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
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
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
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