Female candidates shake up Iraq election

Around 7,000 candidates have registered to contest the May 12 election, with 329 parliamentary seats up for grabs. (AFP)
Updated 27 April 2018
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Female candidates shake up Iraq election

  • ‘I will vote for one of the beautiful candidates and I do not mind if she has robbed me,’ soldier tells Arab News
  • Provocative posters and billboards of female Iraqi parliamentary candidates have sparked a heated debate about the role of women in the country’s male-dominated political system

BAGHDAD: Iraqis will go to the polls on May 12 to elect 329 MPs — the fourth parliamentary vote since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. 

With security better in much of the country than it has been for several years, the election has led to a surge of interest in a new generation of female candidates.

A total of 2,592 women are standing for office across the country and in Baghdad many of them have shunned the nation’s conservative traditions to run socially liberal and occasionally glamorous campaigns unlike anything Iraq has seen before.

Some posters depicting female candidates in make-up and without Islamic headscarves, have provoked a mixed response from an electorate more accustomed to voting for unsmiling religious clerics.

While some voters said the images were a welcome change to the dry, male-dominated campaigns of old, others accused the women of lacking “political depth” and relying on their looks to woo the public. The candidates themselves have defended their unorthodox approach as just another way to generate interest in the election.

In an interview with Iraqi news agency, Al-Manar Press, Mannal Al-Mu’atassim, said she hoped her fashionable image would motivate more young people to support her in the polls. She told Arab News that while she was “not betting” on her looks to win her more votes, she regarded her appearance as more important than her ability to debate conventional political issues.

“I believe that Iraqi voters are heading toward choosing new faces, so there is no need for an electoral program or slogans,” she said. 

Under the terms of the Iraqi constitution, 25 percent of the seats in the national Parliament are reserved for women. 

This is the first time, however, that the participation of female candidates has generated such widespread public interest among an electorate used to taking a cynical view of more established politicians linked to corruption and sectarian violence.

Ziena Al-Shimari, another female candidate in Baghdad, told Arab News she had been granted permission to run by the head of her tribe and was now determined to stand up for the rights of a new generation of Iraqis.

“I am calling on us to unify the Arab tribes because they support the young while the state does not,” she said.Since campaigning began on April 14, the images of the women have given rise to a range of reactions, from anger and mockery to adulation and pride.

“I will vote for one of the beautiful candidates and I do not mind if she has robbed me” Murtadha Zayer, a soldier, told Arab News. “If a beautiful thief robs me in front of my eyes it is better than having an ugly thief who continues to trick me all the time.”

Some of the pictures showing the female candidates have been torn by infuriated voters, while others have been defaced to give the women beards and mustaches.

Salah Ahmed, a political activist, criticized many of the women for lacking “cultural or political depth” and targeting “ignorant voters”.

“If we asked them to participate in electoral debates to identify their visions, plans and ways of thinking, we would find they had nothing to offer. So to compensate for this shortage they are focusing on their make-up and changes to their appearance,” he said.

Bushra Zuwini, a former minister of women’s affairs, told Arab News political factions are using female candidates who lack knowledge of important issues to trick the electorate.

“The big blocs now have experience in how to defraud voters, so they brought in new faces that do not understand politics and do not have any programs or visions,” she said. “This phenomenon will reflect negatively on women.


To fast or not? Syrians in Raqqa mark relaxed Ramadan

Artisans prepare sweet bread at a bakery in the Syrian city of Raqqa on Thursday, during the holy month of Ramadan. (AFP)
Updated 7 min 26 sec ago
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To fast or not? Syrians in Raqqa mark relaxed Ramadan

  • Muslims around the world fast from dawn until dusk, but in Daesh territory, anyone caught eating or drinking water was subject to draconian punishments.
  • For more than three years, residents of Raqqa were subjected to Daesh’s ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law — particularly stringent during the holy month of Ramadan.

RAQQA, Syria: To fast or not to fast? For the first time in years, Syrians in Raqqa can choose to observe a relaxed Ramadan, without the rigid regulations imposed by Daesh and their religious police.

“We are free to fast or not,” says Ahmad Al-Hussein, a resident of the northern Syrian city that was the inner sanctum of Daesh’s self-styled “caliphate.”

“We used to fast in fear, but now it’s out of faith,” the stonemason tells AFP.

For more than three years, residents of Raqqa were subjected to Daesh’s ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law — particularly stringent during the holy month of Ramadan.

Muslims around the world fast from dawn until dusk, but in Daesh territory, anyone caught eating or drinking water was subject to draconian punishments.

“Those that didn’t fast were locked in an iron cage in a public square, under the sun and in front of everyone, to serve as an example,” recalls Hussein, in his 40s.

A US-backed offensive ousted Daesh from Raqqa in October, after months of clashes and bombardment that left much of the city in ruins and littered with explosives.

Still, tens of thousands have cautiously returned to their homes and marked the start last week of what they hoped would be a more festive Ramadan.

Hussein says he will observe the day-long fast, but is excited to resume one custom in particular: Gathering around the television with his family to watch month-long drama series aired specially during Ramadan.

Daesh had clamped down on satellite dishes and any form of entertainment seen as contrary to religion.

“We missed these Ramadan traditions. For four years under IS (Daesh), we were banned from watching these series,” Hussein tells AFP.

Already, Ramadan feels different, with those opting not to fast eating publicly without fear of retribution.

Young men gather at a restaurant in the city center, sipping on chilled fruit juices under the scorching sun.

An employee carefully slices slabs of meat that will be barbecued for juicy sandwiches.

During Daesh reign, “we could only open our restaurants two hours before breaking the fast,” says owner Dakhil Al-Farj.

Anyone seen eating during the day was arrested by the hisbah, or religious police, he recalls.

“Now, we start serving customers at 10 am. People are free. Those that want to fast do, and those that don’t are also free not to,” Farj says.

Daesh defeat in Raqqa came at a heavy price.

Residents are still losing their lives to the sea of unexploded ordnance left behind by the militants.

Bombing raids by the US-led coalition backing the offensive against Daesh flattened entire neighborhoods, and rebuilding efforts have been slow.

Many districts still have no electricity or running water, and there are barely any jobs.

That means many are unable to afford a lavish iftar, the sunset meal that breaks the daytime fast.

In one street market, Syrians stroll among stalls piled high with fragrant oranges, bananas, bright white cauliflowers, potatoes and deep purple aubergines.

Huran Al-Nachef, a 52-year-old Raqqa native, will pick up a few tomatoes, cucumbers, and potatoes for a modest meal.

“It’s all obscenely expensive and there’s no work,” says Nachef.

His children look for odd jobs every day to try to provide for their families, but can barely break even.

“Those with money can prepare iftar, but those poor like me can’t help but feel sorry for themselves,” he says.

Nadia Al-Saleh, another resident, shuffles into a bustling bakery to pick up maarouk, a brioche-like pastry covered in sesame seeds that is ubiquitous during Ramadan.

“We’re buying some pastries to make the kids happy, make them feel the Ramadan spirit,” says Saleh, whose hair is covered by a dainty midnight-blue shawl.

“We’re still homeless. We’re living with other people, our husbands have no work. Our situation is really tough.”

But baker Hanif Abu Badih is feeling optimistic.

“There’s no comparison. Despite all the destruction, people are extremely happy that the nightmare is over,” he tells AFP, dressed in a traditional bright white robe.

Under IS, he was sentenced to 40 lashes and three days in prison, and his bakery was forced to close for two weeks.

Why? One of his youngest employees tried to hide when the hisbah was rounding up men for obligatory prayers.

“This year, we are going to fast without IS. We’re going to live however we want, in total freedom,” says Abu Badih.