ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Female candidates standing in Iraq’s 2018  parliamentary election have faced a barrage of threats, defamation, and public shaming. Voters and activists say Iraq is a long way off from achieving gender equality in politics.

Twenty-five percent of the parliament’s 329 seats are reserved for women in the May 12 election. It is hoped the quota system will incrementally improve women’s representation in government.

Quotas have already helped Iraq substantially bridge the gap, outpacing many developed countries. But women’s rights campaigners warn there are many more cultural hurdles yet to clear.

“I highly doubt any of those seats are given equally to women from all [social] classes. I bet you cannot find one person who is not a daughter or relative of some big guy in power,” Hezha Khan, a youth and women’s rights activist from Sulaimani, told Rudaw English.

“[The parties] all claim to be women’s rights protectors and up for a 50/50 society, but that’s not even close to what they are doing,” she added.

Sheer force of numbers is not necessarily the remedy, says Avan Jaff, editor-in-chief of Zhin (Women) Magazine.

“I believe quality is important rather than quantity,” Jaff told Rudaw English. “I am not even in favor of the quota system. Let those women come forward and play a role who really have faith in women’s issue and peace among Kurdistani families.”

Shano Ibrahim, a student and activist from Erbil, believes the presence of more women in the Iraqi parliament would at least give their rights and status a stronger platform.

“Yes, it would make it more likely that parliament votes on issues that matter more to women, such as violence against women for example,” she told Rudaw English.

Khan says she is appalled by the elitist and frequently hostile environment female candidates are forced to contend with.

“Women are often taken advantage of and are kept in the background. If you are outstanding and hardworking [but] do not belong to the royal families of Iraq (of which we have so many), then they will create a sexual scenario to ruin your reputation,” she said.

Her claim is not without precedent. There have been several cases of ‘sexual shaming’ on the campaign trail, particularly on social media, designed to undermine female candidates and put off others intending to stand.

The Victory (Nasr) Coalition of Haider al-Abadi withdrew the candidacy of one of its members after an alleged sex tape of her was circulated online. Intidhar Ahmed Jassim, a university professor, said the video is a fake and a plot against her.

Another video has circulated online of a man imitating a sexual act and kissing a campaign poster of Hadba al-Hasnawi, a candidate on the Ansar al-Haq (Truth Defenders) list in Najaf. He was fined 100 million IQD ($84,000) in damages.

Dr Heshu Rebwar Ali, running on the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) list, filed a complaint after a video of her wearing a short dress at her husband’s birthday party was leaked on Facebook.

In all of these cases, social media played a significant part. Candidates have been quick to recognize the power of these platforms for sharing their message, but in many cases left themselves exposed to online trolls.

The message from these trolls is loud and clear. Women who take part in civil society can be considered fair game for threats, smears and shaming – not for their political views, but for their perceived morality, virtue, and appearance.

“As one of those women myself, there is nothing being done to ensure our safety,” said Khan. “The moment we speak about power, our reputation and life is in danger.”

The problem runs deeper, she says, as a culture of nepotism among Iraq’s political elites excludes women from the top jobs in government. Just one woman sat at Abadi’s 2014 cabinet table. Earlier post-2003 governments were somewhat more successful, but never admitted a woman to the key ministries of the interior, finance, foreign affairs, defense, and oil.

“It would be fairer to see more women in parliament, of course. But, at the end of the day, the heads of political parties are the decision makers and the gender of the MPs will not change that fact,” she said.

“I have to admit that Sulaimani and the PUK are much better and more respectful of women, but the rest are just horrible. Being a woman in this country is very difficult,” she added.

Jaff also hit out at the old-boys’ club mentality of party politics.

“Basically, none of them are… civil or modern,” she said. “They are sectarian and narrow-minded regarding women issue. Politics is hereditary and tribal in Iraq and the Region.

“They do not have real faith in women issue and equality. Women are used to beautify their slogans, therefore women face big problems.  Whenever women take a step forward, their personality is assassinated.

“Women are exposed to defamation and abuse, and their personal lives are targeted only because you are a woman and want to participate in decision-making. Tens of obstacles come their way. Where is equality?” she asked.

“Politics needs skillful and patient women.”

And it’s not just the political elite who perpetuate this climate.  Khan says the electorate has a tendency of excluding women from office.

“One major problem that nobody will tell you is that we the people don’t vote for women either. For some reason we are not used to seeing  women in power, and we don’t trust women will be good leaders, maybe because we don’t have good role models to help us make a better judgment,” said Khan.

“Our culture and society still believe that women should be raising kids, and just support their husbands. Political parties are no exception, and they also take advantage of that mentality.

“We don’t have women religious leaders. We don’t have women business leaders. This country is lacking women leaders in a lot of fields,” she added.

In spite of her pessimism, Khan will cast her ballot on May 12.

“Yes I will vote, for various reasons, but mainly because it’s my right and responsibility to vote,” she said.

“If they continue ruling the country like this, at some point some of us have to step up and join politics in the hope of changing the system.”

Jaff will also cast her vote, exercising her right with a similar sentiment.

“For me, voting means my feminine identity and participation in change.”