The waiting game began when the last ballot box filled up. Waiting doesn’t seem to be something people do well or enjoy. There is a tension in the air that rises in crescendo with every complaint about ballot-rigging.
The wind was very strong last night, generating a lot of banging, especially of the old wooden shutters, which kept interrupting my sleep.
Baghdad is cautiously quiet and still. It even looked somber and gray from the car as I went to visit Dr. Amal Kashif al-Ghita, currently a member of the national assembly and a candidate on List 569, my father’s group. Several years ago, she founded an NGO focused on women and children.
Dr. Amal’s all-engulfing abbaya and her fair complexion make for a striking first appearance. She sat in her library surrounded by books and many small bowls of pistachios and raisins, which she kept offering to her guests. Although I had heard of her some time ago, I first saw her a few weeks ago at a press conference when she spoke about unemployment and the plight of Iraqi women and children—widows, orphans, and the homeless. She spoke with an intensity that went beyond electioneering. “We don’t want a Margaret Thatcher or a Madeleine Albright. That is not what we are asking for when we talk about rights and empowerment for women here. What we want is for women to be educated citizens who can influence decision-making where it affects them, to improve their standard of living. I think they are the most powerful promoters of peace and nonviolence. What is the point of having a 25 percent quota in parliament, when more than half the women sit quietly deferring to the men?”
Dr. Amal has been an activist for many decades now, though her activism has taken different forms. She has a Ph.D. in pharmacology from Mosul University, and she comes from an illustrious religious family with deep roots in Iraq. Her grandfather, Ayatollah Sheik Mohammad Hussein Kashif al-Ghita was the senior marja in Najaf in the 1930s, a position that is currently held by Ayatollah al-Sistani. Yet despite her conservative appearance and religious legacy, she has found a way to be an effective and dynamic voice for women in Iraq.
Her books—most of which she wrote while in near house arrest in Baghdad during the 1980s because she refused to spy for Saddam’s regime—cover themes that are critical of Iraqi society, tribalism, and political life. “When I read Dickens’Tale of Two Cities, I felt compelled to speak the truth about our society and the mistreatment of women,” she said. I found it very interesting that she wasn’t the first woman I’ve spoken to in Baghdad that referred to Dickens’ impact on them. “I use a lot of symbolism in my novels, I find Kafka’s style very powerful for this,” she added. Edgar Allan Poe is another of her favorite authors.
A telephone call interrupted her train of thought. Someone else was complaining about vote-rigging in a remote district of Basra. Dr. Amal hung up, and after a pause, in indirect reaction to the news, said that sectarianism is a terrible thing and it is everyone’s responsibility to avert it, including the Shiites, who cannot keep thinking of themselves as victims as a way of appealing to people.
In 1997, Dr. Amal decided to teach women at religious seminaries, or hawzas, in Baghdad and Karbala. Deconstruction is one approach she encourages her students to use when reading religious and historic texts. Since being in the national assembly, she’s been unable to lecture. “I really miss teaching, it gives you a reality that nothing in government can,” she added.
Dr. Amal wants to dispel the ignorance and the darkness that still hovers over so many women. To prove her point, she told me that yesterday there were many men who went to vote alone, leaving their wives at home to look after the children.