On the second floor of Love Hall, a building here used for
wedding receptions, women from Iraq's northern Nineveh province
gather for a conference on women's role in the nationwide election
But the event quickly veers away from its stated agenda and
becomes a gripe session about life in Iraq today. There are few
jobs, poor services, no safety net for the least fortunate, and
above all, no security, say the women in this majority Christian
The assembly of about 80 women - many in traditional black abayas
and a few sporting Western dress - reflects how basic needs are
dominating the average Iraqi's political outlook and placing goals
like women's rights and interests on a secondary level.
"We need more jobs for the women, yes, but we need more jobs for
the men, too. It's a problem for everybody in Iraq today," says Rana
Zeki, one young unemployed woman.
In some ways, the place of women in Iraq would seem to be
improving. The new parliament must be 25 percent female, according
to the new constitution; political parties are required to make
every third candidate on their list a woman.
But the new constitution is also worrying for many. Approved in
an October referendum, the charter assigns a primary role to Islam
in the writing of new Iraqi law. Worse, in some eyes, it creates the
right for religious sects to run "family courts" empowered to decide
such family issues as marriage law, inheritance, and child custody.
"We are very wary of this rising influence of religion and
policies based on religion," says Nadia Al-Jadir, manager of the
national Women Advocacy Program, a Baghdad-based organization that
seeks to increase women's participation in all aspects of Iraqi
She adds that the quota for women in the national assembly may be
a step forward, but not in the cases where political parties simply
fill seats with weak women. "Some of them are just like dummies
sitting in the parliament," she says.
For some women at the Dec. 3 conference, women are simply being
called on to do more. The requirement for a quarter of the new
national assembly to be women offers new opportunities, some say,
but also new responsibilities.
"Not only is the woman taking care of the kids and the house, but
now she must take care of politics and the economy as well," says
Yusula Al-Dulaime. "Women's tasks are bigger now and the door is
open, so we need all women to participate."
But others disregard such gains on paper. No political party is
led by a woman and no prominent woman leads any of the more than 200
candidate lists in the election, they lament.
Candidates are making appeals to them, though, saluting them in
particular as the backbone of the family and a source of strength in
the country's most difficult hours. …