by Savan Abdalrahman – Iraqi Kurdistan
Political participation is a process in which individuals play a role in changing and fuelling the social system by giving life to it. Today, worldwide, we see a wide range of women participating in politics, but this does not change the fact that women’s participation faces oppression and gender discrimination in the political arena.
In Middle Eastern states’ politics, the ratio of women participating varies widely due to the culture, norms and mentalities that have influenced the region as a whole. The main reasons which explain the lack of participation and weakness of women in this political arena relate to women not being socially, politically and mentally educated for the arena. This makes women lack self-confidence in standing in positions of decision making and it forces them to look up to men to make decisions for them. And this presents such a woman in the political field with the same mentality as the patriarchal man who she is directed through. Another reason is that women face many difficulties whilst participating in politics. These difficulties could range from harassment to personal threats on their lives.
Shady Nawzad, a previous member of parliament in the New Generation party in Iraqi Kurdistan, who was participating as part of the opposition in parliament, faced personal threats by the party’s leader for the criticisms she raised in her own party. Shady’s plight highlights the difficulties that women have in the Middle East, especially when becoming a figure in the political arena. The reason behind this goes back to a lack of cultural awareness about women’s freedoms.
Concerning the issue of weakness regarding women’s participation in politics, Rawzh Mohammed Salih, an operations manager, says:
“I believe there are many reasons that affect women’s participation in politics. One is that women know that entering politics will lead to difficulties relating to gender discrimination. The second is education: in the family and school, women have been raised to not develop decision-making skills, and politics is all about the ability to become key decision-makers. In politics, you need to have a voice”.
The second sex
Salih added: “A girl is raised in society as the second sex. Even the younger brother can make decisions for her. These are deep rooted problems that make us not see leadership and supervisory potential in women in the different fields of life, especially in politics”. Nma Sara, a political science and international relations student at the American University in Iraq – who chose her mother’s name as a second name – says: “One of the reasons could be that Iraqi political parties don’t have a clear dynamic to produce strong candidates in both men and women. When elections come up, they either chose popular people or members of their family. They don’t choose a young candidate who is educated”. She adds: “Even the youth who are members in the youth union of the parties, don’t do real politics: they mostly are used as volunteers to coordinate events”.
In Komal’s internal regulations, they do not state that any candidates can submit themselves to be considered for president or leadership positions. Instead, they state ‘prince’ candidate. ‘Prince’ refers to ‘male’. This contradicts the fact that women and men should be equal within the party because, in this case, women cannot submit themselves for leading positions.
‘We don’t have strong examples of courageous women in politics’
On the surface of politics, today we see an increasing rate of women participating in politics due to the ‘quota system’ which forces parties to include women. This has led to the participation of women who do not own their own decisions and beliefs. Nma says: “We don’t have strong examples of courageous women in politics. We might have a few women in past centuries, but today, we don’t have good role models. The existing role models are problematic because they either come from privileged families or originate from a political party and adopt their ideology uncritically to it, or they are rich women who can afford their own campaigns. We don’t see courageous women who entered politics step-by-step from a young age and who educated themselves. We basically see them coming from nowhere”.
For Nma: “The reason political parties use women candidates is that they think that the feminist revolution has become a trend and they feel obliged to follow up with that trend. They exploit them for their gender, saying: ‘You are a woman and we need women candidates’. They are not selected for their ability and knowledge”. Concerning her own participation, Nma says: “I personally wouldn’t participate in any political party because I personally don’t believe in the parliamentary system in Iraq and Kurdistan. I think the system is broken. What they do is not effective, because there is a higher decision maker above them. I rather see it as a waste of resources”.
Women have gone through a number of hardships in order to participate not only in politics but in social fields. This has cost most of them their personal lives and the loss of people who are close to them. Rawezh says: “A person comes to a point where they say that fighting the patriarchal system is pointless. You get to a point and ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this? You start to question everything’”.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, we still find very few women who still persist in the struggle and fight to secure meaningful participation of women in society. But Rawezh says: “We believe in ourselves and we do have the skills, but the fight we have is a very difficult one. It needs power and willpower”.