BAGHDAD (Reuters) - One face of Iraq’s upcoming election is candidate Salama al-Khafaji, who hands out campaign leaflets providing voters a guide to Muslim prayer times and who wears a solemn black cloak that covers everything but her face.
The other is Masoun al-Damalouji, who smiles down with bleached blond hair and wearing western-style clothes from campaign posters plastered across Baghdad.
These two women represent the competing trends dominating Iraqi society since 2003, when Saddam Hussein’s mostly secular regime was toppled and Shi’ite Islamist parties rose to power.
The role of women in the lead-up to the March 7 polls — and the roles they will attain in the next government — are a barometer of the direction Iraq is heading as it struggles to end violence and create stability ahead of a U.S. withdrawal.
“I believe in freedoms and rights, but within Iraqi tradition,” said Khafaji, one of 1,800 women candidates seeking office less than a decade after Washington established what it hoped would become an inclusive Middle Eastern democracy.
Damalouji, an architect who is running with the secular Iraqiya list, makes no overt reference to religion on her campaign website. “We should keep religion and politics separate,” she said.
Many Iraqis are dismayed by the rise since Saddam’s ouster in 2003 of Islamist parties that they blame for fuelling sectarian violence and failing to deliver services.
Against the tide of conservatism, those Iraqis long for the days when Baghdad was one of the region’s most laissez-faire capitals and women in miniskirts strolled riverside parks.
In Iraq, women were educated as doctors in the 1930s and the first woman minister was named shortly after the monarchy ended in the late 1950s.
Others see domination by parties representing Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, many of whom embrace more conservative traditions, as only right.
Iraq’s next parliament will have at least 82 female members — but only, most would argue, because the constitution drafted under U.S. influence in 2005 guarantees them a quarter of seats.
Today, women head less influential committees in parliament and ministries without big cabinet clout, and women politicians complain they are shut out from the inner circle of power.
Safia al-Suhail, a secularist running with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said political leaders talked about rights but tend to promote only those women who do a party’s bidding.
“This is one of the things we are still missing,” she said.
According to Hanaa Edwar, of women’s rights organization al-Amal, female candidates in previous post-2003 elections did not show their faces on campaign posters out of fear of Islamist assailants. They pictured their husbands instead.
That is one sign of the toll seven years of war have taken on Iraqi women, who have often borne the brunt of conflict. In southern Basra, slain bodies of women who Shi’ite militants saw as insufficiently “Islamic” were once dumped on the street.
In Baghdad, Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in some areas, and Shi’ite militias in others, forced women to don headscarves and stop driving cars at the height of the violence two years ago.
Khafaji, a devoute Shi’ite who stumbled into politics when a female politician was killed in 2003, has joined a religious Shi’ite alliance challenging Maliki, who also has Islamist roots, as he seeks a second term on a law-and-order platform.
Both groups have bent over backwards to hone a new, nationalist image that is likely to play better with Iraqis fed up with ruling parties’ failure to deliver.
It worked for Maliki, of the Islamic Dawa party, in local polls in 2009. But many Iraqis suspect the change is skin deep.
Some female candidates may go along with party positions that are unfavourable for women, such as a move to give male religious clerics greater power than civil courts over divorce, inheritance and child custody.
“We have a lot to do,” said Edwar, the activist.
Additional reporting by Missy Ryan; writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Michael Christie and Myra MacDonald