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The most powerful woman in Iraq

The most powerful woman in Iraq

To some, she is a defender of the poor and oppressed. To others, she is a Shia hardliner and outspoken critic of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Almost everyone agrees, however, that Maha al-Douri, the top female vote-getter in this year's parliamentary election, is one of the most popular and powerful women in Iraq.
Douri, known to her supporters in the Sadr City of Baghdad as Sister Maha, was the top vote-getter among Sadrist bloc candidates in the March 7 vote. She campaigned on her commitment to education, religious values and the plight of women and orphans.
But she is also an outspoken critic of the U.S. role in Iraq, saying that American occupation has "left nothing but destruction, broken families and prisoners." Her critics contend that her hard-line support for Islamic rule _ she has called for the government to enforce Sharia law across the country _ is incompatible with her defense of women's rights.
"Even if Maha al-Douri did well in the election, it doesn't mean she will serve women's issues," said Jinan Mubarack, head of the NGO Iraqi National Center for Rehabilitation. "Those two approaches could never be combined in one personality." Douri sees no conflict between her support of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and her support of women's issues.
"If my links to Moqtada al-Sadr and my rejection of the occupation are considered radical, then I have to admit that I am a radical. I believe in my country, and that it will continue to suffer as long as the occupier is on our land," she said.
"My beliefs don't conflict with my advocacy work. Moqtada (al-Sadr) was one of the first leaders in Iraq to start programs for widows and orphans, as well to demand better schools. We are politicians working for our people, so I don't think we can be branded radicals just because we are against the occupation," she said.
Born into a Sunni family, Douri, 38, converted to the Shia faith as a student in the late 1990s when she found inspiration in the teachings of Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada's highly revered father. In interviews, she has said that when she converted, her family disowned her. Later, when she married a Shia, she said her family threatened to kill her.
Douri studied veterinary medicine at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad and became an assistant professor there in 2000. Two years later, she was fired for refusing to join the Baath Party. Instead, she joined the Sadrist movement and fled to Syria.
She returned to Iraq with her husband and two children in 2003 after the U.S. invasion and quickly relocated from the Sha'ab district to the heart of Sadr City. In this impoverished district of 3 million Shia, Douri opened the Maha al-Douri Education Center and began holding lectures on religion and social issues as well as providing basic education classes.
"Douri is very popular in Sadr City because she helps people, especially widows and the poor. She opens her house twice a week to receive people and help through her charity. She attends Friday prayers every week, and I heard that Moqtada personally asked her to participate in the election because of her popularity," said Awatef Hussein, 30, a factory worker in Sadr City.
In the 2005 election, Douri was elected to represent Sadr City.
In parliament, Douri called for women to play a bigger political role in Iraq and helped draft a still-pending law on violence against women and children. She served on parliament's community complaints committee in which she pushed for improved public services, including electricity, sanitation and clean water. Douri described her role in government as "a bridge between people and officials." Not everyone, however, is a fan.
Safiyah al-Suhail, a legislator from the predominantly Sunni State of Law coalition who served with Douri in the previous parliament, said much of her success was due to the strong support of the Sadrist movement.
"I am close to Maha al-Douri but I want to point out that her large number of votes and popularity in Sadr City does not mean she is the best women politician in the new parliament. Her campaign was controlled by political circumstances and outside support," said Suhail.
The Sadrist bloc won 40 seats in the next 325-seat parliament, and the movement is generally credited with doing the best job of promoting its female candidates.
Ibrahim al-Sumaidei, a Baghdad political analyst and newspaper columnist, agrees.
"In reality, it is not Maha al-Douri who won the majority of women's votes and did so well in the last election," he said. "It was the Sadrists' well-organized electoral plan that got her the huge win. I bet Douri did not win a single vote outside of Sadr City." Still, even her harshest critics acknowledge she has become a political force in the country.
Even Sumaidei acknowledges that Douri's performance in parliament has been impressive.
"Her arguments in parliament have made her famous with Sadr's followers and poor citizens," said Sumaidei. "They see her as a woman who will not be silenced, unlike a number of men in parliament. They see her as a hero." Douri herself hopes to build upon her parliamentary success.
"It is my dream that this generation of women politicians will do things to help our people that will be remembered in Iraqi history," she said. "Our duty is to oversee the government's performance. I would also like to work with my colleagues to heal the wounds left by the occupier after it withdraws. The occupation will leave us a ruined country, and it will take all our efforts to fix it."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ali Kareem is a reporter in Iraq who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. Readers may write to the author at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K.; Web site: www.iwpr.net. For information about IWPR's funding, please go to http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?top_supporters.html.


Updated : 2021-06-13 13:44 GMT+08:00