ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan -- Across the world, women are assuming roles previously denied to them. In business, in education, and in science, they are participating in both the highest and lowest echelons of a variety of sectors that were once reserved solely to their male counterparts. Politics in particular has traditionally been roped off from women, but in recent decades, we have witnessed some progress. Women hold the highest political offices in several countries such as Thailand, Australia, Germany and Brazil.
Across the globe, approximately one in five members of Parliament is a woman.
Yet, in Saudi Arabia, women are still not allowed to drive. King Abdullah's announcement in September that women would be able to vote and run in the 2015 elections is a promise made (and broken) many times before. The recently formed Lebanese cabinet consists of all men, a step back from the Lebanese cabinets of previous years that were still male-dominated, but not to the complete exclusion of women. In Egypt, only three women were appointed to the new 29-member cabinet, and none of them were given vital posts such as the ministries of education, health, or media. Of the 29 ministries in the new Tunisian government, only three are headed by women.
Inequality in the daily lives of men and women has been scrutinized, and steps have been taken by various governments, international organizations, and non-profit organizations to combat this – but what about gender inequality in politics?
At the screening of a film called No Mirrors, a documentary that depicts the horrors of women who set themselves on fire due to societal pressure and abuse, Rudaw spoke with Kurdish women's rights activists, Hoda Zangana and Muhabad Qaradakhi.
“Violence and discrimination against women can be seen in all fields of life…not just in daily life but in politics as well. A lot of the higher posts in government are taken by men,” said Zangana.
Zangana said that the government must work to change this environment and that educating women about their rights is the first step.
According to Zanaga, women in Kurdistan play only a symbolic role in politics.
“True, it is a lot better for women in politics here than in the rest of the Middle East,” she said. “But most of it is symbolic…it is not exactly as it looks. It is true we have many women MPs, but more work needs to be done than simply electing women MPs.”
Fellow activist Qaradakhi believes that women in Kurdistan are not given a chance at decision making.
“There is involvement of women in the political process, but this involvement is weak because their opinions have no tangible effect on the political decisions being made.”
Qaradakhi who has lived in Sweden for many years said that Kurdish women returning from abroad have helped to change the situation for women in Kurdistan.
“In the last 10 years, many Kurdish women who lived abroad in America and Europe have come back,” she said. “This has had an effect on Kurdish society, including politics.”
Qaradakhi added, “In recent years, the import of Western feminist philosophy into Eastern patriarchal thinking has marked the beginning of change in women's participation in politics. But in the Middle East, this mentality has yet to be fully developed,”
In 2005, Qaradakhi was appointed Advisor to Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani for women's issues and gender equality – the first post of its kind in the region.
Kurdish journalist Sozan Sharafani, who has lived and studied in Norway, said that in Norway, gender equality can be seen not just in the way people speak, but the way they act as well.
“In comparison, it is true that in Kurdistan, women's rights are limited. But it is also true that women are freer in Kurdistan than in other countries of the region. Just as in Norway, Kurdish women participate in politics, although so far, they have not had prominent roles.”
There is still a long way to go for gender equality in politics in the world. In the U.S., only 89 of the 535 members of Congress are women, and less than a quarter of the members of parliaments in Canada, the Czech Republic, Britain, and France are women.
Taman Shakir, writer and women's rights activist, said, “In the East, and especially in Kurdistan, many women who hold political office do so as a result of family ties or patronage. A lot of them were never even politically active before holding office.”
Sozan Shahab Nuri, an MP from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) acknowledged her family's influence on her entry into politics.
“I grew up in a very political family. In such a family, you learn, you obtain certain skills,” she said. “The first time I was elected to Parliament, everyone said I was elected because of my father. But when I proved myself for the second time, people acknowledged that yes, she's the right person.”
The Middle East region is at a historical crossroads of change and reform, with an unprecedented opportunity to reassess old systems and build anew. Will women's roles in politics change in the near future? Can we realistically say that in 5, 10, or 20 years, we can hope to see a female head-of-state in the Middle East?
Qaradakhi doesn't think so. She pointed to the documentary she just watched as proof.
According to No Mirrors, in 2010 alone, 525 women set themselves on fire in Kurdistan. These burnings are a grim reminder that in Kurdish society, there is still very little acknowledgment or debate regarding women's rights and gender inequality.
Sharafani, however, is more optimistic.
“There is hope, in time,” she said. “The influence of religion needs to be scaled back, and although there has been more dialogue among intellectuals about women's rights in politics, there still exists a deep rooted tribal mentality that dictates that the man should be first. Public perception needs to change, oftentimes; people do not take a woman seriously when she speaks out.”
“We are fighting,” said Nuri. “It's not only about proving ourselves – we are also fighting for democracy and for freedom of speech. And we will not let anybody make us withdraw and sit at home to let the men do the job. Those days are gone.”
* Reina Saiki is a graduate student pursuing her M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She is currently interning at Rudaw's office in Erbil.