As I walked up to the security screening booth ready to be searched to enter the voting area, I looked around to notice the excitement and buzz of my fellow Iraqi’s as they prepared to vote. As a woman, I particularly noticed the strong female presence at the polls on Sunday, the last day of voting. Women voting with their families, alone or with friends mirrored the diversity we have here in the Bay Area. Some wearing hijab, others walking billboards for their political party but more importantly I noticed their excitement that resonated throughout the Alameda Fairgrounds.
Once I cleared the security check I walked into the crowded and hectic voting room. The room was set up into five different voting areas with a smaller voting room through another door. The ‘booths’ were made up of tri-fold cutout cardboard, definitely not the voting we here in the United States are accustomed too. Although, given our recent voting issues, would argue on which maybe more superior. It resembled the voting booths seen countless times on all the U.S. 24 hour cable news networks, giving a visual presentation of ‘Iraqi democracy’. They had the large plastic tubs guarded, and poll watchers scattered at each station.
I moved forward in the line and presented my identification to a man hovered over a large book. He asked where I was born, “Los Angeles, California” I responded. He seemed surprised and looked up quickly and gave a little smirk. ‘Where is your Father from?’ he asked. ‘Mosul, Iraq’ I responded and provided my Father’s National ID card as proof of my right to vote. Voting rights are determined by paternal lineage. He scrutinized my Father’s documents and once done I signed the book and he waived me over to the next station. I received a large colorful page with a hundred names or so of political parties, and people running for office.
I quickly moved over to the voting booth, or cardboard cutout, and stared blankly at the page. I had no idea how to read Arabic. My Mother was allowed to come into the booth with me and together we found the member I wanted to caste my ballot for. I was surprised at the ease of it, actually. Once complete, I moved over to the next station and placed my sealed envelope in the large plastic container and my index finger in the purple ink. I had voted. The excitement actually did wash over me, I had the same feeling the first time I exited a polling booth while in college in Chicago. The idealism that somehow, you hope, that your vote will make a difference and that your voice is being heard. But this time, it was followed with the reality of why I was voting in the first place.
This was the third general election since the ‘success’ of the U.S. led invasion and Operation Iraqi Freedom campaign on May 1, 2003. The country, though still reeling from civil war, corruption, and displacement of millions of its citizens, had a strong showing in this past weekend’s elections. 62% of Iraqis, both within and outside of the country, voted. This included displaced ethnic minorities, Assyrians, Kurds and Turkmen. As a member of the Iraqi Diaspora, the Assyrian minority, and a woman, I had the opportunity to vote along with my fellow Iraqis at a polling station in Pleasanton, California. We viewed these elections with both excitement and pessimism. As a member of the minority, I am very aware of the persecution that Assyrians, especially women, and other minorities face almost daily in Iraq. Due to our size (50% of the Assyrian population has left Iraq) we are politically disregarded, subjected to kidnappings, violence, and ransom requests. Today Assyrians make up 3% of Iraq’s population yet 36% of Iraqi refugees.
This election, as the ones before it, brought the hope that Iraq might one day again be the country that I, and many alike, grew up hearing about. The free, open and secular society of the past, one where women had equalities; and sectarian or religious violence wasn’t an issue. The thought of Iraq regressing to religious fervor at the hands of extremism for the sake of power is disillusioning. While women under Sadaam Hussein were nowhere near free, the invasion in Iraq has definitely added a regressive component; to the point where women are no longer as visible. On the positive side, the Iraqi constitution does give some voice to minorities, 25% of the parliament must be women and 5 of the 375 total seats are allocated to Assyrians.
My vote is my voice for equality. Of course, I do have a realistic view of the work ahead. The psychological and emotional trauma that plagues Iraqi’s and the years of healing that the country still needs to do. But with each election, I hope, we move a little closer to a better Iraq.
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.