Zekra Alwach, the new mayor of Baghdad, pictured after she was appointed to the position on February 26. AFP/Getty Images
In her only interview to date with an English-language publication, Zekra Alwach, the first woman to be appointed mayor of Baghdad, talks to Glammonitor about the challenges of governing a war-torn city, the weight of responsibility she feels to succeed and the struggle for women’s rights in Iraq.
Beset by war, sectarian violence and corruption, Baghdad regularly ranks among the most dangerous cities on earth and was recently crowned the city with lowest quality of life in the world. In February, Zekra Alwach was handed the mammoth task of governing the city, becoming the first women to do so in the Iraqi capital’s 1,250-year history.
The significance of Alwach’s appointment, which also makes her the only female mayor in the Arab League of nations, cannot be understated. Decades of conflict have stymied the progress of women in Iraq, who as early as the 1930s were encouraged to acquire education on an equal footing with men and were once considered to enjoy the most progressive rights in the region.
Yet the 1990s brought economic sanctions, wars and occupation—the legacy of which continues to this day—and since then many of the hard-fought advances for women and girls have receded.
According to the U.N., just 13 percent of women are now part of the workforce (compared to 72 percent of men) while a mere 16 percent of females aged over 15 completed secondary schooling. The Iraq Human Development Report 2014 also documents an illiteracy rate of nearly 30 percent in females aged 12 and over.
With the appointment of Alwach, who has a Ph.D. in civil engineering and was the director of the Ministry of Higher Education, comes great hopes that women’s rights will again take center stage.
And the political novice is well aware of the pressures surrounding her ascension to the position, which will see her liaise directly with the country’s political leaders on key issues in the capital.
“Since my appointment as the Mayor of Baghdad in February, which has made me the first woman to hold such a role in the history of Iraq and this organization, I feel that I have a great responsibility,” she tells Glammonitor. “As a woman, I feel that I need to maintain my reputation and commitment to this role.”
A quota was introduced in the country’s parliament in 2003 reserving a minimum of 25 percent of seats for women, but female lawmakers complain that they are being left out of decision-making processes. Only two out of 29 ministers are women.
“There is a lot of injustice against women in the executive branch. If it were not for the quota, we would not have had this representation on the political scene,” member of parliament Aliya Nussayif tells Al-Monitor. “In the executive branch, women are looked down at from a tribal and Islamic lens, which deprived them from a large number of their rights.”
Her fellow female parliamentarian Nada al-Jabbouri characterizes male politicians, and Iraqi society more generally, as “regressive” and having a “patriarchal mindset” when it comes to women.
“When the former government was formed, all political coalitions refused for women to assume a ministry, and this has become an established approach,” she tells the news outlet.
Gender equality may be enshrined in the constitution, but Alwach says the government is struggling to address the growing gap between men and women.
“Despite the attempt of the Iraqi government since 2003 to end violence and negative discrimination against women, women still are under immense pressures from society,” she says.
A study by the non-profit Oxfam found that 55 percent of females in Iraq have been a victim of violence and 22 percent have experienced domestic violence. Human Rights Watch has documented extremist group ISIL’s (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage of women in the northern reaches of the country.
Sabiha Shubbar a prominent Iraqi women’s rights activist says many women left widowed or without family as a result of war are sexually exploited and forced into brothels
“If women are perceived to be single in society, she will not receive any support and will be in great danger,” she says.
Others unexpectedly find themselves the head of their households, taking on the roles of both father and a mother to their children and trying to support their families alone. Without access to financial benefits such as pensions, food distribution and social security—the Iraqi government’s Public Distribution System has been critically affected by wars and economic hardship—their difficulties are exacerbated.
“This is why the situation of Iraqi women’s movements is not as successful and developed as it used to be in the 1950s,” explains Shubbar. “Women enjoyed a great deal of rights and freedom; now the situation has changed drastically.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi selected Alwach for the key post amid complaints about the incumbent, who was regularly accused on social media and by Baghdad residents of being incompetent, according to a spokesman.
“Abadi sacked the [former] mayor Naim Aboub and named Dr Zekra Alwach to replace him,” government spokesperson Rafed Juburi was quoted as saying by Middle East Eye.
Alwach, who lists development projects and the delivery of municipal services as among her major priorities, highlights the difficulties of achieving her aims in a war-torn city.
“I have to manage projects and work sites around the city, which may become disturbed due to a [security] incident,” she says. “As a result this delays our projects, which imposes great complications on my duties as a mayor.”
“What is obligatory…is to deliver to the needs of the Iraqi people as quick as possible,” she adds, explaining she has gathered mayoral advisors to discuss upcoming plans and projects to tackle the problems.
Iraq is “on the brink of humanitarian disaster” due to the conflict between government forces and ISIL and a chronic lack of funds, the U.N. said last month. Alwach says the instability is severely limiting women’s movement as well as their economic and education choices.
“The security situation in Iraq and especially in Baghdad poses as the biggest challenge to women; it restricts women from their daily activities as well as work,” she says, adding that who her new role has not put her in any danger or harm. “To be clear, by the virtue of social conditions, customs and traditions, any unstable situation dramatically affects women.”
But it’s not only the security situation threatening women. A new personal status law approved by the Iraqi council of ministers in February last year—which included clauses that would have lowered the legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 9, essentially legalized marital rape and removed many of women’s protections in marriages—was heavily criticized by human rights advocates. It appears to have been shelved under the al-Abadi administration, which came to power in September 2014, but the spectre of its revival looms.
Alwach says the government has tried to address women’s rights issues, pointing to the creation a Women’s Affairs Ministry (headed by one of the two female cabinet ministers) and the approval in 2014 of a new strategy to protect women who have been physically abused.
“It considers women to be the core of society, and therefore, the strategy enables them to play a more active role in terms of education, health and in other areas to empower women to live a better life,” she says.
Ahead for Baghdad’s newest mayor is a twofold challenge, says Alwach, who recognizes that her new position has given her a “special status.”
“My colleagues and I are trying our best to cater to the needs of the Iraqi citizens as well as fight for women’s rights,” adds Alwach. “While this has been very difficult to do, I am eager to meet my challenge and serve in a manner that is best for Iraq.”