As we waited outside Hamdia al-Hussaini’s office in Baghdad, my Iraqi translator reminded me that I shouldn’t try to shake her hand. The woman who administered Iraq’s 2010 elections is a devout Muslim and wouldn’t want to be touched by a man. I couldn’t help but wonder how such a duteous follower could possibly referee the country’s gladiatorial politics, though I knew she had done just that.
Men dominate Iraqi society. If you ask a man for his full name, for example, he will recite his given name, then his father’s name, then his grandfather’s name, and so on back through the generations. An Iraqi name is a family tree, and even a woman’s contains only the male branches. This patriarchal culture is also reflected in the political structure, which is a pyramid-shaped hierarchy of patronage. Hussaini, however, managed to find her way to the top of it.
Opening her office door, she invited us in with a gentle sweep of her arm. She was shaped like a round matryoshka doll, with a dark abaya draped over her figure and a flowery headscarf framing her pink cheeks. My translator and I sat down at either side of her desk. She sat across from us, folded her hands on the desk, and leaned forward in a posture of polite interest.
“You didn’t wish me a happy Women’s Day,” she said. Her voice was an unwavering soft soprano. My translator repeated the admonishment.
I hadn’t realized it was International Women’s Day. My mother would not be pleased. I could imagine her chiding my oversight in a playfully passive-aggressive tone not unlike Hussaini’s.
“Happy Women’s Day,” I said.
“You are the first man to wish me a happy Women’s Day today,” Hussaini replied. “Now, what would you like to talk about?”
I was interviewing her for an article about Iraqi politics, and the conversation focused on the previous year’s election, which had been certified by international monitors as free and fair. Hussaini was the most senior member of the nine-member commission and held direct responsibility for administering all aspects of the national vote. We spoke for 45 minutes about all the things that made her success nearly impossible.
For starters, there are no voter rolls in Iraq. If you’re running an election anywhere else in the world, you ask your interior ministry for its database. In Iraq, however, the memories of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal gerrymandering are still fresh, and even a simple census threatens to destabilize the country’s ethnic fault lines. Given no definitive roster of citizens, Hussaini’s commission had to make its own.
Beyond that, Hussaini had to operate within an Iraqi political system that is effectively, and often actually, lawless. As the electoral commission’s resident constitutional lawyer, Hussaini asked lawmakers and Supreme Court justices to help her create election guidelines based on their interpretations of the Iraqi constitution and old laws dating back to the coalition occupation and Saddam’s regime. She then used their input to extrapolate an ad hoc code of elections. That might sound scandalous, but in Iraq it’s pretty standard for government offices to operate without a clear legal basis. To the extent that the state functions, its progress flows disproportionately through a few powerful people who are bold enough to make their own rules. From a well-paid bureaucrat’s perspective, it’s always safest to pass the buck—but Hussaini is clearly no timid paper-pusher.
After the vote on March 7, 2010, the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, challenged the results. His coalition had failed to win even a plurality of seats in the new Parliament, so he demanded a re-count. Then he fought a legal battle against the certification of the vote. “When the prime minister said he was challenging the results, we said, ‘We have no problem. They have the right to challenge,'” Hussaini told me, with a proud smile. “In the end, it didn’t affect the number of [parliamentary] seats the parties won.”
As Hussaini reached the end of her election narrative, I imagined her—calm, soft-spoken, confident—facing down the prime minister, defying the hierarchy. Again, I thought of my mother, a lawyer in Washington DC and New York who has fought her share of high-profile battles, political and otherwise. She has been known to interrupt powerful men mid-sentence with the mere raise of one eyebrow. She is also pretty far from being a devout Muslim. But I recognized a little bit of my mom in Hamdia al-Hussaini—a kind of personal force unique to women who have persevered through sexism without becoming cynical.
The interview was coming to a close, so I allowed myself a bit of digression. “I’m sorry I forgot to wish you a happy Women’s Day,” I said. “My mother would not be happy with me—she’s also a lawyer.” As my translator relayed my words, Hussaini smiled.
“I’ll show you something,” she said. She turned to her computer, clicked some keys, and turned the screen around so I could see a Word document. “This is my research.”
As she explained it, she had read through the entire Qur’an, picking out the verses that support the equal rights of women and men. She scrolled through more than 20 pages of Arabic script.
I asked her how she uses her research. Does she share it with the other woman who sits with her on the electoral commission? Does she brandish it when men try to talk over her?
“It’s for me,” she said.
All around her, Iraqi society has been becoming more and more hostile to women. Saddam Hussein had actually bolstered women’s rights, though mostly for the wrong reasons. He regarded religious and tribal leaders as threats and pushed secular reforms—including women’s suffrage, measures barring gender discrimination, and literacy campaigns—in an effort to undermine his competitors’ influence. Then, during the Iran-Iraq War, as hundreds of thousands of men died at the front, Iraq’s faltering economy relied increasingly on an influx of educated women into the workforce. But since the US invasion in 2003, religious extremism has spiked and security has crumbled. In a 2008 survey of women around the country, two-thirds majorities reported that girls in their families were not allowed to attend schools, that violence against women is increasing, and that they cannot walk down the street without risking harassment. Security has improved significantly since then, yet women are continuing to disappear from Iraq’s civic life. Just 12.5 percent of the parliamentarians are women, down from 17 percent in the last session. Women head only 2 of the country’s 40 ministries. And, at last count, 98 percent of Iraq’s judges were men.
“The role of women is suffering in Iraq,” Hussaini said. “But here”—she gestured to the research on her computer monitor—“religion gives freedom to women.”
I thought of Thomas Jefferson’s attempts to cull the words and teachings of Jesus from the New Testament, skimming a rational account of Christian morality from an otherwise murky biblical soup. Hussaini’s Qur’an seemed every bit as piously subversive as the Jefferson Bible. She was using Islam to defend women’s rights not only against religious extremists but also against the subtler sexism of many moderate Muslims.
I had witnessed discrimination everywhere in Iraq, even among the friends that I had come to admire and respect. The previous weekend, for example, my translator had invited me to visit his family in a small Shiite village a couple hours outside Baghdad. Sitting in their living room, I spoke with him, his brothers, and their father; devoutly religious, college-educated, and tolerant, they wake at sunrise to pray, and they receive Westerners into their home with a spirit of warmth and curiosity. After a period of small-talk, their wives came in to serve us tea and bottled water. They introduced themselves, then returned to the kitchen to prepare lunch. When it was time to eat, we sat cross-legged on the dining room floor, where the women had laid plates of lamb and rice before returning to their own meals, in the kitchen. The women spoke perhaps ten sentences in my presence during my four-hour visit.
I don’t suggest that they were oppressed. At one point, as I passed by the kitchen, I glimpsed the women laughing with one another in a kind of rural domestic idyll, an Iraqi Norman Rockwell moment. They seemed happy. But as I watched their little daughters follow them in and back out of the living room, in and back out of the dining room, I couldn’t help but assume that these girls were developing a circumscribed set of expectations for their own lives. If they were my daughters, I’d want them also to know Hamdia al-Hussaini and to read her Qur’an.
I asked Hussaini if she would publicize her findings. She opened a second document containing many tables and graphs, which described the Iraqi government’s failures to include women in its ranks. Earlier this year, Hussaini had presented these at a women’s conference, and she said she would also include her Qur’anic studies in an upcoming presentation at a conference hosted by the electoral commission.
The interview was done, so my translator and I stood up. I thanked Hussaini for telling me her story. She promised to keep me apprised of her research.
Ben Van Heuvelen is the managing editor of Iraq Oil Report. He has contributed to The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Salon, and Killing the Buddha, among others, and he blogs at benvanheuvelen.com.