Iraq election increases women in parliament regardless of vote count
By Hannah Allam | Saturday, 03.27.2010, 01:40 AM

BAGHDAD (McClatchy) — Maysoun al Damlouji has just one word for the male politicians who are sure to be upset when they find out their newly won parliamentary seats will be handed to female candidates under a quota to increase the role of women in the Iraqi government.

An Iraqi woman votes at a polling station in Basra, southeast of Baghdad, March 7, 2010.       REUTERS/Atef Hassan

"Tough," said Damlouji, who ran for office with the leading secular bloc.

The final results from Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections are due this week, after which the coalitions with the most seats will slug out who'll name a prime minister and form the next government.

In an electoral process full of complicated equations, the allocation of seats for women is one of the most arcane. Few of the female candidates can explain the math, but they bristle at being put down as just quota appointees or "political decor," as Nada al Abidi, a candidate from the rural southern Wasit province, put it.

"As long as there is a quota, people perceive women as gap-fillers and not deserving members of parliament," said Damlouji, who's still unsure if she'll get a seat. "The perception of a man is as an individual, but for women it's as a bloc. So if one woman failed, it's as if the entire womanhood has failed."

In close races, some male candidates who thought they'd narrowly won a seat will learn that they were bumped to accommodate women who didn't get nearly as many votes. By law, women will make up a quarter of the next parliament – 82 seats in the 325-member legislature – but the algorithm for assigning seats is so complex that one diplomat likened it to orbit mechanics.

"It's even hard for candidates to understand," Damlouji said.

Perhaps the only political coalition that truly understood how to field female candidates was that of militant Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Many Sadr-allied women won their seats without the quota, according to results released so far by Iraq's election commission. Under the formula for assigning seats to women, female candidates who won their seats outright will be placed ahead of their quota-assisted counterparts.

Under the rules, votes cast for a candidate in excess of a threshold — about 36,000 votes in Baghdad — are redistributed to the next top vote-getter.

For example, the powerhouse candidate Maha al Douri, whose followers said they received instructions passed down from Sadr himself to vote for her, won more than 20,000 votes. Internet message boards were full of male and female Sadrists urging voters to cast ballots for "Sister Maha." A relative newcomer, Douri overtook such household names as Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime U.S. ally who's now friendlier with Iran, on the same ticket as the Sadrists, as well as some current and former cabinet members on other tickets.

The stunning performance of a militant Islamist movement's female candidates irks other women. Women with rival blocs complained that their male running mates refused to campaign with them, brushing the women off as a waste of time because they'd slide in under the quota, anyway. In some cases, female candidates' campaign posters were defaced, their lives threatened and their agendas dismissed. Most women had to fend for themselves.

"I risked my life and my family's well-being," said Salma al Fatlawi, a schoolteacher from the southern province of Amarah who garnered just 80 votes despite campaigning in dangerous marshlands where smugglers operate. Her only chance of making it is under the quota.

Her political coalition offered her security, but she refused, preferring to trust her constituents rather than show up with bodyguards: "I've been a teacher in this area for more than 25 years, and my pupils remember me with love and respect, as do their parents."

Abidi, a Ph.D. chemistry professor, continued campaigning even through the death of her mother, visiting hundreds of homes in a place where tribal custom keeps women shrouded from society, and militia violence makes residents suspicious of strangers at the door.

Abidi recounted how she once entered a reed hut known as a madhif, where 50 or more tribesmen had gathered. As she made her campaign pitch, her cousin whispered in her ear not to drink the tea, because women in this part of the country can't be seen sipping from a glass without covering their faces. She ignored the advice.

"I was drinking my tea with great joy," Abidi said with a grin. "I was a strange creature."

For all her campaigning, Abidi ended up with about 2,600 votes, far more than most female candidates, but not enough to win her seat outright. She has a distant chance of qualifying for a seat under the quota, but the politics have grown so ugly that her own children tell her they hope she doesn't make it to parliament.

Abidi said her rivals from the Sadr bloc "swallowed" all the votes, even though she never once ran into them on the campaign trail. She said it's hard not to feel bitter when she's learned that one word from a cleric or one big bribe to an influential tribe can undo weeks of honest, shoe-leather campaigning. Sometimes Abidi swears she'll never run again, and at others she wonders aloud how to maintain the popular base she cultivated in her province. Either way, Abidi said, she isn't giving up on Iraqi democracy.

"From my field, chemistry, I know that every new experiment will find obstacles and hindrances," she said. "It does not mean that one stops. There is always a second experiment."


By Hannah Allam

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