Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for August 30th, 2012

The Allawi Resignation and Iraq’s New Strongwomen

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 30 August 2012 14:47

There are several interesting dimensions to the first major political event in Iraq after the Eid: The resignation from the Iraqi government of Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi, the minister of communications.

Firstly, of course, there is the party politics of the case. The presence of Allawi inside the cabinet at a time when his cousin and party chief Ayad Allawi remained very much on the sidelines of government sent an ambiguous message about how the Wifaq group within the Iraqiyya coalition related to the premiership of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. One possible consequence of the resignation is that it may have a liberating effect on Wifaq and can help turn it into a more purely oppositional party. From the margins, Wifaq may be freer to speak its mind and criticize a government where it is now much less involved. The flipside to that, of course, is that the move might solidify cracks in the Iraqiyya coalition that have become more evident over the past few months as Maliki successfully has lured at least parts of the Sunnis and secularists in Iraqiyya to take a more cooperative stance (as seen most recently in the return of Salih al-Mutlak to cabinet as vice premier).

Perhaps more interesting are the specific reasons given by Allawi for resigning, In a letter framed as an ultimatum to Maliki, Allawi demanded a series of changes to the administration of his ministry, including unwanted interference from people he considered to be acting outside their professional remits. One individual, in particular, receives much attention in the letter: Dr. Hiyam al-Yasiri, a female adviser to the cellphone department within the ministry. She is acting beyond her prerogatives and is building a power base of her own, Allawi complains. She cancels good projects and promotes bad ones. And even this: She was a member of the Baath party with personal ties to Saddam Hussein! (Never mind that much of Allawi’s own electorate admired the Baath party too.)

The letter from Allawi was not really a resignation letter but an ultimatum letter. It ended with a simple request for Maliki to remove Yasiri, or else. As is now well known, Maliki didn’t do anything to unseat Yasiri and Allawi eventually resigned.

The case of Hiyam al-Yasiri is interesting as an example of female empowerment in post-2003 Iraq.  The debate rages as to whether the Iraq War represented a setback or a step forward for Iraq’s women. On the one hand, Iraq had one of the best educated female workforces of any Middle Eastern countries prior to the war, with some women even playing infamous roles in the regime’s weapons programmes. Many saw the triumph of Islamism after 2003 as a step backward for the secular vision of female empowerment in public life. On the other hand though, post-2003 Iraq has seen some interesting new mechanisms for female empowerment that were introduced in part thanks to external (US and UN) pressure, including most notably female quotas in parliament that secure a higher rate of female MPs in Iraq than in many Western countries.

Some say the women in the Iraqi parliament owe their positions more to family ties than to championship of women’s issues. Others have stood out for positions that shocked many Western feminists, including outspoken criticism of lesbians and declarations in favour of eradicating homosexuality in Iraq.

Whichever way they should be interpreted, newly empowered women like Hiyam al-Yasiri clearly stand up for their ideas. And Yasiri is not alone. Take other famous cases like Basima Luay al-Jadiri (who rose to an important position in a key security-related office of PM Maliki) and Lubna Rahim (recently in conflict with Iraqiyya members in Babel for having allegedly threatened them with armed guards). Their values and goals may be very different from what feminists in other parts of the world advocated when Iraq was rebuilt after 2003. But they form an important contrast to the more marginal role played by their sisters in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. And, as the resignation case of Allawi shows, they refuse to be pushed around.

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