BAGHDAD — It is a measure of how unsafe it has become for women seeking office in Iraq that one, in a moment of grim humor, joked recently that she was afraid her husband would find out she was a candidate.
Aside from about a dozen women with established national profiles, female candidates in Iraq's upcoming elections are running in secret, forced underground by the threat of violence.
Insurgents have taken aim at male and female candidates alike in their effort to disrupt the landmark Jan. 30 vote, but women have been particularly vulnerable, facing the wrath of religious conservatives as well.
One female candidate was slain near her Baghdad home in December. Another was kidnapped and held for ransom. Salama Khafaji, a prominent Shiite activist and candidate, survived an assassination attempt in May in which her 17-year-old son was killed.
Many women refuse to acknowledge, even to friends, that they are on slates vying for seats on the new national assembly. Fear has bred an inverted sort of gamesmanship. Dozens of women have withdrawn their names publicly but remain candidates privately, ready to assume seats if their slates garner enough support. Voters will pick among slates, not individuals, and each slate will be allotted assembly seats based on how many votes it gets.
Behind a closed door guarded by armed men, Songul Chapouk and Raja Azzawi wrapped up a rare women's candidate forum last week at the Oil Ministry by taking questions from the crowd, made up almost entirely of ministry employees because the event wasn't publicized.
"Why don't we know anything about the women candidates?" one woman asked. "Why are there only slates and numbers, but no one knows who's on them?" Chapouk, who served on the Iraqi Governing Council that was in place until June, could only shrug in dismay.
"It's a shame to see some women stay away from the political process," she said. "Today, Iraq is free. I understand security is bad, but we must face it and take part in this great opportunity."
Much will be at stake for Iraqi women as the new assembly writes a permanent constitution.
In the past, Iraq's civil laws have given them explicit equal rights in such areas as voting, attending school, owning property and aspects of family life. Early last year, however, religious conservatives pressed to revoke some of those rights, leaving matters of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance in the hands of clerics.
The effort failed narrowly but could be revived, women's advocates warn.
At least on paper, the election offers women an unprecedented chance for political power.
They are guaranteed at least a 25% stake in the 275-seat assembly. Female candidates are in high demand because of the mandate, said Hassan Bazaz, a Baghdad political analyst.
More than 50 parties approached a female friend of his, he said, all begging to include her on their lists. The Iraqi Independent Democrats jettisoned one woman after discovering she had signed on to two other slates as well as theirs.
Leading slates have snapped up most of the women who are established activists or hold positions in the interim government. Already well-known, they can run openly -- up to a point.
Sawsan Sharifi, agriculture minister in the current government, is the top woman on the slate headed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
She interacts with voters in her ministerial role, talking to farmers about their concerns. Beyond that, however, her campaigning has essentially been limited to appearances at tightly controlled news conferences, she acknowledged.
Maysoon Damluji, the top woman on the Independent Democrats slate led by former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi, said she, too, had not ventured beyond structured party rallies.
"I simply cannot walk on the street alone, even with security," said Damluji, an architect who returned to Iraq in 2003 after 22 years abroad.
The stifling circumstances make it doubly tough to push her platform, which calls for a more open Iraqi society that embraces the free flow of ideas, books and media.
Damluji, who is deputy minister of culture in the interim government, said her family was caught between pride and worry over her role in the election.
Her brother in London sends her e-mails quoting Benjamin Disraeli on the perils of aspiring to high political office. Her other brother, who remained in Iraq under the old regime, has joined her on the Independent Democrats slate, two spots below her on the ranked list.
Beneath the elite tier occupied by Sharifi, Damluji and a few others, the vast majority of female candidates remain a mystery, shrouded by fear.
Many have sent family members from the country, worried they would become targets as the election draws near.
"They find it funny that people are advising them to go out and campaign," said Manal Omar, director of Women for Women International in Iraq, a support group.