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Iraqi Women Seek to Contribute to a More Democratic Future

By David Shelby
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Women's centers around Iraq have become focal points for Iraqi women seeking to learn more about democracy and to participate in the transformation of their country into a free and democratic nation where women's rights will be respected.

"We want to know about democracy and women's rights, but unfortunately until now we didn't know how to deal with this issue," said Raghad Ali, a volunteer at the Women's Rights Center in Hilla, during a personal interview with a representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Referring to an October women's rights conference sponsored by her center, Ali stated, "We were very happy, and I can not describe my feelings of happiness when we participated for the first time in our lives in the Women's Conference."

Many of the women's centers in Iraq have held similar meetings, classes and conferences to discuss issues related to democracy and the rightful place of women in Iraq's political and social future.

Maha Al-Sagban, a board member of the Diwaniyah Women's Rights Center, explained during a January 24 democracy class at her center, "First we have to rebuild a woman's self-confidence and return their lost pride."

She said, "[Women] are now allowed to take part in life. Because of the previous regime, they didn't speak, but that is changing."

Muna Khder, who works alongside Ali at the Hilla Center, confirmed this point during a discussion with a CPA representative, saying, "Our Islamic religion gives a lot of attention and respect to women. But unfortunately, the past regime abused these rights." She added, "During the last regime, our only priority was how to survive."

Ali painted an even starker picture of life under the former regime, saying, "We were afraid to talk badly about Saddam Hussein in our homes, for fear our children would mention it in school. We were afraid they would cut out our tongues."

However, women around Iraq are now shedding that fear and gathering in centers throughout the country to explore their own potential contributions to the transformation of Iraq and to offer support for other women to do likewise.

Most of the centers have a primary mission to assist widowed, impoverished and vulnerable women in their communities, but also seek to empower women in a larger framework through classes, skills training and direct economic assistance for entrepreneurial projects.

"It's the first time in our life that we are able to talk, and we are volunteering in associations to prove that we have freedom," said Khder. "I believe I have potential inside me, and I hope I'll be able to get this potential to the world. I hope to be able to help the Iraqi women. I hope to get the Iraqi woman's voice to the world."

Speaking in advance of a January 28-29 women's rights conference in Basra, Zainab Al-Suwajj, a member of the Higher Council for Iraqi Women, stated, "I believe women have a lot to contribute to society. They want to improve their rights, increase their role in political participation, and help society understand the importance of the role of women."

The Basra conference, which drew women from around southern and south central Iraq, addressed the role of women in politics, elections, media and the economy. According to one woman in attendance, the panel discussions generated lively debate. The attendee also noted that many women were asking how they could apply for funding to pursue projects in their own communities.

The momentum behind women's issues in Iraq is not restricted to the local and regional level, however. In a February 1 op-ed for The Washington Post, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz reported that a delegation of Iraqi women recently visited the Pentagon and told officials there that "if Iraq is to become a democracy, women must have an equal role and more women should be included in Iraqi governing bodies and ministries."

Wolfowitz stated, "They are concerned that if women are not involved, women will not be guaranteed equality under the law."

He noted growing support in Washington for Iraqi women's initiatives, pointing to a $27 million allocation for women's programs in Iraq as well as the recent establishment of a congressional caucus for Iraqi women, which aims to ensure that the issue of women's rights does not fall from attention during the transition process.

Al-Suwajj expressed a sentiment which seems to drive many Iraqi women in their efforts, saying, "It does not matter what religion or ethnic group women belong to, we are all women. This is what unites us."

Khder offered a more personal explanation for her involvement in the women's rights center, saying, "I hope my daughter will live a better life, not how I lived, because I spent my life in sadness, because we were afraid of wars for many years."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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