Iraq is holding elections on May 12, but one candidate’s fate has already been sealed, as she was forced out of her campaign amid a tawdry personal attack. The elections have been a cause for much anxiety and contention in the the country, but nothing compares to the level of attacks women candidates are being subjected to. Though women representation is guaranteed by one-third of the seats, many female candidates have been the target of serious attacks that are of a personal nature, including pornographic images of them released on social media.
Dr. Intidar Al Shamari is perhaps the most prominent victim of these type of attacks. A video was recently released purporting to show her naked in bed and laughing as she engages in sexual activities with a man who is not her husband. Millions of Iraqis have been watching the video and it had become the topic of most talk shows in the country, with some defending her right to privacy, some questioning the video’s authenticity and some using the footage to discredit her candidacy. She has denied the footage is real. Though Al Shammari is not the only female candidate who is being attacked in such a manner in recent weeks, of all the female candidates in Iraq subjected to these types of tactics, Al Shammari has faced the most vicious and obscene attacks.
Last week, she dared to go on national TV to answer questions and address all the rumors, though unfortunately, only after she withdrew her candidacy. She calmly answered the TV host’s questions as he asked her how can she prove that the video is fabricated, that the woman in it is not her — and how can she prove that she has not gone to the country where her purported lover resides, which some claim is Saudia Arabia and others say is Lebanon.
“It is not me who can prove that this video is fabricated. It is official companies who can and have proven that this video is fabricated from a technological perceptive,” she said. “I was assured by both security forces as well as technology investigators that this film is fabricated.” The defense she mounted during the TV appearance was not only of the video but of her entire life.
“I have been a professor for 23 years and taught students who are serving their country at the moment,” Al Shammari continued as she described her life as a professor of economics and administrative studies at Al Mustansiriya University, one of the most prominent universities in the country. In addition to her career as an esteemed professor, she is the mother of a doctor and two engineers, the grandmother of six, and a wife of a professor at another private university in Baghdad. “This attack is not only on me. This attack is on all Iraqi women who have struggled and raised generations. I am proud that I am an Iraqi woman, and if this the attack that I got for being that, that I am proud of such attack,” Al Shammari declared.
The story started when she nominated herself for parliamentary election, for he coalition of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadias. She was one of 2,592 women candidates out of a total of 6,900 in the Iraqi election. “This was my own attempt to serve my country outside of any political parties,” she explained during her TV appearance. But the minute she put herself on the nomination ballet, she said she received a threat ordering her to pay one million dollars to prevent the release of something bad about her. “At first I thought it was something minor. I dismissed them and told them to go ahead and do whatever they want — I am confident I have done nothing,” Al-Shammari said. But shortly after the video was released and without getting the chance to even see it, she withdrew her candidacy. “I can’t put myself and my family through this,” she reasoned.
Those who know her confirm her claims that her family panicked at the release of the video over concerns for her safety and security. Her husband and her three adult children supported her but they realize that this video will put a major strain on their security, safety and their everyday lives in Iraq. Those who supported her wish that she would have kept her candidacy. “If she stayed and won, she would have been one of the strongest women politicians in Iraq. Imagine if she survived such video nothing else could touch her and we would at least have someone who would speak truth to power,” Ahmed, a young Iraqi social media activist explained during my visit to Amman, Jordan, last week.
Though many Iraqi youths have stood by her, it was not easy for a woman in a socially conservative culture to withstand not one video but many other videos and rumors, including some that suggested she was paid to have sex and she was cheating on her husband during her travels. “Many of these threats were very scary. They threaten to kill me. So why would I put myself through that when I have a decent job being a professor at the university. I have been an academic woman all my life. I have my pen, my book and my research. That is the only thing I do right now,” Al Shammari said. But she did not stop at her story and took the time to mention other women who have come under similar attacks recently. “What pains me most is all the young women who have nominated themselves for election. It breaks my heart to see what women are going through just for offering to serve themselves. It pains me to see all the humiliation Iraqi women are going through and enduring.”
What Al Shammari went through is an extreme story, but it is one of many other grievances Iraqis are having with the elections. Those grievances include attacks on the personal integrity of decent candidates and corruption that is allowed by the election process itself where people give their ultimate vote to a party rather than a candidate. All of this comes as a new wave of below-the-belt attacks targeting the honor of female candidates has become commonplace.
Though Al Shammari insists that this attack has not broken her determination, many think her life in Iraq is no longer safe. “They say a mountain cannot be shaken by wind. I am staying still and I shall continue my work as an Iraqi citizen. ISIS could not break our creativity. These men will not be able to break me. I insist on living my life completely and I appeal to everyone to go and vote.”
Her appeal for people to go and vote is definitely taken with a grain of salt as many Iraqis are cynical of the legitimacy of an election where most things are ruled by corrupt leaders who manipulate the election with money and politics for their interests. The stakes are high as the elected representatives will be in charge of choosing the prime minster and the president. Still when such personal attacks on women’s honor is what is dominating the news, many worry that the election will neither be fair, nor a step forward for the country.
Zainab Salbi is an author, media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures, and is the host of PBS’s #MeToo, Now What. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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