By Claudia Parsons
BAGHDAD, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Safia Taleb al-Souhail has ambitions to
be Iraq's first woman president one day. A month before a poll in which she
hopes to win a parliamentary seat, the former exile is upbeat about women's
rights and democracy.
She says the only reason a new Iraqi constitution approved in a
referendum last month did not do as much for women as she hoped was a lack
of time to negotiate the details, and she is sure changes can be made in the
"I believe our situation as women is going to be much better in the
near future," says Souhail, a leading anti-Saddam Hussein activist who was
invited to U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech in
February where she made headlines by hugging the mother of a U.S. marine
killed in Iraq.
"I'm very serious," says Souhail, 40, assessing her political
chances. "I will run for election for Iraqi president. Of course not this
time, but maybe next time."
Bidour al-Yassri, who runs a women's organisation in the southern
Shi'ite city of Samawa, has a very different outlook.
A centre to train women as seamstresses that she helped set up with
United Nations backing has been attacked with mortars, and her efforts to
bring women into the police force under a British training programme have
angered some local men.
"The men were threatening me, they gathered in front of our office
shouting that there are no jobs for men, let alone women," Yassri said.
Under a quota system introduced before last January's election for a
transitional assembly, at least a quarter of the seats in Iraq's parliament
are reserved for women. But Yassri said politicians in Samawa paid only lip
service to women's interests at election time.
"We tried to encourage women to run for parliament but they refused
because they know how the tribes see women -- they consider women inferior,"
RELIGION IN THE CONSTITUTION
Despite the fact women ended up with 31 percent of seats after the
January poll, a new post-Saddam constitution drafted by the interim
parliament was a disappointment to some because it assigns a primary role to
Islam as a source for legislation.
Women's campaigners have denounced wording that grants each
religious sect the right to run its own family courts -- apparently doing
away with previous civil codes -- as an open door to give Islam further
influence in the legal system.
"It was a mistake," says Hanaa Edwar, a Christian who is secretary
of the Iraqi Women's Network. "Now it's religious, and it's not only
religious, it's also sectarian."
She and others are pinning their hopes on amendments to the
constitution, which will be the first item on the agenda of the new
parliament in the first four months after the election.
"We have the chance, especially at the beginning, to re-discuss it,
to push for some clarifying articles," Souhail said. Family law is one area
that needs to be standardised so that different religious sects cannot trump
Iraqi national law in the area of marriage or inheritance, she said.
"What we're asking for is not against our tradition or our religion
or views in society, but maybe we needed more time to explain it," Souhail
said, playing down the strength of opposition. "I don't know who's going to
resist it," she said.
Ethnic and sectarian tensions have dominated the run-up to the Dec.
15 parliamentary election, exacerbated by violence that has touched every
community in Iraq, from Shi'ites to Sunni Arabs, Kurds to Turkmens and other
At the last election in January, a Shi'ite Islamist bloc took the
majority of seats after Sunni Arabs boycotted the vote, raising concerns
among secular Iraqis about the influence of powerful Iranian-backed clerics
and religious militias.
Zainab Fou'ad, 24, who is studying French at Baghdad University,
said parliament had done nothing for women since then. "I believe women's
rights can't be achieved under a religious government," she said.
This time, Sunni Arabs are expected to vote in large numbers,
offering the possibility of a more representative parliament.
More than 200 parties and coalitions have registered for the ballot,
including secular parties and small local groups that have a better chance
of winning seats under a new system of proportional representation for
Iraq's 18 provinces.
PUPPETS AND STRONG WOMEN
Every third name on each list must be a woman, a provision Edwar
said put some religious parties in a difficult situation.
"Some of them are still saying 'Why should we put a woman on the
list?'" she said.
"The result of the (last) election brought very weak women into the
national assembly," she said. "They were women from the political parties
who always said yes to the political parties."
Edwar, whose organisation runs a range of small-scale projects in
health, education and women's rights around the country, says in recent
months she has become disillusioned.
She says Iraq should not turn its back on its long history of
education among women dating back long before Saddam's days.
"We need the parties to include strong women. We don't need a puppet
or a tool in your hands, to be used only for your own interest," she said.
"But they don't like to have strong women."
Souhail, the first woman on a list headed by secular Shi'ite former
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, said the next parliament should be less
dominated by big blocs, with more secular voices.
"People at the beginning were angry from Saddam Hussein's time so
everybody wanted to vote for their identity," she said, explaining the
attraction of the Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs. This time, she says, issues
will be more important.
In the provinces, women like Souhail, who lived abroad for most of
her life until Saddam was toppled, may face another kind of resistance.
Nisreen Youssif, a 41-year-old lawyer, is running for parliament in
the southern city of Kerbala, another Shi'ite stronghold. "Many of the women
in parliament have come from abroad," she said. "They haven't suffered and
they don't know the nature of women in Iraq."
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Hiba Moussa in Baghdad, Sami
al-Jumeili in Kerbala and Hamid Fadhil in Samawa)