In a move that resulted in a lot of teasing from his family, 17-year-old Karbala teenager, Ala Abdul Ghani, decided to hang a poster of one of his favourite female political candidates on the wall of his room, right next to his bed. The picture of candidate Maiada al-Rubaie now sits next to those of glamorous Lebanese singers and pop stars, Elissar Zakaria Khoury and Haifa Wehbe.
“I really like her a lot,” Ghani says of the candidate.
When he goes to school, Ghani tells his friends to tell their families to vote for al-Rubaie, who’s a member of the State of Law coalition, headed by current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and then he keeps talking about her. They should vote for her because she’s just so attractive, explains Ghani, who goes on to say that no amount of teasing from his brothers or his parents will make him take the picture down.
“If it was my decision, she would be the president of Iraq,” Ghani says.
Ghani is not the only teenage boy smitten by one of Karbala’s female political candidates. Karbala is a religious and relatively conservative city – it’s a spiritually significant city for Shiite Muslims as well as a centre of religious learning. But at the moment there are many pictures of beautiful women, wearing makeup and flashing their eyes at passers-by, on its streets. Most of them are competing for the seven seats allocated to females, out of a total of 27 seats, on Karbala’s provincial council.
The posters are hung on power poles all over the city. There are even some facing one of the boys’ high schools and Ghani, who was never that interested in politics – he was more into football and movies – has a newfound interest in governmental goings-on.
“If this female candidate won, it would be like a rose growing in the provincial council,” another of the school’s students, Samer Muayad, waxed poetic about his favourite poster. “I’m not that sure of her qualifications or her platform,” he admitted, “but I would bet on her beauty.”
Another of the students isn’t so keen. He feels the posters are indecent. “It’s an election campaign not a beauty contest,” Abbas Khalaf complains. “Political parties who have no real ideas are attracting voters using pictures of beautiful women. It’s a sign of the bankruptcy of these parties, and it’s just an attempt to improve their images.”
"In the past, political parties would never have published posters with women’s pictures on them for religious reasons,” says the teenager, who holds a rosary in his hand. “Today everything is different.”
And he’s right. Many of the most attractive female candidates do seem to be members of parties or groups, like the State of Law bloc, with relatively strong religious affiliations. Somewhat ironically the more secular and liberal parties haven’t posted a lot of pictures of their female candidates.
One of the school’s teachers wades into the debate.
“Posters of beautiful women are not exactly a violation of the city’s traditions or its ethics,” Hamza Abdul Khaliq says. “This is a legitimate contest between male and female candidates. And in fact, it’s very courageous of the women here to challenge the societal norms. Anyone who has a problem needs to reconsider. After all, we’re not in Kandahar, boys.”
Whether the female candidates will all be taken as seriously as the schoolteacher thinks they should, is another question. A lot of Karbala’s locals have been making jokes about them.
Local cab driver, Nizar Hussein, happily blamed one of the posters for his traffic accident. “A driver, who was looking at the poster of one of the beautiful female candidates, hit my car," he explained. “We should blame her for this accident.”
And what do the candidates themselves think about all the fuss? The object of Ghani’s adolescent affections herself, Maiada al-Rubaie, just thinks that any controversy indicates the success of her campaign strategy. She’s heard that a lot of people like her posters and she’s also had a fair number of young men tell her they will vote for her.
"Regardless of negativity or criticism, I have succeeded in drawing the attention of the people in Karbala,” al-Rubaie says. “That must have a positive impact on the number of voters who turn out and on the election results too.”
"Anyway,” she continued, “it is my right to compete with men in politics. Women\'s beauty and elegance is a positive factor rather than a negative element. And if people vote for me and I win a seat on the council, I will not disappoint them. And I won’t disappoint Ala Abdul Ghani,” she said, after being told of the young man’s affection for her.
Unfortunately for both Ghani and al-Rubaie, this time around Ghani is still too young to vote. In Iraq, you have to be 18.