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 women candidates - some more willing than others - to have their names on the more than 500-person ballot for Anbar's provincial election slated for January 31. The party is one of several that are composed of leaders of the homegrown Awakening movement, who are expected to be among the most popular contenders for council seats. (See pictures of a summit of Anbar's leading sheiks.)
As in the other provinces, the Anbar election will be regulated by an election law passed this fall that requires 25% of council members to be women. Without it, many Iraqis acknowledge, there would be a far slimmer showing of female candidates. A similar quota was in place for the last round of nation-wide elections that took place 2005. But in Anbar, where most of the province's majority Sunni population boycotted the 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 Anbar is expected to see the most dramatic increase in voter participation from its 2005 levels, out of the 14 Iraqi provinces casting votes.
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 male and female 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 make-up," he says, chuckling.
Anbar, which makes up nearly a third of the country's territory, was at the heart of Iraq's bloody insurgency against U.S. troops that raged for more than three years. In 2006, local sheikhs 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 against the al-Qaeda-led insurgents throughout 2007, inspiring similar programs across 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 one of the most unlikely candidates in the province. But few of the other women on the ballot are striding gung ho into the spotlight. Many hail from prominent families, or are the wives of powerful Sheikhs 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 B.A. 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.
Even Marzouk, however, admits the 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 the male candidates, none of the women have their faces on local campaign posters, as it was deemed inappropriate. "Because we are a tribal society, we didn't do posters with pictures. We only put out cards with their names," says Na'if. "There is more pressure on the women in the countryside than women in the city," says Marzouk. "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 women 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 Anbar women wouldn't dare to do. Dr. Iman al-Barazenchi, a European history professor at Baghdad University has a loyal following of male and female students campaigning for her on campus. Another 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 candidate Bushra Hassan Ali al-Feraji, Na'if's wife. 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 on Tuesday, as she set out a mid-day meal in separate rooms for the men and women.
From across the room, al-Feraji's seven-year-old daughter chimed in: "That's right!"
With reporting by Mazin Ezzat/Baghdad