The level of violence in Iraq seems to intensify by the day, as witnessed by the horrific attack on the barracks in Mosul, bombings in Najaf and Kabala, and the gunning down of three election workers in Baghdad last weekend. However, while most—including the insurgents—would prefer more time to prepare for the elections, Iraq elections will most likely occur as scheduled on January 30, 2005. In Iraq, the challenge of democratization after violent conflict, indeed while violence continues, is particularly relevant to Iraqi women. The Wilson Center has been working with Iraqi women and other partners to address the issues of voice and citizenship; representation and women representatives; and women's capacity to engage in decision-making roles in the electoral and political process.

A recent briefing meeting co-sponsored by the Conflict Prevention Project and the Middle East Program discussed the challenges Iraqi women face as they engage in all stages of Iraq's political development and transition to democracy. Representatives from Iraqi women's groups, the United Nations, the U.S. government, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and the International Federation for Electoral Systems (IFES) provided information about ongoing programmatic and training activities in Iraq. Participants also shared information about the concerns of Iraqi women and about the organization and likelihood of success of the Iraq women's plans for the upcoming elections. The Wilson Center briefing was carried out with the understanding that the January 2005 elections are part of a much longer process toward democratization.

With all of Iraq considered one voting district, between 10 and 14 million eligible voters in Iraq will chose either an individual, party, or coalition list of candidates to represent them in the 275 seat National Assembly, which will be distributed by proportional representation. The assembly in turn will appoint the new leadership and draft a new constitution before new elections a year later. Because the Iraq Transitional Law (TAL) states that women should hold 25 percent of the political positions in the Iraqi government, submitted lists were required to have every third candidate be a woman. Earlier this week, Iraq's electoral commission determined the order for the ballots, which are composed of about 100 names and/or organizations. This is in addition to electing councils in the 18 governorates and a regional assembly in Kurdistan. This system would be challenging enough under the best of circumstances—let alone in Iraq, with its intense violence, security difficulties, ignorance regarding the process, and little time remaining to educate voters and undertake a vigorous election campaign.

Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, gave an overview of the December 2004 workshop in Beirut and explained that the Beirut workshop was a follow-up on a series of workshops and meetings that started in 2003. The Wilson Center, with the cooperation of a number of other Washington based organizations including Women Waging Peace and the World Bank, has hosted a number of Iraqi women based in Iraq and the diaspora over the last two years. The two workshops that have been held in Beirut were made possible with a grant from USIP and with the co-operation of ESCWA (The Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia). The workshops were held at ESCWA's Women Center. Eighteen Iraqi women representing the government and different NGOs took part in the December 2004 workshop. Narmin Othman, Minister of State for Women's Affairs, attended three days of the four-day meeting. Among the 18 participants, 6 are running for positions in the upcoming elections. The workshop was divided in two training sessions: two days dealt with peacebuilding and conflict resolution; and two days were devoted to women's participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Although the Iraqi women are adamant about participating in the upcoming elections, everything they do is colored by the problem of security at both macro and micro levels. Women do not feel secure in their homes, on the streets, or at work. The Iraqi women we have met expressed concern about the current wave of violence against anyone working with the interim government, UN, coalition forces, or Iraqi military forces, the kidnapping of girls, trafficking of women, plight of widows, increase of domestic violence and honor killings, and absence of legal protection for women, said Anita Sharma, Director of the Conflict Prevention Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Despite this sense of insecurity, Iraqi women activists continue to fulfill their civic duties. The sheer number of women's organizations and civil societies and NGOs run by women attest to this commitment.

The recent Beirut workshop offered insight into the aspirations and concerns of many Iraqi women. A number of our participants are running in the upcoming parliamentary elections but voiced concerns about their limited or lack of political experience in running in elections, organizing electoral campaigns, building coalitions and alliances, reaching out to the relevant constituencies, and building grassroots support among voters. They also expressed the wish to learn how to make use of the press, radio, and television to gain visibility and stand among their co-religionists, social groups, or communities—without compromising their security. A very important issue for them is persuading Iraqi voters that women representatives will be as capable, if not more capable, than the men who will be elected to parliament. A great deal of discussion focused on how to encourage women to come out and vote in the elections and vote for women candidates. The workshop participants were extremely passionate in their belief that women must play a vital role in the drafting of the new constitution, and they insisted that the new laws protect religious and ethnic freedoms, as well as enshrine women's rights.

When asked to develop a unified election program, conference participants from a variety of backgrounds choose the slogan "Together, we build Iraq." The women focused their attention on common themes in producing the following objectives:

1. End the occupation.
2. Restore stability and security in Iraq.
3. Promote unity among Iraqis.
4. Develop solutions for unemployment.
5. Uphold rights regardless of gender, race, religion, etc.
6. Elaborate the Iraqi constitution to promote the rule of law.
7. Ensure reconstruction of Iraq.
8. Guarantee women's rights at legal and practical levels, both in terms of rights and in terms of obligations.
9. Tackle the issue of Iraqi debts.
10. Establish freedom of expression.
11. Support professional and agricultural trade unions.
12. Promote the role of civil society in the new Iraq.

Participants in the December 22 Wilson Center briefing agreed that with roughly 233 political entities, 33 different coalitions, and 106 candidate lists, the sheer logistics for organizing the upcoming Iraqi elections are confusing. In an effort to be transparent and provide clear instructions, the Independent Elections Commission of Iraq (IECI) has developed a ballot that will give each entity a number, name, and symbol. As Denise Dauphinais, Deputy Director and General Manager of the Center for Transitional Justice Program and Post-Conflict Governance at IFES explained, when Iraqis go to the polls, they are voting for a party/coalition with a fixed rank order. This list is closed and women will occupy a third of this list. Roughly 100,000 Iraqis will organize and staff the election. While international monitors will work from Amman, Jordan, about 6,000 independent Iraqi monitors and hundreds of Iraqis from political parties and coalitions will be trained to monitor the election. Contrary to other elections in conflict and post-conflict countries, there will be little international oversight and those international monitors will be located off-site because of security concerns. Dauphinais said that although one month is not much time to prepare for an election, the Commission is working very hard, moving quickly, and working well. They grieve for their lost staff members, but continue to move the process forward, and will be ready for the election, she said.

The International Organization for Migration is organizing logistics to extend voting capacity to Iraqi nationals living in 14 countries other than Iraq: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This is conditional on agreements currently being concluded with various host countries that will allow IOM to carry out the Iraq OCV Program in their countries. The IECI will accredit observers to monitor elections in countries like Iran and Syria, but this process has not yet been completed, briefing participants said. According to Jeremy Copeland, head of external relations for Iraq out-of-country voting for IOM's Washington, DC office, IOM is awaiting final approval from IECI regarding the selection of locations but is beginning the process of opening offices in the following U.S. cities: Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Washington, DC. More information is available at

While very important, this election is just a bite and not the entire apple, said Stuart Krusell, the Deputy Director of Iraq Programs at the International Republican Institute (IRI). Programs at the International Republican Institute (IRI) are focused on developing a constitution, preparing for the subsequent referendum, and preparing for the election of a permanent government at the end of 2005. IRI's Iraq programs assist women in civil society positions of leadership and governance. In addition, IRI works to engage women in all of its programming, maintaining that women constitute fifty percent of its civil society training and twenty percent of its political participation training. IRI also undertakes voter education and public polling while encouraging transparency and integrity of the process. For example, recently IRI televised the ballot ordering and is airing television spots to educate viewers about the upcoming elections, said Krusell. A recent poll found that 84 percent of women intend to vote in the upcoming elections, he noted. It is important to remember that IRI is not doing this work itself, but is helping the Iraqis to do the work themselves. "It is their country, their issues, they are taking the lead," Krusell said.

While the Iraq elections appear to be a confusing maze, the Iraqis are navigating the difficult processes, said Abdulwahab Alkebsi, Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). During his travels to Iraq, he found that those most optimistic are Iraqi women, who are among the most involved among all the Arab countries, he said. NED is a publicly funded, private organization that makes grants to organizations like NDI and IRI and funds political party and civil society programs throughout the world. Its programs in Iraq aim to integrate women in local grants as well as through the support of two major organizations, the Center for International Private Enterprise and the Solidarity Center.

In more than 50 countries around the world, the National Democratic Institute works to strengthen and encourage democracy, including through their Win with Women Initiative, said Makram Ouaiss, Senior Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa Region at the National Democratic Institute. Although Iraqi women were ahead of their Arab peers in terms of education and economic freedoms, the brutality of Saddam's regime and several wars led to severe decline. The post-U.S. invasion period has opened a political and civic space, and women are seizing the opportunity to become involved in the process. Ouaiss noted that politically, there are 25 women serving in the interim government, including six female ministers, and a number of women are serving on the local government councils.

Echoing other panelists, Ouaiss noted that security is a major challenge. In addition, he noted that women are building their confidence levels. Previously women did not participate in politics, and now both women and men are learning that women are capable of holding office and should be included. Some women had expressed interest in running as independent candidates, but limited resources and support led NDI to work with leading figures to encourage women to participate and to educate men in political parties to incorporate women into their platforms. Iraqi women do understand that this is a critical time, and while they are keen to be part of the new government, they realize that they have to keep their eye on the long-term picture. Ouaiss had just returned from a workshop with women members of the interim government and noted that these women are very committed to the point of being willing to risk their lives. "You see the energy and hear the stories of the challenge in their daily lives, and all women working in Iraq. These women are heroes," he said.

These stories are a testimony of courage, said Maha Muna, Programme Manager and Officer in the Charge, Governance, Peace and Security Unit at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). UNIFEM is working to support women's empowerment holistically, and elections highlight women's opportunities to participate in the public sphere. Last year, the UN and the World Bank conducted a needs assessment in 14 key sectors in Iraq, of which gender was a cross-cutting issue. In addition, UNIFEM is working with the Minister of Women's Affairs and the Ministry of Public Works to support the education and mobilization of Iraqi women and ensure their participation in the upcoming elections.

Today's session highlights the State Department's approach of partnership, said Charlie Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues, U.S. Department of State. "This is a defining moment for those who have worked shoulder to shoulder with our Iraqi sisters," she said. Like the other participants, Ponticelli cautioned that while these elections are important, they are not the be all and end all; what is perhaps more remarkable is that the strength and resilience of Iraqi women is among the good happening amidst the bad. Ponticelli said that perhaps like Afghanistan, where everyone portended that violence and intimidation would keep voters—in particular women—from the polls, the world might be proven wrong.

Participants concluded that with the election in Iraq just over one month away, much has been done already, including: setting up both the voting infrastructure inside Iraq and the out-of-country voting procedures for expatriate Iraqis; the selection of candidates, parties, and coalitions; and attempting to address the mammoth logistic hurdles, including establishing physical polling centers and prioritizing voter education. Yet, still much more needs to be accomplished. They agreed that the Iraqi women face numerous challenges as they engage in all stages of Iraq's political development and transition to democracy. Still, the opening of this political space is fortuitous—and Iraqi women are poised and ready to seize such an opportunity.