha Safia" commands respect, her push for quotas has met resistance. As one of three women in Iraq's 65-member "government in exile," chosen in London in January, she repeatedly asked for more women. Iraq's exile leaders, all men, laughed at her. "They were talking about democracy, but they were laughing at the idea of having just one more woman," she says with scorn.

When the coalition appointed the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council in July, it included only three women. Akila al-Hashemi was mortally wounded on Sept. 20. After interviewing several women, Souhail among them, the council appointed Shiite dentistry professor Salama al-Khufaji on Dec. 8.

Ms. Khufaji aside, all the women in the interim government have advocated quotas: Raja Habib Khuzai and Songul Chapouk, the Governing Council's two other female members; Nisrin Barwari, the only woman in the 25-member cabinet; and Rend Rahim Francke, Iraq's newly appointed ambassador to the United States.

Iraqi women hoped the new transitional plan - for 18 regional caucuses to select a provisional government by the end of June - would use quotas. But the plan, negotiated between Mr. Bremer and the Governing Council, does not include that.

Now women are pinning their hopes on the country's constitution-writing process.

"This is the perfect time to bring up the discussion," says Ms. Ballington. "Because it's part of plans that are ongoing, you're not imposing them on a system already set in stone. It's an opportunity that exists right now, and will not for much longer."

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