CAMBRIDGE, MA — An Iranian pulled me aside as I stepped down from a panel discussion at Harvard recently. "Doesn't Washington realize that invading Iraq is going to strengthen fundamentalists in my country?" she whispered. "They're looking for any excuse to tighten their grip. It will be a disaster for us especially for women."
The US confrontation of Saddam Hussein has major implications for women throughout the region, not only in Iraq. To sell the war in Afghanistan to the American public, the Bush administration invoked the harsh Taliban repression of women; in Iraq, however, women and men hold equivalent jobs, for equivalent pay. They receive five years' maternity leave and are not forced to cover their heads. Reports from Baghdad are that women are worried that "regime change" could mean a change to Islamic fundamentalist leadership.
In light of such conundrums, policymakers need a more inclusive view of security, an approach that not only counts weapons in stockpiles, but also measures our actions in terms of cultural implications values, mores, and social roles. In the debate over if, when, and how we invade Iraq, we must recognize all the stakeholders key to regional stability. That includes the women.
We seem bound to invade Iraq a mistake, I've come to believe, because Mr. Hussein is a megalomaniac, not an ideologue bent on martyrdom.
But in our warmaking, we'll make an even greater mistake if we don't exhaust every effort to build strong alliances, not only among Europeans, but also across Muslim nations. Islamic allies are critical to our long-term success beyond the military bases and overflight permission. If we attack as a Western force, we'll almost certainly unite against us Muslims who otherwise are not allies with one another. That unification will encourage a contagious antipathy for Western modernity, specifically as it relates to gender. The Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris argues that the clash between Western and conservative Muslim cultures centers not on politics, but a disparate view of the role of women.
In fact, the advancement of women has been a moderating force against religious extremists in Iraq's neighborhood:
In Pakistan's elections last month, extremists fueled by outrage over US military intervention in Afghanistan made significant gains in electoral office. A third of the parliamentary seats, however, are reserved for women, who although they may be Islamists defy extremists' proscription against women in public life.
In Bangladesh, where the microlending programs of the Grameen Bank have allowed 2.4 million women to start their own businesses, women took their power to the polls five years ago, reducing the seats of religious extremists from 18 to 2.
Former New York Times UN correspondent Barbara Crossette credits women in Iran with twice electing President Khatami, the counter to the clerics and the hope of moderates.
In September, Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak gathered 70 women from the region to explore strategies for peace.
This week, Queen Rania of Jordan convened a meeting of women leaders from 18 countries under the banner of "The Arab Woman A New Vision."
The greatest danger shared in each of these situations is the backlash of a patriarchal society that feels threatened by an American bully.
Brandeis scholar Fauzia Ahmed reports from her research in Bangladesh villages that when Islam is perceived as under attack, husbands begin demanding that their wives stay home, obey, and prove that they're good Muslims. Thus to the extent that America's actions against Iraq are perceived as broadly anti-Muslim, we Americans risk the unintended consequences of not only inspiring and spawning more terrorist groups throughout the region, but also quashing the moderating influence inherent in women's advancement within the Islamic world.
A recent UN report scores Iraq highest in the Arab world on women's empowerment. America built up Hussein, after all, as a counter to religious extremists. Ironically, the same administration that used the liberation of women to justify our attack on Afghanistan may end up reversing women's progress as we attack Hussein. Maneuvering along this policy path is treacherous; we need women experts from the region to help guide us. For example, 40 women peace builders from around the globe are meeting with 140 policymakers this week at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School for a gathering of "Women Waging Peace."
If we are smart enough to bring them to the foreign policy table, women will provide depth to our strategic thinking even as they are a stabilizing force across the Middle East.
Swanee Hunt, former US ambassador to Austria, is director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.