Analysis

Iraqi Women in Politics Are Finally Scaring the Men

It’s a sign that 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is becoming more like a country where the balance of power is determined by elections, not guns

In this Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, photo, a campaign poster of Iraqi lawmaker Hanan al-Fatlawi is seen in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have grown more fragmented and divided ahead of the national elections scheduled for May due to deep differences among each group that have spawned more and smaller alliances seeking to have a bigger share in the new parliament.
Karim Kadim/AP

Intidhar Ahmed Jassim dropped out of the May 12 Iraqi presidential race. A video that went viral supposedly shows her having sex – pornography in every sense of the word. It’s not entirely clear whether the clip was doctored or real, or who posted it.

Another video has been posted in which a young man from the conservative city of Najaf is shown kissing and caressing a photo of a female candidate, Hadba al-Hasnawi. But in that case the candidate stood her ground and sued the man in tribal court. Hasnawi’s tribe demanded high compensation for dishonoring a fellow tribeswoman and thereby impugning the entire clan. The man’s tribe was ordered to pay $84,000, which will be paid in its entirety to avoid tribal warfare.

Also, a female candidate from the Kurdish region had her mobile phone stolen, and videos on it showing her dancing in a short dress were uploaded on social media. These are the extreme cases in a heated campaign where almost anything goes. The female candidates are excoriated and slandered on social media with stories invented to hurt their chances of success.

More than 7,100 candidates are registered to run for 328 seats in the Iraqi parliament, and about 30 percent are women. According to the Iraqi constitution, a quarter of all seats are earmarked for women.

But if in the past, harassment of women candidates was rare, this time it’s clear that Iraqi women are perceived as a political threat that makes them a target for harassment. This is a major headliner in the Iraqi media and is stirring public debate. Some Iraqi pundits have said they consider the harassment a positive sign that women are gaining more power in Iraqi politics.

An campaign poster in Baghdad shows the candidate Magda Al-Tamimi ahead of the May 12 parliamentary elections.
Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP

But beyond these ugly episodes, the importance Iraqis ascribe to their elections is impressive; politics is a lively business in their country. This contrasts, for example, with Egypt, where participation plummeted dramatically in the last presidential election amid the realization it wasn’t a free and democratic contest against President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

Some 188 parties have created 27 coalitions running in the Iraqi election. The large blocs with the greatest chance of making it into parliament are more disjointed than in the last vote in 2014. The Shi’ite movements have redivided and the Sunni and Kurdish minorities might have more power amid the possibility they could provide a fulcrum between the majority Shi’ite parties.

Huge amounts of money are being spent on propaganda and publicity; the Iraqi media has reported that a one-minute television spot costs a candidate about $6,000, dwarfing the $1,000 in normal times.

Radio and television networks are also selling “journalism time” for interviews with candidates. Iraqi law lets each party spend about 20 cents per potential voter, but the millions of dollars that have already been spent show the multitude of funding sources that are greasing the campaign wheels far beyond the legal limit. Telephone poles, store windows, cars, T-shirts and the walls of houses are emblazoned with pictures and slogans of candidates, largely benefiting the PR firms, print shops and graphic artists.

This is the first election to take place after the Islamic State’s takeover of large parts of Iraq and its subsequent uprooting from those areas. The victory of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, which with the U.S.-led coalition and pro-Iranian forces lifted the great threat to Iraq’s unity, should mean he could win the election in a walkaway.

Abadi has also shown he can bend the will of the Kurds, who defied him and voted for independence in a referendum. He placed an air embargo on the Kurdish region, took over the oil city of Kirkuk and slashed state funding to the Kurds, who were forced to forget the results of the referendum and make their peace with the Iraqi administration, which recently lifted the embargo. Abadi himself went last week to Irbil, the Kurdish capital, to present himself as the prime minister of all Iraqis and ask the region’s inhabitants to support his political bloc.

But Abadi isn’t entirely sure of his victory. Facing off against him are powerful rivals trying to diminish his achievements as prime minister. If in 2014 three Shi’ite blocs were running, this year there are five, and they’ll need the support of the Sunni and Kurdish blocs to win a majority. The Sunni splits show the baselessness of the idea in the West that politics in Iraq and the wider Middle East should be understood by the Shi’ite-Sunni divide.

No less interesting is the silence in the region and further afield in the face of Iran’s heavy influence in Iraq. Iran is Iraq’s major trading partner, it’s fostering political elites in that country, training military forces and has established army units that played a big role in the war against the Islamic State.

But Iran is also exerting a calming influence on political rivalries to avoid the threat of internecine war. Fifteen years after the Iraq War and the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq seems to be becoming more like a country where the balance of power is determined by elections and not guns. The assault on women candidates shows this – never have they been considered more threatening.