November 2003 | Nervy Girl


Iraqi Women: An Unknown Quantity

Despite multiple obstacles, Iraqi women are coming to the forefront of change in their nation's transition.

By Don Lieber

Iraqi women hoped that the United States overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime would provide a long-deserved improvement in social, political and economic opportunities for women. As the U.S. formed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), women hoped they would have a voice in decision-making during the reconstruction and democratization efforts—and counted on the U.S. to ensure their participation. Many women's groups, however, claim that the Bush administration, which encouraged these hopes, has failed to include women in any meaningful way.

June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organization, points out that the newly appointed Iraqi Constitutional Commission does not include any women, nor are there any women, among the additional constitutional experts directly provided to Iraq by the Bush administration. Furthermore, only three women were appointed to the 25-member Governing Council, a group of Iraqis handpicked by the U.S. as the "local" administrative arm of the CPA. And, there are no women included in the "assembly" now being formed to draft a new constitution.

"It is still unclear whether democratic institutions will take hold in Iraq and, if they do, whether they will include and protect women," Zeitlin said. "Women…around the world have heard the rhetoric. It gave them hope that this administration would stand and deliver for women's rights. Women around the world and [in Iraq] are waiting for that reality."

Even U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, not known for admitting faults in U.S. policy, acknowledged early in the transition that the U.S. "…has fallen short in the representation of women…" (BBC, May 2003).
So far, Zeitlin said, "we give the administration a 'C' for its rhetoric on women in Iraq, and an incomplete grade on its actions."

(foto by Debbi Morello / USAID)

Explosion of Violence

While President Bush continues to insist that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a good decision, Iraqi women are left to suffer in the aftermath. Almost immediately after Saddam Hussein's fall, there has been "an unprecedented explosion of violence against women…more than 400 women have been kidnapped, raped, and sometimes sold," said Yanar Mohammed, the director of The Organization of Women’s Freedom.

The harsh penalties under Saddam's regime are no longer a threat to civil criminals, and neither a strong civilian police force nor a judicial system has emerged. Exact numbers of victims are nearly impossible to verify, in part because Iraqi women are afraid to report such crimes.

What appears certain, however, is that the sense of public security for women has severely deteriorated since the U.S.-led occupation.

"This issue of security is the immediate issue for women now," Mohammed said. "This horrible time that was triggered the very first day of the invasion."

Complicating the efforts to include women in the official U.S.-led transition process is the ongoing guerilla insurgency against the U.S. military occupation. This has increasingly taken the form of violent attacks against anyone seen as collaborating with the occupation. Most obvious examples: the two bombings at U.N. headquarters.

The Assasination of Aquila Al-Hashimi

On September 25, Aquila Al-Hashimi, one of three female members of the CPA, died from gunshot wounds she suffered following an assassination attack five days earlier. Many regarded Al-Hashimi as one of the most respected and potentially powerful Iraqi women involved in the emerging transition process, as well as a leading contender to become Iraq's next ambassador to the UN. She was also was the only CPA official who served in the Saddam's regime.

Abdulrachman acknowledges that empowering women in Iraq is not popular with everyone. "There are many people here, Islamists, Traditionalists and some former B'aath [party members], who do not like our ideas and [relief] work," she said.

While there may be multiple motivations for the assassination, many women see the attack as a high-profile example of the escalating insecurity for women, if not a well-planned tactic to intimidate women from entering the transition process.

Prior to this assassination, CPA administrator Paul Bremmer ignored a direct plea for heightened security for women from The Organization of Women's Freedom (OWF), one of many such appeals ignored by the CPA.

(foto by Debbi Morello / USAID)

Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

Iraqi women, with support from women around the world, are starting to become agents of change. One of the most far-reaching efforts by, and on behalf of, Iraqi women may be the Mobile Support of Women and their Children program, led by 29-year-old Suaad Abdulrachman.

Traveling in vans to remote parts of Iraq, teams of three doctors, an assistant and a social worker deliver emergency medical assistance, social assistance, legal help and psychological counseling to women. The teams also arrange for women to be taken, immediately, to overnight emergency shelters, and provide a 24-hour emergency telephone hotline.

These mobile teams have assisted more than 2,000 women and girls in areas where, due to traditionalist-based suppression of women and economic hardship, no other wide-ranging women's support system is likely to exist.

Abdulrachman is project coordinator for one of Iraq's longest-running women's assistance programs, the Assistance for Women in Distress, run by the German relief organization WADI. She also helps run two women's shelters, a 24-hour "crisis help" telephone line, a literacy program for women, and is involved in establishing greater women representation in the national reconstruction and democratization efforts in Baghdad.

The First Women's Shelter

Abdulrachman's emergency shelters have housed and treated more than 500 Iraqi women. The shelters not only offer protection from domestic violence, but also provide psychological treatment, social assistance, health education, legal help, and follow-up programs for both women and their families—including men.

The NAWA women's shelter, in Sulaymaniyah, opened in 1999 as the first women's shelter ever built in the northern region. It quickly gained a reputation among women throughout the region, resulting in an appeal to Abdulrachman from women’s groups in the nearby city of Arbil to open a similar shelter in their town.

In December 2002, the shelter in Arbil, known as the Khanzad Center, opened its doors to women in need. In its first six months of operation, the Arbil shelter treated more than 60 women.

"It is widely seen as a great success that Arbil's community, which is known to be more conservative than the one in Suleymaniah, accepted this center from the start," Abdulrachman said.

Both shelters also engage in public-awareness campaigns, via local radio, print and television, to fight violence against women.

The First Time in Years That They Could Meet Outside Their Houses and Learn

Abdulrachman also administers vocational skills training and literacy classes for women, often in areas such as Halabja, where women were ruled by the fundamentalist Ansar al Islam Group, a group that severely restricted, if not prohibited, education and financial advancement of women. More than 160 women have participated in Abdulrachman's training and literacy programs.

Abdulrachman’s aim is to "empower women, teach them about their fundamental human rights and give them a chance of economical independence."

She said, "Women participated in our courses with great excitement, because it was the first time in years that they had a possibility to meet outside their houses and learn."

Abdulrachman is planning to expand the literacy program, including the building of libraries, to areas of central and southern Iraq.

Considering the obstacles Iraqi women face—from a legacy of oppression and political exclusion under B'aath rule, traditionalist matriarchal customs, and, since the U.S. invasion, an overall state of insecurity and fear—the work of Iraqi women like Abdulrachman is all the more heroic and may have more influence on the long-term nature of Iraqi society than a foreign-crafted bureaucracy.

"Women's groups are sprouting everywhere. Of course, the battle will be long... and [women] must overcome the psychological legacy of Saddam's terror...," Eleanor Gordon , a representative of Women for a Free Iraq, a Washington, D.C. organization largely made up of female exiles during Saddam Hussein's rule, said. "So many of our members are moving back now [from the U.S. to Iraq] to participate."

Sadly, the U.S. mainstream media and the Bush administration, which are focused on the increasing attacks on U.S. troops and the billions of dollars necessary to protect them, largely ignore the efforts of women like Abdulrachman.

But she has a message for women in America: "After all the suffering, oppression and abuse women faced in this country, not enough can be done to help them."

(foto by Debbi Morello / USAID)

All Iraq Women’s Conference

Eleanor Gordon, along with about 150 other Iraqi women, participated in the All Iraq Women's Conference in Hilla, from October 4 to 7, 2003. Organized with support from the United States Agency for Development (USAID), the U.S. government's relief and development agency, the conference welcomed five delegations, each composed of about 20 women, from across Iraq: Hilla, al-Diwaniyah, al-Kut, Najaf, Kerbala and Basra (in South Iraq) and a delegation of 12 women from Kurdistan-Iraq. There was no official delegation from Baghdad.

Gordon described the participants and the results of the conference: "The speakers/hosts were representative of the cream of the crop of Iraqi women leaders. Two of the women, Safia al-Suhaila and Rend el-Rahim, have been nominated to replace the recently assassinated Akila Hashemi on the Iraqi Governing Council, and the Conference Chair, Ala Talabani, is a long-time political activist currently serving as a liaison for the CPA to other women's organizations across Iraq."

"The goals of the conference were to become politically active in the next elections as campaigners or grass-roots organizers, to educate the women about the connection between democracy and women's rights, and to give them inspiration and practical information to help them set up women’s centers," Gordon said.

Many of the women who attended came from areas of Iraq, where, during the rule of Saddam Hussein, they were excluded from community participation. Many of them were "mesmerized" by the work of women such as Abdulrachman, who was present. Gordon said that women "...peppered [Abdulrachman] with lots of very practical questions: How did you organize? How do you get funding? What did you learn?"

Another goal of the conference was to bridge inter-Iraqi cultural gaps among women. One participant said, "I had no idea that, as a Kurdish woman, I could communicate with Arab Shi'a women."

On the last day of the conference, Ambassador Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, spoke and conducted a Q & A session. Gordon said that some of the women were quite critical, but, surprisingly, "most of the women prefaced their questions to him with extended expressions of gratitude to the coalition forces for coming to Iraq." Mostly, the women were curious to understand U.S. democracy. "Even so, the women were not shy about saying the US was not doing enough—especially with regards to democracy education and de-Baathification," Gordon said.

Agreements and Disagreements

All the participants, according to Gordon, agreed that women should have equal rights in society, receive education and skills training in order to be financially independent, and no longer live under current laws that discriminate women.

In regards to governing, the conference attendees suggested a quota of 30 percent women in all government institutions, including a special division in each ministry dedicated to women’s issues. Many also strongly agreed women should be involved in constitution writing.

Disagreements on Islam, and Church vs. State

"The most religious women, perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the participants," Gordon said, "seemed tied up in knots intellectually over how to reconcile their desire for equality and freedom with their view that all the answers lie in Islam. Some of these women argued that women's political participation was not necessary in an Islamic state, because the religious leaders would make the right decisions."

Many women were confused and expressed concern over the separation of church and state. Many resisted such a concept, believing that religious people couldn’t be involved in politics or that they would be forced to remove their headscarves—in reference to such incidences in Turkey and Tunisia, where secularism was forced upon women.

A heated debate also ensued about affirmative action, some arguing that any form of discrimination, whether negative or positive, went against concept of equality. These discussions were "not unlike debates we've had in the U.S.," Gordon said.

Significant disagreements over the form of a future Iraqi government also emerged. In particular, the delegations from Najaf and Kerbala—the two holiest cities of Shi'a Islam—included some very religious women who opposed the idea of separation of religion and state. Gordon said, "The Najaf delegation made a point of stating that their number one desire for the future Iraqi constitution was that it be based on Shari'a (strict Islamic law)."

On the other hand, "sixty percent of the participants were thrilled that the issue of separation of religion and state was brought up and felt it was important that we discuss it." Gordon added, "A handful told me in private that they did not want to wear the scarf, but felt social pressure to wear it."

Mercy Corps Lends a Hand

Cassandra Nelson and Jihane Nami are two senior officers with Mercy Corps, a Portland-based organization that has been working in Iraq since 1995. "We are one of the few international organizations actively engaged in women's issues" outside of Baghdad, Nelson said.

Nelson and Nami oversee a staff that includes more than 140 Iraqis. While Mercy Corps is involved in a range of development projects in Iraq—irrigation, roads, sanitation—they are also engaged directly with projects focused on women, including ones that address basic needs, local civil-society engagement, and skills training.

One program, known as the Women's Cooperative Society, has trained more than 700 war-widows to work together to support themselves, in the town of Wassit.

"[It] also brings women into the decision-making process by forming women's committees in which local women identify the needs and priorities for the reconstruction efforts," Nelson said.

According to Nami, "Women have prioritized small projects designed to support their families and improve their living conditions." Once basic needs are met, she said, women are in a better position to enter into democratization and larger political activities, starting at the local level.

USAID is also engaged in local women's empowerment issues and helps to organize and finance the All-Iraq Women’s Conference in October (described above). USAID helped organize local community meetings in different areas in Iraq, where local women elected their own representatives to attend the conference.

Empowerment of Women Always Leads to a Change in Society

Abdulrachman acknowledges that empowering women in Iraq is not popular with everyone. "There are many people here, Islamists, Traditionalists and some former B'aath [party members], who do not like our ideas and [relief] work," she said.

Nevertheless, she has encountered surprisingly little active resistance or threats from men. "Only recently have I encountered any personal threats, when we had a party with women from a training course and some Islamists threw stones at us. Usually the society is open to new ideas, especially in Kurdistan where things are not quite as chaotic as it now is around Baghdad."

Mercy Corps Project Manager Cassandra Nelson said, "We [Iraqi women] are in the embryonic stage of building democracy here and full of fits and starts, but it is extremely exciting...." Indeed, the future of Iraq is being shaped by some very courageous women, who, despite being mostly ignored by mainstream American media and the U.S.-controlled transitional authorities in Baghdad, are at the forefront of efforts to transform Iraqi society into an inclusive, peaceful and representative society.

Currently, the U.S. and its transitional authorities in Baghdad seem to neglect the humanitarian needs of Iraqi women by failing to include women in all levels of Iraq's political and constitutional reform, ensure human rights, prove security, and prevent cultural suppression.

These needs, however, are well understood by the Iraqi women themselves, who have begun their own inclusion into the transition of their homeland. Abdulrachman said,"The empowerment of women always leads to a change in society, opening it up, and is fundamental for democratization."


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