Why you should care

Because this is modern Mesopotamia.

In the spacious office, with its solid wood paneling, deep leather armchairs and heavy rug, Thikra Alwash tiptoes quietly. So quietly that one might think she’s trying not to stand out. But try as she might to soften her steps, the 46-year-old is a sensation — regional, but also historical. This is Baghdad, a city still reeling from years of war, and Alwash is its new mayor. Its first female mayor, in fact.

Though she took office just months ago, Alwash’s importance is glaringly obvious — in a nation most Westerners associate with lousy women’s rights, Alwash is coming to prominence as the first leader of any capital city in the Arabic world. She’s taking the reins in the wake of a predecessor long embroiled in corruption allegations, and with the blessing of Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who appointed her, fulfilling one of his heftiest promises of elevating the status of women in the country. (Mayors of major cities in Iraq are selected by the PM rather than elected.) Her job, though, is less than enviable. Inhabitants of Baghdad live in fear of bomb strikes every day. Corruption is rampant; on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Iraq ranks number 170 out of 174. At the same time the mayor has even less money at her disposable to enact change: The city’s budget was recently cut due to sinking oil revenue.

Her platform: Bring a bit of good old-fashioned populism to the people — seeking “direct contact with the people.” Which starts with bringing some of the rhetoric down to earth a little bit; Alwash’s predecessor had a habit of declaring ailing Baghdad a finer city than even New York and Dubai. Hard to trust a guy like that. Her pitch: transparency and trust from the people. So far, that’s taken the form of a flower festival in Zawra Park. There’s obviously much more to be done.

Mayor of Baghdad Dr. Thikra Alwash meets with Prime Minister Dr. Haider al-Abadi.

Baghdad’s mayor, Thikra Alwash, faces obvious challenges — Iraq is one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

Source Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq

Distinguished-looking, face neatly framed by a pink headscarf and speaking with confidence, Alwash is stately and happy to address the gender elephant in the room. “I may be the first woman in this role, but I will certainly not be the last,” she says, before ordering tea for the guest over the intercom, like any good host. A moment or two in her presence unravels the sense that she’d like to hide — she seems to figure that she stands out anyway, so bring on the attention and the luminous colors she favors wearing. She’s played in men’s circles for a while. A civil engineer, she has been a civil servant before; prior to her appointment as mayor, she was director general for the Ministry of Higher Education, where she earned herself a reputation as a competent decision-maker. She still had to battle against the Shiite party, which wasn’t prepared to accept Alwash — who is independent of party affiliation — as the mayor.

Don’t think all this opposition is justification for your preconceived notions about Iraq and gender, though: Iraq was once one of the most advanced countries in the region in terms of women’s rights. It was under Saddam Hussein that freedoms were slowly retracted; following his removal, the civil war and strengthening of religious parties meant further curtailment. Since the American presence in the country, women stroll unchallenged around the streets of Baghdad, with and without veils. In offices, editorial rooms and chancelleries the presence of women is no longer an unusual sight. Some have made it to executive suites: The largest private media company, al-Mada, is led by a woman. It’s the world of politics that limps noticeably behind. Women lead just two of the 29 Iraqi ministries, and the governors of the provinces are all male.

Iraq is the only country in the Middle East to stipulate a rate of 25 percent women in its parliament.

Interestingly enough, the years of war have set women up to advance: While conflict raged between Sunnis and Shiites, male doctors, lawyers, professors and businessmen were persecuted, kidnapped or driven into exile. Which sent women rocketing into those top positions. And that progress is only continuing, says Wassan Khalid Ibrahim, coordinator of women’s projects for the nongovernmental organization IMC (International Medical Corps). One sign, she says: the increasing rate of divorce. According to an IMC study, in some areas of Baghdad more than half of marriages have ended in divorce over the last five years. Tellingly, Baghdad’s new mayor is also a bachelorette … a 14-hour day is not really conducive to family life.

Of course, there’s still the Islamic State, which has annexed large parts of Iraq. Some Iraqi female politicians, like Shirouk Abayachi, have to take extra precautions by riding in armored vehicles. A colleague was recently shot on the way home in his car. And then there’s the question of election vs. appointment. Iraq is the only country in the Middle East to stipulate a rate of 25 percent women in its parliament. Policies like that and mayoral appointments guarantee more female presence in policymaking, but they don’t reflect society per se.

Stereotypes, though, can work in your favor. Alwash laughs: “I am not ashamed of the fact that I was chosen because less corruption is expected from me as a woman.” She smiles and then ushers me to the door. Work calls; no more time for chat.

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