Despite democracy in Iraq, women actually losing freedoms

A new report shows gains for women's rights across most of North Africa and the Middle East. But not in Iraq. The country with a large US military presence for so many years is actually backsliding when it comes to overall conditions for women.

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Iraqi women show their ink-stained fingers after casting their votes at a polling station in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, on March 7, 2010. Women accounted for 55 to 62 percent of votes in that parliamentary election. That's real power.

In the last five years, women have slowly gained more rights across the Middle East and North Africa. But in three places, the overall conditions for women have worsened, according to a new report by the US democracy watchdog group, Freedom House.

I was surprised to see that one of those three is Iraq.

Iraq? Where the Americans have had such a dominant role for nearly eight years?

What happened to all those jubilant Iraqi women holding up ink-stained fingers as determined voters? What happened to the parliamentary power they gained through the 25 percent quota that Iraqi women lobbied for, and won, under the former American administrator, Paul Bremer?

War is what happened. According to Freedom House's 2010 report on 18 countries in the region, a lack of security is the common condition that has made things worse for women in Iraq, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza strip. Insecurity is only part of the reason for going backward. But it's an important one, explains the report.

War hurt both sexes in Iraq, but it significantly increased gender-based violence against women. Kidnappings, rapes, and "honor killings" soared in Iraq. That made many women afraid to go out, with a negative spin-off on their employment and education.

Meanwhile, Iraq seems to be moving toward a more conservative society, and this has affected the role of women in politics. Only one woman serves as a cabinet member in the new Iraqi government, as the minister for women's affairs. In the two previous governments, women held from four to six positions.

And in parliament, many of the women are relatives of party members. The New York Times reported this week that only 5 of 86 female parliamentarians got their seats because they won them. The rest were placed there by party leaders to meet the 25 percent quota.

The women MPs are often locked out of party strategy sessions. But some of them don't mind, in part because they don't believe they have the necessary experience (as if democracy is somehow newer to Iraqi women than it is to Iraqi men).

Women across North Africa and the Middle East make gains when three factors come into play: when more women see that rights will help, rather than hurt them; when more men join the cause; when women's advocates show persistence and courage in pursuing their goals.

That's not a formula unique to Iraq, but Iraqi women do have an advantage compared to many other countries in the region: their numbers. No census has been taken since 1977, but three decades of wars have likely left a female-dominant population. In parliamentary elections a year ago, women cast 55 to 62 percent of the votes, the government's electoral commission estimates. That's real power. If only Iraqi women will use it.

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