BAGHDAD – The 38-year-old teacher wanted to participate in Iraq's first provincial elections in four years — until she realized that a new law would require the ballot to list her name, not just her party.
Even as violence has declined, lingering fear bred by rampant crime and a small but die-hard insurgency has left many Iraqi women afraid to run in the elections, to be held by Jan. 31.
"I feel that I am unprotected," said the teacher, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity because of her fears. "I am not going to run in the elections because I fear for the safety of members of my family who might be targeted."
The teacher, a Sunni who considers herself a political independent, hails from Baqouba, a former stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq some 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists have frequently attacked more moderate Sunnis who cooperate with the Iraqi government or U.S.-led forces.
The election jitters are part of a larger concern about violence and traditional values or prejudice sidelining women from important jobs. The constitution provides that men and women have basic legal rights such as voting and owning property and suing in court. But deep differences exist within Iraqi society over the role of women and of Islam.
Under heavy U.S. pressure to promote gender equality, the Iraqis agreed to a 25 percent quota for women in the last elections for parliament and provincial councils, both held in 2005. A law paving the way for the new vote to be held by Jan. 31 maintains that requirement, opening the door for women to make up at least a quarter of the provincial councils.
But there's a crucial difference this time.
In the past elections, names did not appear on the ballot — only numbers and symbols identified with political parties. That system helped empower well-organized religious parties and left many Iraqis feeling little connection with elected officials who were supposed to represent them.
In the new vote, the names of candidates must be presented to voters.
The change to a so-called open list has scared some qualified Iraqis from running, particularly women. Activists are worried there won't be enough women to meet the 25 percent threshold, or that the parties will just find women to act as figureheads to fill the quota.
Said Arikat, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Iraq, noted that "some statistics show that when countries move from closed to open lists, women don't fare as well."
But he said the switch to an open list can also be difficult for men. "Running for elections in Iraq takes courage and commitment by all candidates," he said.
Unlike other countries where politicians crave the limelight, Iraqis generally try to avoid drawing attention to themselves; tens of thousands of people have been killed for purportedly backing U.S. efforts or as part of power struggles with rival parties.
Underscoring the dangers, gunmen last week broke into a house and killed Mohammad Radhi al-Halfi, a contractor who planned to run as an independent for the provincial council in the former southern Shiite militia stronghold of Basra.
"We believe that the coming elections are risky, especially for those independents whose names are disclosed," al-Halfi's brother Haider said. "We tried our best to prevent him from participating, but our efforts were in vain and that cost him his life."
The problem is more acute for women who have come under attack simply for wearing makeup or refusing to don head scarves and head-to-toe black robes — behavior deemed un-Islamic by extremists.
Women also have come under scrutiny for defying traditional norms that discourage them from mixing with men or occupying a public role.
"The women are afraid because their names will be published ... because of al-Qaida, because of terror groups and extremists," said Nirmeen Othman, a former minister for women's affairs.
A 35-year-old female lawyer from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, who also declined to be identified to avoid being targeted, said she did not want to put her family in danger.
"I am afraid that some fundamentalists or political groups might target me in order to ensure that they control the provincial council," she said. "I might run for the elections in the future if the security situation is better."
Inaam Hamid, who accepted a spot on the Baghdad provincial council in 2005 with the main Shiite party the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council said she'll run for re-election — but will do so as anonymously as possible.
"I won't put my picture on a poster. I won't use mass media. I'll depend on the people who know me to get my votes," she said during a recent interview in her ground floor office at the provincial government headquarters in Baghdad.
"It's a disaster — the names being out there," Hamid said, fiddling with her wedding ring as the air conditioner muffled the noise coming from Iraqi petitioners and a group of U.S. soldiers in the busy hall of the heavily fortified building.
The 43-year-old former political prisoner and mother of five proudly ticked off her accomplishments, ranging from helping establish vocational workshops for women to ensuring that victims of violence are properly compensated.
Othman, now the environmental minister, said she understands women's fears of running but said it's important to participate in the elections to change Iraq.
"We must have women in provincial councils, in governing councils, in parliament — everywhere if we want to have our voices heard in decision-making positions," Othman said during an interview at her Baghdad home in the U.S.-protected Green Zone.
She said some women themselves do not accept the notion of equality between men and women.
"We must persuade women to vote for women," she said. "We must also try to teach them how to campaign. It's not easy."