Voting in Iraq From Afar

Iraqi women voters
Iraqi women wait to vote in 2005 elections; Photo public domain, courtesy of the United States Federal Government.

As I walked up to the security screening zone, ready to be searched before entering the voting area, I noticed the excitement and buzz of my fellow Iraqis as they prepared to vote three weekends ago. I particularly noticed the strong presence of Iraqi women at the polls, some wearing hijab, others not. This wasn’t Baghdad, though; I was in Pleasanton, California, a town in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the crowded and hectic voting room, the balloting booths were made of tri-fold cutout cardboard, definitely unlike those we are accustomed to in U.S. elections. They resembled the booths seen countless times on U.S. cable news channels when they are trying to present images of “Iraqi democracy.”

I presented my identification to a man hovering over a large book. “Where were you born?” he asked. “Los Angeles, California,” I responded. He looked up quickly and gave a little smirk. “Where is your Father from?” “Mosul, Iraq,” I said, and provided my father’s national ID card. Voting rights are determined by paternal lineage in Iraq. Once approved, I received a large, colorful page with about a hundred names of political parties and people running for office.

In the cardboard cutout of a voting booth, I stared blankly at the page; I have no idea how to read Arabic. Fortunately my mother was allowed to come into the booth with me, and together we found the name I wanted to cast my ballot for. When I was done, I placed my sealed envelope in a large plastic container and dipped my index finger in purple ink. I had the same feeling of excitement as the first time I exited a polling booth while a college student in Chicago: the idealism that somehow my vote would make a difference, my voice would be heard.

This was the third Iraqi general election since the “success” of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on May 1, 2003. Though still reeling from civil war, corruption and displacement of millions, the country can at least boast a strong turnout in the latest elections: 62 percent of Iraqis, both within and outside of the country, voted. This included displaced ethnic minorities, Assyrians, Kurds and Turkmen.

I’m part of the Iraqi diaspora, a member of the Assyrian minority.  As an Assyrian, I am very aware of the persecution that we and other minorities, especially women, still face almost daily in Iraq. Due to our small numbers within Iraq–50 percent of the Assyrian population has left the country–we are politically disregarded, subjected to kidnappings and violence. Today, Assyrians make up just 3 percent of Iraq’s population yet 36 percent of Iraqi refugees.

Nonetheless, this election, like the two before it, bring hope that Iraq might one day again be the country that I grew up hearing about: the free, open and secular society where women had equality and sectarian violence wasn’t an issue. The thought of Iraq regressing into religious fervor at the hands of power-seeking extremists is disillusioning.

While women under Sadaam Hussein were nowhere near free, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has led to a situation where women are much less visible in the public arena than they were in the past. The most positive note is that the Iraqi constitution does give some voice to its women and minorities: 25 percent of the parliament must be women, and five of the 375 total seats are allocated to Assyrians.

Of course I have a realistic view of the work ahead–the years of healing  emotionally, psychologically and physically, that the country still needs to do. But with each election we move a little closer to a better Iraq. So, with hope, I cast my vote.

Excerpted with permission from the Global Fund for Women.

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Shari Lachin is a San Francisco resident and a paralegal by profession. She holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science from California State University, Stanislaus and a paralegal certification from San Francisco State University.