Eyes on the Prize for Iraqi Women

Today, let's celebrate the women of Iraq.

On Sunday, over 1,800 female parliamentary candidates vied for 82 seats in Iraq's nationwide election. For the first time since 2003, campaign posters featuring larger than life headshots of the candidates - not of their husbands, as in previous years - hung alongside those of their male rivals.

Iraqi female voters braved the streets turning out in record numbers despite violence across the country. 100 blasts hit Baghdad before polls opened Sunday morning and the city's death count totaled 38 by the end of the day.

Unlike in 2005, the names of candidates were listed individually on the ballot allowing voters to vote outside party lines. It remains to be seen if women voters opted for female candidates in higher numbers, but according to Radio Free Iraq, women interviewed were looking for "capable female candidates who could prove that the presence of women in the legislature could be trusted."

Since 2003, women's rights have taken a back seat to life-threatening security concerns, but women candidates say this Parliament will be different from the last. The required 25% parliamentary gender quota made its debut in 2005 with U.S. support, but Jenan Mubark, a first time candidate, believes it was exploited at the time.

"[The political parties] used the quota against women, not for women," Mubark said. Mubark and others accused the male dominated political parties of packing the last Parliament with women they could control.

Elsewhere, in other Arab states, an average of 10.1% of lawmakers are women, and today some women want the quota in Iraq eliminated all together.

Maha al-Douri, a prominent female candidate running in Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's party told the Associated Press, "in the future this quota should be removed and women should compete equally with men, because women politicians have proven their competence and reliability in politics."

But few believe Iraq is ready for such a step.

Christina Asquith, a journalist and professor of women in Islam at the University of Vermont, shudders at what female representation would be were it not for the quota.

"I think we would see almost no women running. It would be just difficult for women to get an edge, get a foot in the door," Asquith told NPR.

And in fact, it's difficult everywhere. Even in the U.S., women only comprise about 17% of the U.S. Congress and worldwide, women make up an average of only 19% of parliamentarians.

By sheer numbers, Iraq is ahead of the game but a seat at the table does not necessarily mean a voice in the conversation. While minority groups typically find strength in numbers, efforts to form a women's voting block have been thwarted by political differences.

Female candidates come from all over the political and religious map and with few candidates running on "feminist" or "women's rights" platforms, they disagree on many core issues. The two issues they do agree on? Education for women and ending violence against women.

Forming a women's caucus dedicated to furthering women's rights seems crucial as Iraq becomes a self-governed democracy. As they negotiate the role of women in the new democracy, women parliamentarians will need all the political muscle power they can get to modernize divorce laws, marriage laws and labor laws.

But what worries me, as I applaud the courageous women on Sunday's ballot, is what happens when the next generation comes up to bat. In a war-torn country with 4.2 million Iraqis displaced both internally and abroad since 2003, many young women have come of age without access to education.

If the security situation fails to stabilize, that education gap will only widen. According to a summer 2009 report by Refugees International, not one female refugee interviewed indicated a desire to return to Iraq, citing the turbulent political situation and the inability to reenter her former professional life.

Iraq has experienced a steady outward flow of refugees since the 1980's but with the success of this Parliament we can hope women's rights become a priority, offering a stable and viable homeland. Recent studies have shown that educating women improves the entire society, but today in Iraq, women have few education and employment opportunities. To advocate for their country, it's time for Iraqi politicians of all genders, religions and political parties to advocate for women.

If we want Iraq to thrive in coming years, women need to be part of the solution.

Our task in the international community is to support Iraqi women parliamentarians both present and future by providing education and leadership opportunities for Iraqi women of every age. We should celebrate this week as 82 women take on new roles, but increase our support for the next generation of Iraqi girls, wherever they are living. Their country depends on it.