Women's minister Ibtihal al-Zaidi is the only female in Iraq's cabinet
Iraqi Minister of State for Women's Rights Ibtihal al-Zaidi addresses a conference on violence against women, in Baghdad on November 26, 2011. It will take decades before Iraq sees a female prime minister, and the lack of women in top government posts is disappointing, she told AFP in an interview. © SABAH ARAR - AFP/File
Women's minister Ibtihal al-Zaidi is the only female in Iraq's cabinet
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Mohamad Ali Harissi, AFP
Last updated: March 5, 2012

Minister: Female PM for Iraq is decades away

It will take decades before Iraq sees a female prime minister, and the lack of women in top government posts is disappointing, the country's women's minister told AFP in an interview.

Ibtihal al-Zaidi said authorities had earmarked at least 30 percent of new jobs this year for women, and insisted that women in Iraq had more rights than during the rule of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein.

She also defended remarks made in recent weeks that men held a superior position in society to women, but said they had been misinterpreted.

"We need a long period of time and more elections to reach the level where we have an iconic female leader," Zaidi said in her small office in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, ahead of International Women's Day on March 8.

"We hope that such a woman will take the post of deputy prime minister and, some years after that, to become prime minister, but I think it will take decades for that."

The 47-year-old lamented the fact that she was the only woman in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's 33-member cabinet, despite the fact that Iraq's 325-member parliament is required to allot 25 percent of its seats to women.

"The reality is that the number of women in the government is disappointing, and it is not at the level we want it," she said, adding that her ministry of state, which has only around 20 employees, was working to draft a law to set a women's quota for the cabinet as well.

Zaidi said the government had agreed to allot 30 percent of all new jobs in every ministry to women in 2012, with a 50-percent allocation in the health and education ministries.

Until the 1980s, Iraqi women were widely considered to have more rights than their counterparts across the Middle East, but they have suffered in the face of brutal violence, Islamist extremism, and a run-down education system.

Decades of unrest -- including the 1980-88 war with Iran, the 1991 Gulf War after Saddam invaded Kuwait, and the brutal bloodshed unleashed by the 2003 US-led invasion -- made more than a million widows and female heads of household.

The years of sanctions that followed the Kuwait invasion and the post-2003 violence also eroded women's freedoms.

Overall violence has declined since it peaked in 2006 and 2007, but Iraqi women remain victims of violence, trafficking, forced marriage at a young age, and kidnapping for confessional or criminal reasons, non-governmental groups say.

Zaidi, a mother of three, insisted that rights for women in Iraq were better than before 2003, especially after security improved in recent years.

"Female employees and students are walking in the streets, going shopping, going out with their families until late at night, and driving at night," she said.

"And in addition, they have freedom of expression, there is freedom of the press, and women can participate in demonstrations."

Zaidi, an Arabic-language university professor who has been criticised in recent weeks for apparently asserting that men hold a "superior" position in society to women, said her remarks were misinterpreted and were a statement that Arab tradition meant men were typically household heads.

"By superiority, I do not mean that men should exert their authority over women arbitrarily," she said. "Women have the right to live freely within their families, and husbands must respect women and their will."

"Superiority does not mean a diminution of the value of women, when the superiority is based on mutual understanding and respect."

She added: "One of the best things is that women are not required by tradition to manage the family, because managing the family is something very difficult.

"My duty is to first satisfy God, and then the people and the women of Iraq."

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