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Power, corruption and lies: Iraqi women battle for recognition

Women refugees are ignored, female MPs are hounded out of office - Saddam's fall brought a new system, but patriarchy still grips Iraq
Iraqi women flee Mosul. Many internal refugees have been left without government aid (Reuters)

BAGHDAD, Iraq - They have one of the best addresses in Baghdad and some of the worst accommodation. An unimpeded view of the slow-moving waters of the Tigris is little compensation for the misery of some 6,000 refugee families from Fallujah who live on the corniche in the northern suburb of Adamiyeh. 

They have been forced to take shelter in half-completed flats and office buildings not far from two-storey family homes which spread along the suburb's quiet and leafy streets. 

"We've been here over two and a half years, since Daesh [Islamic State] occupied Fallujah," said Fawzia Ferhan Hussein, a widowed grandmother, wearing a black hijab.

One of my sons went to check on our house and found it in ruins... there's nothing to go back to.

- Fawzia Ferhan Hussein

Her six married children live near her in the concrete shell of the building which they now call home. They lived for some months under IS control but managed to escape in small boats along the Euphrates, followed by a walk across the desert at night. 

The families have grown resourceful from their bitter experiences. In their new home the men have erected plywood walls to create tiny cubicles for each couple, who sleep on mats on the floor.

They have run pipes from the official water mains to install taps on each staircase or in individual families' kitchens. A network of wires bring them electricity from the grid. 

"When we left Fallujah, we first rented a house until our money ran out. Then we came here," says Hussein.

"One of my sons went back a month ago to check on our house and found it in ruins, partly burnt and partly blown up. So there's nothing to go back to."

Fawzia Ferhan Hussein lives as a refugee in Baghdad, and cannot return to Fallujah (MEE/Jonathan Steele)

Yazi Shennari, a mother of four children, told a similar story. Her house is also unusable, destroyed during the Iraqi army assault which drove IS out of Fallujah last year, she thinks.

Holding one of her children to her chest, she and her husband initially moved to Diyala province but found it hard to get work. Now he works as a day labourer in Baghdad.

The families get no government help, they say. A few neighbours bring them food occasionally. 

One of their main supporters is Nada Ibrahim al-Jiboury, who regularly supplies them from her own income.

A consultant anaesthiologist, Jiboury has set up a non-governmental organisation called the Iraqi Woman and Future, hired teachers and carers for a nursery, and registered the 36,000 people (roughly six to each family) who live along the corniche and in other parts of Adamiyeh.

Ibrahim's career illustrates the vices and virtues of Iraq's political system as well as the difficulties for a woman to break through the country's traditional patriarchy.

The constitution adopted after Saddam Hussein's removal from power requires at least a quarter of MPs to be women. But this step forward runs into multiple difficulties in practice.

"There are a lot of challenges being a woman in Iraqi politics," she told Middle East Eye.

Yazi Shennari's house in Fallujah was destroyed in fighting with IS (MEE/Jonathan Steele)

Ibrahim served as an MP from 2005 until 2014 on a list headed by a prominent Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, which was part of a coalition called the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue.

The Iraqi election system is based on proportional representation. Initially voters merely ticked their preferred list of names, but in the 2010 election the choice was opened. Voters could tick the name of their preferred candidate on whatever list they liked.

"This created huge competition between the three men and one woman who would get into parliament if the list was successful," Ibrahim said. 

The issue came to a head in the 2014 election. According to the result sheets which are posted on the wall at every polling station as soon as the counting is complete, she came top of her party's list with 4,100 votes, the biggest score for a Sunni woman in Baghdad, she said.

A colleague told me: 'Nada, you're a fool. You've been an MP for eight years and you've not made money'.

- Nada Ibrahim, former MP

The results are taken down within 24 hours and Ibrahim was told by colleagues that she would have to pay a bribe of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Independent Election Commission to have her victory confirmed.

They also advised her that otherwise her party leader would be declared to have won most votes and would take the only seat the list was entitled to. Too few voters had chosen the list for it to qualify for more that one seat in the new parliament. 

"I was outraged," Ibrahim told MEE. "When I said I didn't have that kind of money and would not pay anyway, a colleague told me: 'Nada, you're a fool. You've been an MP for eight years and you've not made money'." 

Ibrahim had become unpopular with many male MPs, she said, "because I was seen as a threat when they found a woman who was empowered and made speeches". 

Nada Ibrahim with refugee families in Bahgdad (MEE/Jonathan Steele)

"I also had contacts with people and was active outside the Green Zone," she said, a reference to the heavily guarded government district housing parliament, embassies and private residences of MPs and ministers. It is almost impossible for ordinary citizens to get in.

Ibrahim no longer practises medicine. Instead, she devotes herself to her NGO for women.

It focuses on domestic abuse and violence against women but also runs basic employment courses for young refugees, men as well as women, training them in mobile phone maintenance and electrical mechanics.

Although she does not blame them, she is worried by the large number of young Iraqis who have left the country, including women, since Germany opened its door to refugees.

"There have been many positive changes since Saddam fell. There is freedom of speech, of newspapers and TV, of travel; the freedom to form political parties and to vote for them," she told MEE.

"But there are negatives. Violence is very severe. Government collapsed in large parts of the country when Daesh came. There's sectarianism throughout the political discourse, and corruption is massive."

Ibrahim maintains her political contacts and the temptation to go back into the parliamentary arena is strong. With 15 friends she recently formed a new party, called the Party of National Power and Unity.

In spite of its name, it is largely Sunni. The cancer of sectarianism implanted by the US-led invasion of 2003 is hard to eradicate, she admits.

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