WASHINGTON -- January 28 -- Much has been made of the fact that 25 percent of the candidates running in Iraqs January 30 elections are women. Comparisons between Iraqs new National Assembly and the US Congress (which is only 15 percent women) are used to imply that Iraqs elections mark the dawn of a new era, as though the fact of women in politics is itself evidence of freedom. But just as Condoleezza Rice has only undermined womens rights around the world, the women elected to Iraqs new National Assemblyone of whom spoke at the Republican National Convention last Augustwill be there not to advocate for women, but to carry out US policy in Iraq. Gender-based quotas, like elections themselves, are procedural: an aspect of democratization, but no guarantee of democracy. In fact, the illegal and ongoing US occupation of Iraq precludes the possibility of democratic elections. As for women occupying a quarter of the National Assembly seats, 25 percent of a puppet government is still a puppet government.
The Election Boycott
- Iraqs elections were planned, organized, and financed by the US in violation of the 1907 Hague Convention, which forbids an occupying power from creating permanent changes in the government of the occupied territory.
- Recognizing that elections without sovereignty cannot be democratic, many Iraqis have chosen to boycott the election, which they see as a mechanism for legitimizing the occupation.
- Most of Iraq's Sunni Muslim populationa third of the countrywill boycott. Sunni leaders offered to cancel the boycott if the US would set a date to withdraw from Iraq, but the US refused to do so.
- Its not only Sunni insurgents who are opposing the election. Calls for a boycott have been issued by Iraqi religious, political, and civil society leaders from across the political spectrum, including progressive human rights and womens organizations. The most widespread rationale for a boycott is that conditions for free and fair elections have not been met.
Voting Under Fire
- Ongoing violence has skewed the election in numerous ways. Election workers have been killed and poll sites bombed. Candidates have been assassinated. Militants have threatened to behead anyone who tries to vote. Because of the threat of violence, there will be little international oversight or monitoring of the election.
- These campaign conditions strongly favor candidates already known to the public; namely, those whom the US appointed to the first interim government.
- Women candidates, in particular, have been attacked by fundamentalists. After the murder of at least one woman candidate and repeated assassination attempts against others, most women ran in secret (a choice made possible by a system in which voters pick among party slates, not individual candidates).
- With many candidates unable to campaign publicly, much of the populationparticularly women in rural areas who do not readlacks the information needed to make an informed choice on election day.
- The US military has played down the impact of violence on the election, announcing that residents of only four of Iraqs 18 provinces may not be able to take part. But as journalist Robert Fisk pointed out recently, those four provinces (including the capital, Baghdad) contain more than half of the population.
Why are the elections important for Iraqi women?
- While the new National Assembly may not have legitimacy, it will have political powerat least within the bounds set by the US.
- The interim government will draft a new Iraqi constitution, which could either codify or disregard the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities. For example, the constitution will govern issues critical to womens human rights, including divorce, inheritance, child custody, freedom to choose whether and whom to marry, and freedom to travel without a male chaperone.
- The inclusion of women in the National Assembly may help ensure that rights related to these issues are recognized under the constitution.
- But only rights that are compatible with US aims in Iraq will be enacted. Iraqi womens internationally recognized legal rights to self-determination, freedom from violence, an adequate standard of living, health care, education, and many other human rights will continue to be violated as violence induced by the US occupation continues and Iraq is turned into the worlds most extreme "free market" state.
- Moreover, because human rights are interdependent, even those rights which may be recognized in the constitution will be difficult to exercise. For example, criminalization of domestic violence and a legal right to divorce are severely compromised in an economy where women are denied access to decent housing, jobs, daycare, or health services.
- Ultimately, Iraqs new constitutionlike the government that drafts itwill lack legitimacy, both under international law and in the eyes of a large part of the Iraqi population, because neither democracy nor womens human rights can be advanced at gunpoint.
MADRE in Iraq
In Iraq, MADRE partners with the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). OWFI is fighting for womens human rights in an Iraq torn apart by US military occupation and rising Islamic fundamentalism. OWFI calls for an immediate end to US military occupation and the establishment of a free and secular state in Iraq. MADRE has supported OWFI in their work to construct womens shelters in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Erbil which now provide a safe haven for women in Iraqs current environment of violence.
MADRE is an international women's human rights organization that works in partnership with women's community-based groups in conflict areas worldwide. Our programs address issues of armed conflict and forced displacement; women's health and reproductive rights; economic justice and community development; Indigenous Peoples' rights and resources, food security and sustainable development; human rights advocacy; youth; and US foreign policy. MADRE provides resources and training to enable our sister organizations to meet immediate needs in their communities and develop long-term solutions to the crises they face. Since we began in 1983, MADRE has delivered over 21 million dollars worth of support to community-based women's groups in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, South Asia and the United States. Interviews Available.