KIRKUK // Amid explosions, political scandals and the banning of candidates, Iraq is limping towards a general election, struggling with widespread voter apathy in a population for whom democracy has meant violence and corruption. Iraqi and American authorities have faced particular difficulty in engaging female voters, in part because as Iraq became more religious and conservative after the 2003 invasion, women became widely marginalised.
But in Kirkuk province, in the north of Iraq, the story is rather different. Here, a wide variety of civil society organisations have been campaigning across the region to encourage women to vote, and not to let their fathers or husbands tell them which candidate to choose. "The problem is we have never been doing real elections so they have no idea what elections are," said Selwa Hussein of Al Tayaf, a local non-governmental organisation, "so we are doing awareness symposia for women, and for men interested in women's rights".
Ms Hussein's organisation is one of dozens in Kirkuk working specifically on women's issues, part of a movement, women say, that is slowly transforming attitudes in the province - an achievement all the more remarkable given the conservative attitudes prevailing in the rest of Iraq. In Kirkuk, more commonly known for ethnic squabbling between Kurds and Arabs over borders, women say their situation has improved immensely since 2003. A flourishing community of women's groups, shelters, awareness campaigners and legal aid organisations sprang up in the wake of the invasion.
Sukaina Kareem runs Kirkuk Net, a network of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the area. "Our network includes 135 NGOs," she said. "There are more for women than men because the women in general in Iraq have a lot of problems. Legally, they do not have enough rights in the law, economically they have lots of troubles. "And third, and this is the most important, socially, because we have traditions and habits."
There are 40 NGOs devoted to women's issues in Kirkuk, of which around 15 are working full time. A problem of particular seriousness for Iraq, said Ms Kareem, is widows. The eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the subsequent war with Kuwait and the last seven years of conflict following the invasion have left millions of women without husbands. Frequently, widows, particularly very poor ones, face social condemnation if they try to work to support their families. Kirkuk Net teaches widows to read and write and workplace skills such as using computers and sewing.
Similar social problems affect women who seek help or divorce after their husbands abuse them. An NGO called Pana set up Kirkuk's first shelter for women in 2006, where they have worked with around 150 women, giving them a place to stay, providing mediation services between women, their families and husbands and sometimes religious leaders, and fostering awareness of women's rights. Zheyan Hussein Arif is the director of the centre, a dynamic, brightly dressed woman who said all the women who work in the centre are either single or divorced. She outlines an energetic programme of fieldwork by the volunteers, including visiting women in prison, and making house calls to women whose stories give cause for concern.
"We have a staff and a guard and a driver here at all times," she said, acknowledging that providing a place where women can go to at any time has provoked hostility "from people who say we are making problems with families", and that all the volunteers "faced violence to one degree or another". One factor in the growth of such groups in Kirkuk, said Ms Arif, was the proximity of Kurdistan. The semiautonomous region of northern Iraq was less cut off from the outside world under Saddam Hussein's regime and NGOs there had been working with women for nearly 10 years by 2003. In 2004, Pana was set up by five women who had travelled in Kurdistan and seen the NGO sector in action. Initially, their work focused on training and awareness. "It was really difficult at first," said Ms Arif. "When we established the centre, people wouldn't send their daughters. But gradually we worked with local media and became more accepted."
Donations and support came from international organisations which before 2003 were barred from Iraq. After the women became frustrated at having to send victims of violence to Kurdistan, they set up their own shelter. In much of Iraq, fundamentalist interpretations of Islam rose as the sectarian violence of 2005-2007 fuelled extremist Sunni and Shiite groups. In parts of Iraq - especially Baghdad - which had formerly been proud centres of women's education and equality, women became targets of violence if they had uncovered heads or went out to work.
But although Kirkuk's messy multi-ethnic society has fostered conflict over whether the oil-rich city should fall under Arab or Kurdish control, religious violence never reached quite the same pitch here. Sarab Abdulkhalak heads a legal aid clinic for women in Kirkuk city, which has just opened another office in the more remote town of Hawija. "The situation of women in Kirkuk has improved so much since 2003," she said.
"Women have become more fierce and open-minded." Increased awareness of legal rights has meant that women can choose where they work without worrying what their brothers and family will say, she said. Her own organisation deals with 25 to 30 cases a month, sometimes more, usually helping women separate from abusive husbands. "Some of the people we work with threaten us," she said, "but in general, people love us."
It has been small changes that have helped bring about the social shift, said Ms Abdulkhalak. Before 2003, there were no mobile phones in Iraq, and women's contact with other women was often restricted. "Now," she said, gesticulating to the head of Kirkuk Net, "if I want to call Sukaina, I call Sukaina." The civil society movement was helped last week by the passing of new countrywide legislation making it easier for NGOs to operate.
The new law allows NGOs to accept international grants and funding without prior agreement from the government, gives NGOs certification that does not expire and allows foreigners to be members of NGOs. Small NGOs are spared some of the paperwork, and supporters of the law say it gives groups more independence and freedom. All the women from NGOs in Kirkuk emphasised that the concept of civil society was something new, and that they still faced huge challenges.
"There are still women who are scared to be free," said Ms Abdulkhalak. "The mentality is hard to change." * The National