A little more than two weeks before Iraq's provincial elections, there is widening anger that the published version of the election law has only a weak provision to set aside seats for women.
Early versions of the law, which governs the election of Iraq's 18 provincial councils, included a firm guarantee that women would have at least 25 percent of the seats -- the same percentage mandated by the Constitution for the numbers of women in Parliament.
In the male-dominated Arab culture, the framers of the Constitution and the Americans who were involved in drafting it thought that the quota was necessary to ensure that women would be represented.
But the provincial election law was changed several times, and the quota language was gone by the time it went to the Presidency Council, whose approval is needed for it to become official. It went back to the Parliament with several unrelated changes and was published in early October. The lack of a strong guarantee for women's council seats has begun to gain widespread attention only in the last few days.
The above is the opening to Alissa J. Rubin and Sam Dagher's "Changes in Iraq Election Law Weaken Quota for Women" (New York Times) and though surely news, it's hardly surprising. The attacks on women's rights never stop in post-war Iraq and Nouri al-Maliki flaunted two especially offensive attacks recently.
First we had the way to 'handle' widows, especially widows with children. Sell 'em off! That's what forced marriage is and that's what was being proposed. A war zone and the answer to the death of the husband was force the woman into another marriage quickly. And if that meant multiple marriages (men having multiple wives), well, hey, it doesn't just have to be something for the Kurdish region! What was being proposed was so offenisve and so disgusting and, in fact, so little covered. It's why al-Maliki always knows he can get away with attacks on women: These attacks receive so little attention from the press.
The second attack was on women's right to worship. Let's compare the most recent attack on women's rights with the most recent attack on the press. Two Sundays ago, there was a bombing with mass fatalities and even more wounded. Female suicide bomber! Now if it had been a woman -- it wasn't -- the number of bombers (even just those dubbed "suicide bombers") who are women since the start of the illegal war is a very small percentage. Equally true, there has never been an attempt to curtail men's right to worship in Iraq. But because of that Sunday bombing, it was decreed that women would not be able to participate in the reindeer games. Now this governmental decree took place after the Iraqi government knew the "female" bomber was, in fact, a man. Didn't matter. Women wouldn't just be punished for the actions of a woman, they'd be punished for the acts of a man.
Some of the pilgrims weren't even Iraqis. Some had come from out of the country. Some who were Iraqis, had traveled great distances within the country to make the pilgrimage. And in the midst of the Holy days the word suddenly comes down that women's participation is being 'curtailed.'
Where were the objections? Where were the reporters speaking to women's rights activists (which does include Iraqi women in Iraq)?
Also last week, al-Maliki's government attempted to attack the press by insisting they sign a contract that, in effect, signed all their rights away. It's the sort of thing Pat Kingsley used to get the press to sign for Tom Cruise (which is part of the reason the backlash built towards Cruise -- now having his comeback). It's an insult when the entertainment press has to sign that crap but to ask that hard news reporters sign it? (And al-Maliki's council tried to pass the demands off another agency.) Now when that nonsense started, the press covered it immediately. When that nonsense started, it was time to find out what Reporters Without Borders though, what Iraqi journalists and their union thought. We're not talking a 48 hour period. This is immediate. Kim Gamel of AP filed the first story and from the beginning had all the bases covered.
But, in the midst of a religious celebrations, women's right to worship is attacked and the press can't seem to figure out if that's offensive.
There seemed to be this idea that maybe it was for 'safety.' Well al-Maliki and his liars will tell you that press contract would guarantee 'safety.' And maybe it would. It would be the death of democracy (because it's never just one attack on the press), but, yes, if al-Maliki could have editorial approval of all copy and ensure no bad things were ever said, Iraq would be 'safe' for some (the chosen few).
The press gets attacked and the press springs to action. And it's not just about self-interest (or advocating for a free press). They spring to action in many cases. But throughout every year of this illegal war, we've seen that women's right are the last thing they spring to issue on. They never seem to know how to get a handle on the story -- first indication that they're not doing their jobs. Take Newsweek, turning the mutiliation of young women in the KRG into a 'fad' and trying to insist that young women are burning themselves (sometimes to death) because they want to be 'hip' and 'in' with their 'glamorous' and, apparently, dead peers. No, these young women, in reality, were either being burned (most cases) or were attempting to kill themselves due to societal pressures and expectations. But it sure was great of Newsweek -- master of all 'trend' stories -- to insist it was the hot-hot fad and all the girls were doing it because it was the sure way to be cool!
You have to wonder what life would be like for Iraqi women today if the press had guarded women's rights and freedoms as much as they had their own or any other group? (The only groups that has suffered more press silences are the LGBT community which is hugely ignored by the press and the plight of darker skinned Arabs which appears to confuse Western journalists conditioned to seeing everything through a Shia v. Sunni prism.)
You can go back to last year and the emerge of "Daughters of Iraq" in the press coverage and notice how, despite the fact that they were on the US payroll like their male peers ("Sons of Iraq" -- these are the "Awakening" Councils) and did the same jobs, they were paid 20% less than their male peers. You can search in vain for any editorial objecting to that. You can search in vain for any article that offered any quote from someone objecting.
Women were being 20% less and were being paid that by the US government. Sexism was being institutionalized by the occupying government and there was no objection.
Again, what might life be like today for Iraqi women had the press ever taken their rights seriously?
Rubin and Dagher deserve credit for covering the representation on provincial councils but this isn't a one-day story and this attack didn't just emerge. Other attacks took place first and, since they weren't called, they encouraged more. When you get away with it (think Barack and his use of sexism throughout the 2008 Democratic primaries), you pull it again and again. You push it even more. So the same 'government' that was masking female imprisonment of widows as a 'rest cure' now wants to lessen their representation.
For more of the paper's coverage of the upcoming provincial elections (in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces), you can click here for a posting at their Baghdad blog.
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alissa j. rubin