BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's female lawmakers and rights advocates said they will push hard for jobs in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's unfinished cabinet, after he named only one woman to the inner circle of his new government.
The cabinet Maliki unveiled on Tuesday has 11 posts held temporarily by acting ministers, including the ministry of women's affairs which is headed for the moment by a man.
"There are really good women who could do well ... they cannot be neglected and marginalized," said Maysoon Damluji, a spokeswoman for the cross-sectarian Iraqiya political bloc.
"We hope in the coming few days there will be a response. I personally will put pressure on my bloc to fill the empty seats with women," she told Reuters, calling for peaceful protests to push for more women in government.
Iraq was a leader on women's rights in the Middle East. Women were educated as doctors in the 1930s and the first female minister was named soon after the monarchy ended in the late 1950s.
Maliki's cabinet choices, after months of squabbling among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs, stirred immediate anger among women legislators -- who make up a quarter of parliament by law -- and rights advocates who said it was a sign of regression for a nation trying to establish democracy. Women led four ministries in the previous cabinet.
"Democracy in Iraq has been slaughtered by sexism this time, as it was slaughtered by sectarianism before," said a statement by women politicians read out by Kurdish lawmaker Alaa Talabani in parliament on Tuesday before voting on the cabinet began.
Bushra Hussein Saleh, who was appointed minister of state without portfolio, was the only woman named. Yazidi Kurdish politician Vian Dakheel Saeed said she was offered the post for women's affairs but turned it down.
"I gave up this ministry in solidarity with my sisters in parliament, and in the belief that the Iraqi woman deserves more than this post and deserves a number of portfolios," Saeed said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Hoshiyar Zebari was appointed acting minister for women's affairs.
Hanaa Edwar, leader of Al-Amal, an Iraqi advocacy group for women and children, called the cabinet selection a farce.
"They call it a national (power) sharing government. So where is this sharing?" she said. "Do they want to take us back to the era of the harem? Do they want to take us back to the dark ages, when women were used only for pleasure?"
Maliki, who is expected to announce choices for some of the empty cabinet posts on Sunday, told the political blocs on Tuesday that they needed to nominate more women. "If the previous government had four women, I was hoping this (government) would have more," he said.
Rights advocates expressed concern that Iraq was regressing on women's issues. Wijdan Michael, who was human rights minister in the last cabinet, noted that there were five female ministers five years ago. If the trend continues, "I expect there will be an enormous failure in women's rights," she said.
Samira al-Moussawi, a lawmaker with Maliki's bloc, said the cabinet was a reflection of male dominance in Iraqi society.
"This is not acceptable ... We are on the path to build a modern, civilized and democratic state in which women should have a role at all levels," said Moussawi, who headed the committee for women and children in the previous government.
Editing by Serena Chaudhry, Jim Loney and David Stamp