The young Iraqi man filmed himself kissing the female candidate's poster.
Over the past weeks, a lot of people in Iraqi have been focused on the sex lives of some of the potential candidates for election – and most of those candidates have been women.
A major campaign appears to have been launched – or perhaps, many small campaigns have taken on a life of their own – targeting female politicians, running for office in Iraq’s upcoming federal elections. A lot of the damaging information about the female candidates has been transmitted via local social media, on platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Some of the disinformation was titillating and, in conservative Iraqi society, scandalous. It included sex tapes featuring the female candidates, videos of women flirting and ribald attacks impugning the women’s characters because they wore short skirts.
Perhaps women will do even better than male candidates. That has inspired weak minded individuals to try to defame them.
The slew of scandal started off with a pornographic video that showed the candidate, Intidhar Ahmed Jassim, who is competing for a seat in parliament as part of the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi’s list, having sexual relations with a Saudi Arabian man. And even as that video was scandalizing Iraqi voters, another pornographic recording emerged of another female candidate, Hala Qassim al-Yaseri.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, a local politician Heshu Rebwar Ali, told media there that she would continue her election campaign despite the fact that a short video showing her in a shorter dress at a private party was leaked online.
In the first two cases, the female candidates have said that the pornographic videos are fake. Nonetheless Jassim has ended her run for office.
But in fact, it almost does not matter whether the leaked material is fake or not, or whether the women give up campaigning or not. Because the apparent campaign against female candidates is continuing.
Besides the more scurrilous videos, there have been other instances of social media posts being used against women politicians. There have been fabricated pictures and videos that show odd things, such as men kissing and fondling the pictures of candidates or reading love poems to their pictures. There were also insults, with female candidates’ campaign posters defaced – moustaches drawn on them of faces graffitied - or destroyed.
There is a comparatively high number of women running in Iraq’s elections, to be held May 12 this year. Nineteen lists in seven provinces are led by women and around 29 percent of the over 7,000 candidates running in elections are female. Iraq’s laws say that 25 percent of MPs should be female and political parties must field female candidates to make up this percentage. But in the 2014 election, 22 female MPs won their seats by themselves, without help from the quota system.
It is a sign that Iraqi society is becoming more aware of female roles in political life, says Hanaa Edwar, the head of the influential Al Amal (Hope) civil society organization. And the campaign that appears to be targeting female candidates this year, more than ever, is perhaps another sign of how seriously women politicians are now being taken. These campaigns, wherever they may come from originally, are meant to force the females out of politics, Edwar suggests.
“And many of them have withdrawn, or refused to continue to participate, because they want to preserve their reputations,” Edwar notes, adding that some of the political parties have also abandoned their female candidates at the slightest whiff of scandal, sexual or otherwise.
It is ugly and disgusting but it will only motivate Iraqi women to stand strong and meet the challenge.
It is all about continuing to marginalize them, Edwar argues, calling upon Iraqi authorities to address this problem. In fact, Edwar doesn’t think anyone should bother trying to work out if scurrilous videos and pictures targeting female candidates are real. She thinks that’s just a waste of time. Far more important is preventing these kinds of campaigns from starting in the first place and ensuring that women play a role in Iraq’s political future.
This current behaviour undermines the status and dignity of Iraqi women and is a threat to social order and peace, Edwar states.
It is a fairly big request to the Iraqi authorities though. For one thing, the Iraqi government has found it almost impossible to control the false or fake news and targeted campaigns rolling through Iraqi social media – and particularly on Facebook. Should the campaigns against female candidates prove to be organized, it is also quite possible that the women’s opponents are paying to push the scandal further, by buying space on Facebook pages with millions-strong audiences.
In some cases, certain women have taken the law into their own hands. For example, several days ago in the conservative, southern Iraqi city of Najaf, the tribe and family of one would-be MP, Hadba al-Hasnawi, sought justice from another tribe. One of their members, a young man, had posted a video of himself kissing and caressing an election poster of al-Hasnawi. Her family felt that the young man had impugned al-Hasnawi’s honour and demanded that he pay a large fine to compensate al-Hasnawi and her tribe for this.
In the end the two tribes agreed that the perpetrator should pay a sizeable IQD100 million (around US$84,000) in reparation and issue a public apology.
“Many strong and beautiful women have decided to participate in elections this year,” says Abrar Abed Ali Feeli, a female candidate in Basra. “Perhaps they will do even better than male candidates,” she suggests. “That has inspired weak minded individuals to try to defame them. It has a lot to do with society here, where women are considered inferior, where men are forgiven for any mistakes they make, even when they are wrong and where opponents seek any excuse to insult a woman. It is ugly and disgusting,” she says before concluding that none of that matters because it will only motivate Iraqi women to stand strong and meet the challenge.