In Iraqi elections, female candidate is talk of the town

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 7, 2010; A12

BAGHDAD -- At first glance, Fairuz Hatem might seem like the antithesis of the coalition she joined to compete in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

After all, the main parties of the Iraqi National Alliance tend to be associated more with menacing militiamen and turbaned clerics than with pretty faces.

Although Hatem insists she's not running on her looks, the budding politician's campaign posters and television appearances have turned her into an overnight political sensation. Her images are ubiquitous in this city, and tales of traffic accidents they have caused are talk of the town.

"I never anticipated my picture would attract so many people," said Hatem, 44, news director of al-Hurriyah television station. "They're saying my picture will be the ace card of the bloc."

Because women must fill at least 82 of the 325 seats in the new parliament, Hatem's election is not considered a long shot.

Her candidacy as an unveiled woman running alongside established Shiite political entities suggests that those factions are trying to freshen up their image of being traditional and conservative after a poor showing in provincial elections last year.

"The clerics and turbans have been replaced by pretty females," said Basra resident Talib Abdul Aziz, voicing surprise at the number of posters for female candidates put up in the streets of the port city in southern Iraq. "Some men took the posters from the streets and took them home."

For the first time, Iraqi voters will be able to cast ballots for individuals rather than just blocs, and parliamentary candidates worked harder than ever before to stand out. Amid the sea of campaign posters, Hatem's stood out.

Hatem's posters in progressive districts of the capital feature her with a slight smile, her lips shaded bright pink, her hair perfectly coiffed. In a version tailored for Sadr City, a conservative enclave in eastern Baghdad, she is wearing a black head scarf.

Campaign key chains and mugs bearing her images have become something approaching collector's items.

Shortly after her posters went up, Hatem said, she began receiving calls from admirers, bouquets of flowers and requests for photos from policemen at checkpoints. A stranger asked her to marry him in exchange for securing 10,000 votes.

The posters make her "look younger and prettier," she said.

Khamis al-Badri, a political science professor at Baghdad University who is also a candidate from the Iraqi National Alliance, said voters should look at candidates' credentials first and foremost.

"We have to consider that allowing good-looking candidates to participate in the election might be a political game by lists aiming to win extra votes," he said.

Mohammed Askar Ali, 44, who grew up in Hatem's neighborhood, said he intended to vote for her because she comes from humble origins and has helped widows. "We're going to elect her not because she's pretty, but because she helps people," he said.

Hatem, a Shiite Kurd, left Iraq in the 1980s and lived in exile in Iran and later in Sweden. She returned in 2005 and began working in the newsroom she now runs.

After covering Iraqi politics for years, she said, she has come to disdain the establishment she's now trying to join.

"If I get enough votes, it will be a message that the Iraqi people need change," she said.

Special correspondent Dalya Hassan contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company