Will quota seats in Iraqi politics advance women's rights?

An Iraqi woman walks past an electoral billboard showing candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections in the Karrada district of the capital Baghdad on September 29, 2021. [Getty]
6 min read
27 October, 2021
In-depth: More than 95 female candidates were elected in Iraq's election according to preliminary results, exceeding the 83-seat quota. But some say political parties are manipulating the system for electoral gain, rather than to empower women.

“Women set a historic record in the election,” Iraqi officials announced in a statement after the 10 October parliamentary vote.

Ninety-seven female candidates were elected to the 329-seat chamber, forming 29.4 percent of the next Iraqi parliament. This was 14 more seats than the quota for female MPs, set by Iraq’s election laws at 83, or 25 percent of the total.

Such was the support for female candidates that 57 MPs will enter the next parliament based solely on their votes rather than the allocated quota system.

However, they will inevitably encounter problems in Iraq’s political arena.

"Women in Iraq have become politically active, despite the violence against them. Iraqi women were active in the Tishreen protests, and the new parties which emerged from the protest movement"

Public support for female candidates

Iraq’s electoral system has provided more space for female participation in politics, particularly in comparison to other parliaments in the Arab world, and even the global average.

Women currently make up 29.4 percent of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, in comparison to 27.4 percent of the US House of Representatives, 12 percent in Jordan’s parliament, 28 percent in Israel, and 23 percent in Morocco.

According to the data collected by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the level of women’s representation in Iraq's parliament is also higher than the world average of 24.5 percent. These figures indicate that the future of democracy in Iraq could be hopeful, and progressive.

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The economic crisis, pervasive corruption, and the government's inability to provide public services to Iraqi citizens led to the October revolution in 2019, one of the largest civil society mobilisations in Iraq’s modern history.

To a degree, Iraqi female candidates were less associated with pervasive financial corruption and were able to gain the public’s trust by explicitly campaigning against systemic abuses and talking directly to voters.

“Like in many countries in the Middle East, women in Iraq have become politically active, despite the violence against them. Iraqi women were active in the Tishreen protests, and the new parties which emerged from the protest movement,” Geneive Abdo, a visiting fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The New Arab.

“The young men in the protest movement work well with women and believe they have much to offer. Because the movement is secular-oriented, there are few obstacles to female political participation that otherwise might be caused by conservative Islamic interpretations.”

An Iraqi woman sits near an electoral campaign poster
Ninety-seven female candidates were elected to the 329-seat chamber, forming 29.4 percent of the next Iraqi parliament. [Getty]

Political challenges for women

Although female candidates enjoyed widespread public support in the 10 October elections, deep-rooted challenges remain. “Iraqi women have proven to be energetic, fearless, and engaged in reforming laws that would give women more rights, especially as it concerns personal status laws,” said Geneive Abdo.

But, she added, “women no doubt will face gender bias in general and intimidation specifically by the MPs affiliated with the Iranian-backed militias”.

Some of the problems facing Iraqi society such as domestic violence, discrimination in the workplace, a lack of professional opportunities, and the approval of pro-equality legislation are better understood by female MPs, who could lead the way in the protection of women’s rights in a patriarchal society.

But one problem facing female candidates is that once they enter parliament their status as independent representatives with a policy program is subsumed by the needs of their political party.

"Political parties rarely add independent female candidates to their lists, or those advocating independent policies. This is to ensure candidates are completely obedient to the party's goals"

“The women's quota should be used to highlight the role of Iraqi women in parliamentary and political activities and be effective in promoting their role, but unfortunately, we didn’t see any women’s parliamentary activities to promote the status of women in political activities during the previous parliamentary terms. The presence of women is limited to completing parliamentary seats,” Shorugh al-Abayegi, a former member of the Iraqi Parliament told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic language sister site.

In addition, women are not in key government positions. Major ministries such as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Oil and Interior ministries have no senior female ministers, even less so in key parliamentary portfolios such as the Defence and Security Committee.

Often, pervasive sexism in Iraqi society means that management and senior roles are considered better suited to men. “The women’s quota guarantees 25 percent of their presence in parliament, that must be preserved, but it should create competition above the fixed quota so that women who acquire more votes than men can run for parliament regardless of the quota,” al-Abayegi added.

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Another problem for female representatives in Iraq is how the gender quotas themselves are used by Iraqi political parties. According to the law, 25 percent of the electoral quota is reserved for women, but political parties rarely add independent female candidates to their lists, or those advocating independent policies. This is to ensure candidates are completely obedient to the party's goals.

In some cases, especially where tribal loyalties are ingrained, women run in districts simply to fulfil the electoral requirements for political parties. As a result, of the 951 female candidates in the 10 October election, only 16.8 percent were independent.

Iraqi political parties have still not invested time or resources into empowering female politicians or developing their capacity in any real way. There are rare exceptions, such as in the Kurdistan region, where political organisations train female members for roles in government management, but there are also parties that use women as tokens of representation.

"Women often only serve as numbers to fill seats and as votes for the party line, with their chances for self-definition as politicians extremely low"

This involves exploiting their presence in parliament, robbing them of their agency, and denying them the freedom to make their own decisions on how they vote. In that sense, women often only serve as numbers to fill seats and as votes for the party line, with their chances for self-definition as politicians extremely low.

“[Iraq’s] women still suffer from many challenges in trying to enter the world of politics in general, and the elections in particular but despite these challenges, women must prove their existence, present their electoral program and defend it in front of the voters, and work hard to convince and attract them,” Ayat al Mudhaffar, the spokeswoman of the Victory Coalition in Iraq, said.

Dr Mohammad Salami holds a PhD in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism.

Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami