On 12 May 2018, Iraq held its fourth parliamentary elections since the 2003 US invasion, which some analysts declare to be turning point for Iraqi politics. This claim has largely been due to the surprise victory of the controversial Shi‘i cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, and his unlikely, yet strategic, coalition made in January 2018 with communist and smaller secular parties. Al-Sadr’s victory has sent a clear anti-interventionist message to the world on behalf of a frustrated public from the rampant corruption that has become usual in Iraqi politics. This desire of “out with the old, and in with the new,” has however opened important opportunities for women candidates, who utilized their marginalization from politics as an advantage to appeal to the frustrated Iraqi voters. Indeed, the higher rate of younger and secular-appearing women candidates’ public presence and extensive advertising efforts is what set campaigning for this parliamentary election different from the previous three terms. Women candidates’ posters with no make-up and showing their bare heads (from the Muslim headscarf) that were plastered across Iraq’s major cities received much public and media attention. This increased attention, however, came with a price: women candidates faced unprecedented levels of harassment and violence during the campaigning period, which forced some to drop out of the race. Such extensive violence against women in elections (VAWE), led the UN secretary-general for Iraq, Jan Kubis, to publicly condemn such acts and encourage women to continue their races. Fortunately, given Iraq’s constitutional quota for women, which reserves at least twenty-five percent of the total parliamentary seats for women, women are expected, and even receive party support, to compete for the parliament.
After fifteen years of continuing violence, high unemployment rate, and crumbling infrastructure, both Shi‘i and Sunni Iraqis are unhappy with their leaders. In the first parliamentary elections since ISIS’s defeat, the Iraqi electorate had two choices in expressing their dissatisfaction: to boycott the elections, or to elect new candidates. With a mere 44.5 percent turnout as announced by official sources, the lowest in post-Saddam era, many chose the former option. However, others opted to elect new faces, resulting in seventy percent of the representatives being new.
Prior to the elections, Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi‘i cleric and the leader of the Saeroon Alliance went so far as to demand his followers not to re-elect old faces. This alliance claimed a commitment to establishing a government body beyond sectarian or religious divisions, and to state-building that would relieve Iraqis from their daily struggles with limited job opportunities, struggling economy, and corruption. His coalition included new, younger faces, except for one woman, Majida al-Tamimi, an incumbent parliamentarian who had competed independently of any sectarian party, and had played a major role in exposing the government’s corruption during her parliamentary term.
Despite showing such an outspoken woman, the gender ideology of the Saeroon Alliance is unclear. Although Iraq’s Electoral Law requires at least a third of the candidates on electoral lists be women, the Saeroon Alliance managed to nominate only 132 women among its total 489 candidates (twenty-seven percent women). Running in fourteen out of the eighteen governorates—with the exception of the four Kurdistan governorates—this alliance did however establish a women’s committee that held conferences on state-building and the importance of incorporating women in the building process.
The level of frustration of Iraqi citizens this term influenced the kind of individuals who ran for elections and dictated the strategies that parties and candidates used throughout campaigning. The desire to express disloyalty to old guard religiously aligned political leaders, opened important opportunities for women candidates, particularly those who appeared secular, as they could more easily appeal to the voters as political outsiders. Among the newer women’s faces running for office this term were journalists, human rights activists, and business owners. Notably, renowned incumbent women members of parliament, such as Hanan al-Fatlawi and Sharaouq al-Abayji, who had been in the Iraqi political scene since 2003 and held leadership positions in their parties, were also voted out of office as many voters considered them part of the political establishment that had failed to address the country’s issues.
In the end, 2,003 women ran for elections, composing twenty-nine percent of total candidates vying for Iraq’s 329 parliamentary seats, largely encouraged by the electoral law that sets a one-third minimum for women candidates on electoral lists. However, the increasing rate of women aspiring for political office in Iraq also accompanied an increase in violence against women in politics/elections (VAWP/E). UN Women defines VAWP as “any act or threat of, gender-based violence, resulting in physical, sexual, psychological harm or suffering to women, that prevents them from exercising and realizing their political rights.” Such violence is gendered in that it targets women specifically as women. Therefore, while men are also victims of violence in politics and elections, the forms of violence that target women are gendered in motive and context, and hence, geared towards preventing women’s political participation and representation, as a social group. Much of the reported VAWP occurs prior to elections and targets women candidates, in an effort to intimidate them to drop out of the race. Iraq’s most common form of VAWP is through sexual allegations in a highly religious context. While instances of public shaming and harassment of female candidates were reported during the 2014 parliamentary elections, namely through the circulation of intimate pictures of females candidates as a way to harm their image and discourage them from competing, this time, such violence was much more frequent and intense. The intensity of the sexual nature of such allegations were in part motivated by the new genre of female candidates that perpetrators of such violence feared or opposed.
Intidhar Ahmed Jassim was a candidate in the Victory Coalition of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Few weeks prior to the elections, a three-minute clip appeared on social media, showing a woman and man engaged in intimate acts, under the allegation that the woman in the video was Jassim. She, however, denounced the video, calling it fabricated and photoshopped, and through reference to her family and academic position, publicly pleaded with the electorate. “I am sad for a great nation that believes the rotten fabrications of politicians, aiming at my reputation and publishing a fabricated video. Everyone knows my family and knows my husband Dr. Saad Salih al-Hamdani, the professor at Dijla University in Baghdad. I am the daughter of your country, Professor Intidhar Ahmed Jassim. Please, please do not listen to rumors.” Her pleas were however ineffective, as Hussein al-Adily, the spokesman for the Victory Coalition ultimately removed her from the candidate list, by arguing that “it is the right of every coalition and party to withdraw any candidate not abiding by the qualifications and characteristics set for all the candidates in the next parliamentary election and this candidate did not abide by the guidelines.” Jassim’s removal by her own party leadership has important symbolic implications for women’s political participation in the future. This move not only speaks to the power of such forms of intimidation, but also highlights the “unwritten” rules of gendered “guidelines” for male and female candidates. Men candidates are yet to receive intimidation in the form of public release of intimate photographs or videos during election campaigns. The most common form of harassment of male candidates includes allegations of behind closed doors negotiations with controversial or corrupt figures. Although it is difficult to account women’s withdrawal from parliamentary races because of such gendered violence, the Iraqi media did report on at least four other women “withdrawing” their candidacy shortly before the elections.
Violence against women in politics, as it occurred in Iraq’s most recent elections, carries negative implications for women’s political representation, the quality of democracy, and electoral integrity in the county. Iraq’s twenty-five percent reserved seats for women, while imperfect as it functions more as a ceiling for women’s parliamentary presence, has nonetheless served as a legitimizing force in women’s quest for a seat in this body. There are always forces that oppose women’s access to decision-making positions, but an institution, such as quotas, that guarantees women’s presence, can advance expectations of women’s political roles, albeit gradually. In the meanwhile, it seems that Iraq’s questionable electoral integrity and a dissatisfied public, among other major political concerns, will detract from attention to its women parliamentarians, as well as Iraqi gender politics in general. Although the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) claimed a voter turnout of 44.5 percent, many parties, candidates, and even voters challenge this number by claiming that it did not even surpass nineteen percent, largely questioning the legitimacy of the 2018 parliamentary elections. Indeed, due to extensive nationwide fraud allegations and criticism of the country's electoral commission, the outgoing parliament voted for a manual recount of votes. Weeks after the elections, among heightened political tensions, which also included attacks on ballot storage centers in Baghdad and Kirkuk destroying millions of votes, the new government has been struggling to form.
Given the fact no single party won enough parliamentary seats to form the new Iraqi government, the newly victorious al-Sadr faction has been forced to enter into coalitions with other larger parties. Despite major differences, the three parties that gained the most votes in the 12 May helections finally agreed in July 2018 to join forces in forming a new government. Hence, the anti-interventionist stance of al-Sadr is now compromised with his alliance with the parties of the United States-backed Haidar al-Abadi, as well as the Iran-backed Hadi al-Amiri. Such composition does not signal a turning point for Iraqi elections as was expected soon after the elections, since they may preserve power in the hands of similar political and sectarian groups.