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Women's Forum Explores Role of Women in Iraq's Future

Washington -- Experts met February 25 to report on progress by Iraqi women in organizing and helping to rebuild the country's infrastructure and government. But they also warned of dire consequences for women's rights should a proposal to give clerics power to rule in family matters become part of a new constitution.

The discussion took place at the Brookings Institution in Washington and was hosted by Women in International Security, an affiliate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Panelists included two human rights activists from Iraq, one a judge, both of whom came the United States in the late 1990s; an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and a conflict prevention expert who just spent a year in Iraq working for the International Organization for Migration.

Prior to Saddam Hussein, women were very much included in the politics of Iraq, according to Anita Sharma, director of the conflict prevention project at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "That changed under the Baath regime," she said.

She noted that the United States recently committed $27 million to women's programs all over Iraq and that women's centers are being established. And she said the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is holding workshops in Iraq, Jordan and the United States to train women on issues of law and democracy. Informal networks are forming, she said.

But on the question of women's involvement in the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), Sharma said some Iraqis are critical that the CPA "got it wrong" when it made appointments. There are not enough women, Sharma said, and they may not be the right ones.

Bayanne Surdashi, a refugee from Northern Iraq who lost scores of relatives to Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign in the late 1980's, spoke of similarities between women in central and southern Iraq today and the Kurdish women after the Gulf War. "Now, most women may not be politically involved because basic necessities take first seat," she said.

Sharma agreed, saying better security is necessary before large numbers of women become involved in politics. Women fear kidnappings of themselves or their children, she said. "More women wear veils in Baghdad out of fear." A solution is as simple as "street lighting," she said.

Nevertheless, Surdahsi noted that several women's groups have recently sprung up, a precursor to bigger political roles for women. The National Council of Women attracted 1,000 women to a February conference on transitional assembly law, Surdahsi said. The Society of Iraqi Women for the Future, just three months old, is promoting women in government positions. The Coordinating Council of Women's Non-Governmental Organizations has brought together 40 women's groups in Baghdad. And Women for a Free Iraq is lobbying for women's rights.

Furthermore, Surdashi said, throughout Iraq, women have been selected as representatives on the provisional councils, one step above city councils. "Progress has been made," she said. "It is not obvious; the media does not cover it. By Western standards, it may not be significant. But, from an Iraqi point of view -- we have undergone three wars, and this has happened in the past 10 months -- it is significant."

Under the Baath regime, not only did women lose political power, Sharma said, but also jobs. High unemployment in manufacturing after the Gulf War pushed Iraqi men into jobs traditionally held by women. "Today only 19% of the workforce is female," she said, yet Iraqi women are "highly educated and employable."

Sharma said there has been economic improvement in the year since the onset of the war -- functioning ministries, laws governing business and considerable economic activity in Baghdad. "Most telling, PepsiCo will return to Iraq with an agreement with the Baghdad Soft Drink Company soon," she said.

Emphasis by the U.S. Agency for International Development to create jobs earmarked for women will help, she said. But she noted it will be important for a new government to abolish laws that impede women's right to work, travel or enter certain professions. Sharma praised the CPA's programs to bring women into security work: "More than 100 women have joined the police, prison guard and security forces."

Judge Zakia Ismail Hakki spoke with less optimism, focusing on a near passage in December of a resolution to give religious clerics power over family law in Iraq. The vote by the governing council appeared to pass 11-to-10, but did not take effect because there was not a quorum. Despite its failure on this technicality, human rights activists fear the measure will resurface if a strong statement regarding the application of Sharia law is not put in the interim constitution now being drafted.

Hakki issued a paper saying a resolution like the one voted upon in December would allow a father to arrange a marriage for a nine-year-old daughter, allow men to take more than one wife and deny women custody of their children, inheritance and divorce rights. "It is just a disaster to bring back Iraqi families, Iraqi women to the middle ages," she said.

Other panelists agreed that the role of Sharia law is an important concern for Iraqi women's rights. While there are no women on the committee drafting a constitution, CPA Administrator Paul Bremer has said he won't approve any measure giving clerics power over family matters.

But because Bremer's role will change to one of assistance after June 30, Hakki said, "We are all concerned that maybe this is the tip of the iceberg. Only God knows what they are preparing for us when Ambassador Bremer is not there and the Americans are not there."

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



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