Despite the fact that the elections in Iraq are overshadowed by deadly violence, George Nichola of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association remains hopeful about the future of his country. According to him, women are increasingly demanding their proper place in the political process. Earlier this year, Hivos and our partner Al-Amal launched the Women Power in Politics programme which aims to prepare Iraqi women candidates to run in the elections on 30 April 2014. As many as 800 women have taken part.
Hivos spoke to Nichola via Skype and asked about his impressions.
“When you see women candidates on television, you notice that change is in the air,” Nichola said about the current campaign in Iraq. “Everyone wants to see changes in the security situation, the labour market and the way the Iraqi government functions. People are hoping for a revival of Iraq. Meanwhile, the women are struggling to gain access to high government positions. They want their voice to be heard.”
Nichola also sees the 2014 elections as a turning point for the position of women in Iraq. “In the last elections, women were not very visible, but during the provincial elections this year that changed significantly. You saw many more posters of female candidates in the streets. “
According to Nichola, this is also true of the 30 April parliamentary election campaign. “The election posters now feature fashionable women without headscarves, whereas during previous elections you mostly saw candidates wearing strict Muslim headscarves.”
The women’s quota in Iraq requires a quarter of the seats in parliament be occupied by women, but this, Nichola said, is certainly no magic formula when it comes to the empowerment of Iraqi women. In fact, women themselves are dissatisfied with the quota system. He points out that women’s political participation is largely manifested outside parliament and elections. “For example, when there were demonstrations against the high salaries and pensions of MPs, then you saw a lot of women protesting on the street, even women of humble origins.”
“On International Women’s Day (March 8) many female candidates took to the streets to demonstrate against the so-called Jaafari Law,” said Nichola. This bill – if ratified by parliament – would legalise marriage for girls from age nine and allow marital rape. “Incidentally, both Islamic and Liberal Democrat candidates took part in the protest.”
On the other hand, Nichola suggests we should not expect radical changes. “The first important steps have been taken; now Iraqi and foreign actors need to push this further.”
But the aims of the hundreds of candidates who followed the Hivos and Al-Amal training varied widely, Nichola told us. “The women basically toe the line set by their political blocs and parties. So most of the Shi’ite candidates want the government to work on poverty reduction and better employment opportunities, while Sunni candidates, after the anti-terrorism law and military operations in Anbar province, mainly want political reforms that will lead to an autonomous region and political equality.“
The campaign activities of the candidates who participated in the training were not without their dangers. “Even if security is better in the Kurdish region and the South than in western and central Iraq, we still did our best to prepare the trainees for these risks, including possible hostile reactions to them personally,” said Nichola. “We advised the women to find an audience that is receptive to their message, like women’s groups, youth groups and tribal leaders.”
The message Nichola wants to send abroad, despite the deadly attacks that dominate the news, is therefore one of hope about the situation in his country. “As a young man – I ‘m only 31 – I see that more and more Iraqis realise that change is needed first before there can be peace and prosperity in Iraq. Of course, there are many people who are pessimistic about the elections; they say only the faces will change. Yet I am convinced that a majority of Iraqis will use their vote to show the new parliament that things need to be different from now on.”
The Women Power in Politics Programme run by Hivos and Al – Amal aims to promote leadership skills among women in the hopes this will lead to greater peace and security in Iraq. The programme will last until March 2015.
The Dutch political parties PvdA, VVD and CDA actively participate in this programme.