This blog series on the 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections is all about how Iraq has been working on building an inclusive, fair voting system. So far, the main focus has been on the Iraqi open-list form of proportional representation (PR), designed to overcome sectarian rifts and stabilize the country. It is now about time to take a closer look at women’s role in the Iraqi electoral process.
Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections took place on the eve of the March 8th International Women’s Day, whose theme was “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities.” The closeness of the two events is a great opportunity to think about gender issues.
First of all, the Iraqi constitution states that all Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender (art. 14), which of course means that women are allowed to vote and to run as candidates.
Let’s consider some numbers. Women currently make up 25.5% of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, in comparison to 16.8% of the U.S. House of Representatives. According to the data collected by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Iraqi level of female representation in parliament is also higher than the world average of 19.1%, and a lot better than in any of its neighboring countries. These figures are encouraging for the fledgling Iraqi democracy and revealing of a political will to establish high-quality representation.
The Iraqi Constitution requires at least one quarter of the Council of Representatives’ members to be women. This provision translated into a quota reserving 25% of the 325 seats for them. Concretely, the electoral law expected, for each list, at least one woman to be among the first three nominees, at least two women to be among the first six nominees and so on until the end of the list.
However, the 2010 election was held under an open list system, which means that for each winning list, the candidates with the highest number of votes will be elected, compared to the candidates listed first. As a result, ensuring that each third candidate is a woman won’t necessarily result in women being a third of the elected members. This is why a corrective mechanism will be applied if less than 82 women initially get elected through the open list system. To make a long story short, women who received the most votes without winning a seat after the initial allocation will be moved up the list to replace winning male candidates, until the total number of female winners reaches the quota. This is a way to protect women’s participation in the Council of Representatives.
It should also be noted that in a country where women constitute a majority of the population, ensuring that they receive a quarter of the seats was not an extreme measure. In fact, initially, the quota was to be set to 40%, but women’s rights were not American officials’ priority back in 2003 to 2005 when they were participating in the drafting of the Iraqi democratic system.
My point is not to discuss the benefits and disadvantages of a quota for women in itself, but rather, to show how its implementation was relevant in Iraq. In fact, the quota has been used in the male-dominated Iraqi society to give women a chance to have a political role and prove their competence and reliability in politics. And the quantitative results are good: a quarter of the current Council of Representatives’ members are women and out of the 6,200 candidates running for the March 7th election, 1,801 were women (30%).
From a larger perspective though, attitudes still need to evolve. Under the closed-list system, parties had a tendency to nominate women they could control. What’s more, in 2009, only five Ministers out of 40 were women and their portfolios were focused on what is generally perceived as “women’s issues,” such as Women’s Affairs and Human Rights. Besides, contrary to minority groups that won strength by constituting substantive groups in the Council of Representatives, women stayed marginalized despite being a quarter of the Parliament: they disagree on core issues, which prevents them from having a meaningful voice in the debate. However, by largely participating in the committees, they have begun to have a significant role in Iraqi politics.
The 2010 campaign for the March 7th election has undeniably showed improvements in Iraqi society's view of women. For the first time since Saddam Hussein’s ouster, some female candidates, such as Fairuz Hatem for the Iraqi National Alliance and Safiya al-Souhail for the State of Law Alliance, campaigned without any veil and appeared with their uncovered heads, wearing business suits and makeup on election posters and in televised debates. An all-female political party has also been created, which seeks to empower Iraqi women in the educational and economic sectors and has won the support of the Iraq Unity Alliance, a secular, cross-sectarian coalition.
Iraqi women now hope that their capability and ability will be widely recognized, so that they’ll be able to get rid of the quota system. For now, as long as some structural barriers remain, the quota system helps improve Iraq’s representation and gives women a say in the political process.