Kunin: Women and the Iraqi election

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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin thinks that American women should be inspired by the number of women who participated in the recent Iraqi election.

(KUNIN)  We don’t know yet how many Iraqi women were elected in the recent provincial elections.  We do know that they risked their lives by simply putting their names on the ballot.  Few dared to campaign.
Of the 14,400 candidates, 4,000 of them were women.  Originally the Iraqi Constitution, responding to the demand of women, called for a 25 percent quota for women.  Without explanation, the Electoral Commission interpreted the law to mean that this percentage is not guranteed. Nevertheless, women stepped forward.  Their courage is awe-inspiring.

In the city of Basra, according to the New York Times, 325 women’s names were on the list of 1,280 candidates.  One of them was Zeinab Sadiq Jaafar, a 41 year old lawyer.  She campaigned vigorously, putting up posters everywhere, and she believed she could win, "…if there is no cheating," she said.  Her detractors in Baghdad were so threatened by her that they spread rumors that her law degree was forged and even that she had been assassinated.  She had to go on local television and blare her recorded voice from trucks to prove she was alive.

I’m deeply moved by her story and those of the other women who ran for office in Iraq.  They are running for public office, demanding their right to participate in this fragile democracy, with the daily risk of not only being rumored to have been assassinated, but of actually being assassinated.  I am forced to ask: Why, in comparison, are American women so accepting of the political status quo?  The percentage of women in the Congress is 17 percent, an all-time high.  The U.S. ranks 72nd  out of 142 countries in the percentage of women in Parliaments.  Why aren’t women demanding greater representation?  A quota would be hard to implement in our system of government.  Quotas work in Parliamentary systems, where party lists must contain a certain number of women.  But American women could ask for a virtual quota and demand that party leaders recruit female candidates to run for office. Studies show that women, more than men, need to be asked to run.
That still leaves the question: Why don’t American women run for office more often?  What do we risk?  Criticism, invasion of privacy, an unfair opponenent.  How tepid those risks seem, compared to those encountered by our brave Iraqi sisters. Now it’s our turn to transform our American democracy into a truly representative body for all of our citizens, women and men. We can start by demanding 25 percent representation in Congress, and then move on to fifty percent.

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