Fadhila Hanoosh Khalif is an unlikely candidate for public office. To start, the mother of five has absolutely no interest in the position she's running for. "I don't want to be a candidate. He forced it on me," she says, scowling at her husband, Sheikh Hamid al-Hais, who heads one of the largest tribal-based political parties in Iraq's desert Anbar province. "I don't even know what number I am on the list. Ask him." She flicks her hand in his direction.
Khalif is one of 131 female candidates some are more willing than others to include their name on the more than 500-person ballot for Anbar's provincial election, slated for Jan. 31. Al-Hais' party is one of several that are composed of leaders from the homegrown Awakening movement; they are expected to be among the most popular contenders for council seats. (See pictures of a summit of Anbar's leading sheiks.)
Like other provinces, Anbar's election will be regulated by a law passed last fall that requires 25% of council members to be women. Without the law, many Iraqis acknowledge, there would be a far slimmer showing of female candidates. A similar quota was in place for the last round of nationwide elections, which took place in 2005. But in Anbar, where most of the province's majority Sunni population boycotted that vote, political participation for men and women alike is relatively new. "Democracy will be real in Anbar in 2009," says Jubbair Rashid Na'if, another high-ranking tribal leader, whose wife Bushra Hassan Ali al-Feraji is also a candidate on the Tribes of Iraq list. The last election, he says, was "silly." U.S. and election officials say that, out of the 14 Iraqi provinces holding elections, Anbar is expected to see the most dramatic increase in voter participation, compared with 2005.
But the fact that Iraqis in Anbar get to participate in their first democratic election isn't the only major change. In a society that remains heavily dependent on tribal lineages and traditional gender roles for its structure, the introduction of women like Khalif and al-Feraji into this month's campaign is a new development, and one that both the men and women seem to view as more of a legal necessity than an opportunity. "We are required to have eight women if we're going to win," al-Hais says, responding to his wife's irritation. Na'if suggests that one advantage is that women are less corrupt. "We prefer to have women in the local councils because women won't steal money from the council maybe just a little for their makeup," he says, chuckling.
Anbar, which makes up nearly one-third of Iraq's territory, was at the heart of the country's bloody insurgency against U.S. troops, which raged for more than three years. In 2006 local sheiks and former insurgents began to band together to form the Awakening movement. With funding from the U.S. military, the movement fought a fierce battle in 2007 against al-Qaeda-led insurgents, inspiring similar programs in other areas of Iraq. The Awakening is largely credited with quelling the insurgency and bringing stability to Anbar and Baghdad. Now many of Anbar's 35 parties carry names that emphasize either tribal or Awakening ties, or both.
Khalif may be an unlikely candidate. But few of the women on the ballot are striding gung ho into the spotlight. Many hail from prominent families or are the wives of powerful sheiks or former Awakening leaders who plan to run in the more important parliamentary elections, slated for later this year. While some like a schoolteacher in Hit, a town about 85 miles west of Baghdad volunteered, others were approached by male party leaders and told they had to run. "I was not going to run, but they asked me to do it," says Fatima Mahmoud Marzouk, another candidate on the Tribes of Iraq list. "I considered it a great responsibility, and I am very proud of the trust they put in me." Indeed, the mother of four, who holds a degree in Islamic science from a local university, has embraced her new role with patriotic fervor. "As an Iraqi, I carry the pain of my people, and I want to do my best to give something back to this country," she says.
Yet Marzouk says there are social constraints on her campaign. In Anbar, girls are rarely allowed to leave their town to pursue higher education, and active public campaigning is discouraged. Unlike their male counterparts, none of the female candidates are pictured on campaign posters (it was deemed inappropriate). "Because we are a tribal society, we didn't do posters with pictures," says Na'if. "We only put out cards with their names." Marzouk says: "There is more pressure on the women in the countryside than women in the city. For a woman to campaign, it's harder. It's not as accepted to go around and put up posters and talk to people. My relatives will go for me."
The contrast with female candidates in Baghdad is noticeable. In the Iraqi capital, posters can be seen pasted to blast walls depicting the faces of a few bold female candidates something the Anbar women wouldn't dare to do. Iman al-Barazenchi, a European history professor at Baghdad University, has a loyal following of male and female students who are campaigning for her on campus. A candidate for the Iraqia bloc, Nebras al-Ma'mouri, makes frequent appearances as a political analyst on Iraqi television. "It's great to see a woman in politics," she says. "In America, for example, the Secretary of State is a woman. Why not here in Iraq?"
In Anbar, that idea may take a little longer to get used to. "Of course, since it is a village area, people are shocked that I'm running. But I would like to prove to them that I can do something for this area at least, for the women. Maybe we can build a fabric factory," says al-Feraji. In the living room of her home in al-Jazeera a village of fields and date palms outside the provincial capital of Ramadi al-Feraji contemplated the meaning of this election for Anbar's women. "We want to see women more active in politics in the years to come," she said as she set out a midday meal in separate rooms for the men and women.
From across the room, al-Feraji's 7-year-old daughter chimed in: "That's right!"
With reporting by Mazin Ezzat / Baghdad