In the last several decades, the issue of women’s descriptive representation in legislative bodies around the world has received increased international attention. Scholars have paid particular attention to how women get into parliament, and what they do once they get there, or in other words, whether women actually represent women. Women’s pathways to political office, including legislative positions, vary greatly by country, and depend on a number of institutional and cultural factors such as regime type, political system, the existence of gender quotas, strength of the women’s movement and civil society in general, and societal norms surrounding women’s political participation, to name a few.
Iraq presents an interesting case study in this regard. Women currently make up roughly 25 percent of legislators in the single house of parliament, the Council of Representatives. However, a historical examination of women’s descriptive representation (or the number or percentage of women in parliament) shows that women have, in the past, made up only a small percentage of legislators (see the below graph).
Source: IPU Parline. Note: In 2003-2004, no parliament existed in Iraq. No data was available in 2005.
A wide variety of factors have influenced and will continue to influence the number of women in Iraq’s parliament. While it is impossible to account for all the variables in this often-complex relationship, I have chosen to focus on the four that, in the case of Iraq, have the largest influence: Iraq’s electoral system, international influence in Iraq, the implementation of a legislative gender quota, and finally, patriarchal norms and norms about women in politics in Iraq.
Iraq’s parliamentary system is a proportional representation system, although the specific type of PR system used by Iraq has changed over the years. For the 2005 elections, Iraq used a closed-list PR system, meaning that each of the 111 approved political parties in the election had a “closed” list of candidates (or in other words, the voters voted for the party, not individual candidates). On the other hand, in its 2010 parliamentary elections, Iraq moved to an open-list PR system, meaning that the candidates on party lists were open to the voters and that voters could select individual candidates on the party list, regardless of order. Additionally, individual candidates could run and be voted for independent of political parties (FairVote.org). Scholars tell us that proportional representation systems (and especially open-list PR systems) are the most conducive to the election of women to legislatures, but caution that this must be coupled with non-discriminatory gender attitudes and accountability mechanisms for gender quotas, if any (International IDEA). While the usage of an open-list PR system within Iraq has had little positive effect (due to other factors discussed later in this article), it certainly has positive implications for the future representation of women in parliament in Iraq.
International influence has had a significant impact on the numbers of women elected to parliament in Iraq. With the 2003 U.S. – led invasion of Iraq, the autocratic regime of Saddam Hussein was overthrown after more than three decades of oppressive rule. The less oppressive political structure that followed opened the way for increased political participation generally, and increased women’s participation in parliament. Women’s representation in parliament in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was very low, never rising above 8 percent (see above chart). However, the overthrow of Saddam and the restructuring of Iraq’s government by U.S. – led coalition forces led to the introduction of a legislative gender quota in Iraq. In Iraq, as well as neighboring Afghanistan, the international community has used post-conflict intervention as an opportunity to implement quotas as a way of increasing women’s representation in legislature. “In post-conflict societies, the international community today is putting strong pressure on the actors of reconstruction to take effective measures to include women. Thus we see gender quotas of 25–35 percent being introduced in strongly patriarchal cultures where very few women were represented earlier, for example, in the post-conflict societies of Afghanistan and Iraq” (International IDEA).
One could argue that, without the introduction of gender quotas to Iraq’s parliament (as a direct result of international efforts), women would not have the level of representation they currently have. Iraq’s gender quota is a reserved seat quota, meaning that a certain number of seats within the legislature are reserved for women. In Iraq’s case, for every three men elected to parliament, one must be a woman (or in other words, Iraq’s parliament must be comprised of at least 25 percent women). The quota was formally put in place in 2009 (Quota Project). Although not a formal quota (and not legally enforceable), Iraq’s 2005 Election Law states that “At least one woman must be among the first three nominees on the list and at least two women must be among the first six nominees on the list and so on until the end of the list” (Global Justice Project Iraq). The 2009 quota was an amendment of this law. Despite Iraq’s shift to an open-list PR system in 2010, and an additional parliamentary election in 2014, the percentage of women in parliament has remained at approximately 25 percent, the amount mandated by Iraq’s quota. This suggests that, despite having an open-list PR system, a gender quota, and the influence of the international community (which has, in addition to implementing a quota, encouraged democratization and political openness of Iraq), there are other factors limiting increased women’s representation in parliament.
One of the primary factors inhibiting women’s participation in parliament is the existence of strong patriarchal norms and traditionally restrictive norms about women in politics within Iraq. Iraq ranks among the worst in the world in measures of female subordination in marriage and family, discrimination in practice with regards to women’s property rights, and has high degrees of Patrilocailty in marriage (where married women are often removed from their native families and expected to live with their husbands’ families) (WomanStats 2015, 2012, 2016). Furthermore, Iraq ranks 121th out of 188 countries on the UN Gender Inequality Index, with a score of 0.539 (with 1 being total inequality) (United Nations Development Programme 2014). Iraq’s clearly patriarchal culture has prevented women’s significant representation in parliament. In strongly patriarchal cultures, politics is not seen as an appropriate field for women, and women’s engagement in politics can even be seen as threatening to the existing patriarchal social norms. Women are instead encouraged to perform more traditional roles. It is telling that, while women constitute roughly 25 percent of parliament, the only women leading a ministry, as of 2011, is in women’s affairs, a token position. Also revealing is the fact that only 5 of the 86 women in parliament in 2011 got their as a result of actual voter support; the other 81 were given seats through the quota (New York Times 2011). The fact that the percentage of women in parliament has failed to increase, despite the introduction of an open-list PR system for the 2010 and subsequent 2014 elections, and instead has stubbornly remained at the mandated 25 percent dictated by the quota, suggests that patriarchal norms are the most powerful factor in women’s lacking representation in Iraq’s parliament.
With patriarchal norms acting as the most important mechanism of or influence on women’s representation in Iraq’s parliament, despite a favorable electoral system, international influence, and a gender quota, more time is needed in order to determine whether Iraq’s struggle with democracy, coupled with these favorable institutions, will lead to increased women’s parliamentary representation.