Despite female parliament speaker, experts say political equality still an issue in Kurdistan Region

Though female lawmakers recently took two out of three leadership positions in the Kurdistan Region’s parliament, observers have conflicting opinions on what this says about the overall advancement of women’s equality in regional politics.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Though female lawmakers recently took two out of three leadership positions in the Kurdistan Region’s parliament, observers have conflicting opinions on what this says about the overall advancement of women’s equality in the region's politics.

In a historic vote on Feb. 18, Vala Fareed became the first female parliament speaker after being nominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Muna Kahveci, from the Turkmen Reform Party, was elected as second deputy speaker.

According to Dr. Choman Hardi, founder of the Center for Gender and Development Studies at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, the “best approach is to include capable women who can challenge male-dominated politics and governance and represent women's interests.”

Another, less valid approach, she said, “is to include women just because they are women, so that we claim to be progressive.”

Hardi continued that, although the quota system requiring 30 percent of MPs to be female in the parliament has been a good policy, “We saw that many of the women who ended up in these positions were chosen because of their political affiliations, regardless of their capabilities as politicians and leaders.”

“In fact, some people believe that they were chosen intentionally to be ineffective so that they don't threaten the system,” she added. “I think that including women in the second sense is just another cheap trick by those in power.”

“We want to see women who can be effective agents of change. I hope the first woman speaker will be more than a cosmetic remedy for the Kurdish parliament.”

According to Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol, Dr. Nazand Begikhani, women in Kurdistan have proven that they can be good leaders despite many challenges.

“The fact that the KDP, the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], as well as Turkmen parties, have given priority to women to lead the parliament is a good move,” she said.

“Whether it is Vala Farid, Muna Kahveci, or PUK candidates Rewas Ahmad and Begard Talabani, these are experienced, qualified, and competent women,” said Begikhani, who also serves as Advisor on Higher Education and Gender to the Kurdistan Region’s prime minister.

“But my fear is that women are held to higher standards than men and they need to do much more to prove themselves,” she said.

“They should also intervene between the quarreling parties to ease tension and achieve reconciliation and greater cooperation. Kurdistan needs to continue to make changes and achieve gender equality in political representation.” 

According to Dashni Murad, a Kurdish musical artist and humanitarian who runs a charity organization called Green Kids, the “inclusive participation of women in public life, from politics, diplomacy to socio-economic spheres, is essential to building and sustaining strong, vibrant democracies.” 

“Kurdish women historically have participated as important pillars in society. They have proven that only together Kurdistan sustained itself and progressed.” 

Dr. Zeynep Kaya, Research Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre, says it’s too early to say if appointing a female parliament speaker in Kurdistan will improve women’s rights and cause women will become more influential actors in the political arena. 

“Many of these women have not been able to reach more senior decision-making levels,” she said.

Over the past few years, the High Council of Women Affairs in the Kurdistan Region and various women’s rights organizations have been pushing to remove institutional obstacles that make it difficult for women to reach key positions.

However, she said, if the recent appointments are part of a deliberate strategy to include more women in senior posts, it is a positive development.

“Usually, it's harder for women to get senior decision-making posts. But if there is a quota system to have a female speaker of parliament, it will also encourage other female MPs to become more determined to influence decision making.” 

“This could also create a more inclusive structure to encourage other female MPs to be more active in politics and also the younger generation would see this as a possible career for themselves.”

She concluded by saying, “Though allocating the speaker of parliament position to a female politician should not push women away from other senior positions, such as the prime minister’s.”

Editing by John J. Catherine