Find a role for women in rebuilding Iraq

Iraqi women will certainly be better off without Saddam Hussein, but will they be better off in postwar Iraq?

For the past 100 years, Iraqi women have struggled for equal rights, with some success. Women had held 20 percent of Iraq's parliamentary seats in recent history- more than the 14 percent held by women in the US Congress, and far greater than the 3.5 percent average among Arab states. Iraqi women historically had the right to vote, drive, work, be educated, and dress as they please. They once pursued the same professions and salaries as Iraqi men. And they received five years of maternity leave from their employers, a benefit American women can only dream of.

But last month, six very worried Iraqi women leaders met with Secretary of State Colin Powell to share their concerns about two looming threats to the near-parity they once had with men and to the establishment of a true Middle Eastern democracy.

The first threat is one of exclusion. Right now, it seems that women's voices in the postwar reconstruction process may not be heard at all.

The Iraqi Reconstruction Group, set up presumably with the blessing of the US and British governments, has only five women among 30 members. At a recent meeting in Nasiriyah, only four of the 80 selected delegates were women. Of 13 legal experts assembled by the US Justice Department to help rebuild Iraq's shattered court system, none are women.

Women need to participate in this rebuilding at a level of critical mass. At least 30 percent of those involved - both at the local and national levels - must be women to ensure a real voice. A token few are not sufficient.

As history has shown, women's involvement in the initial stages is critical to the eventual success of any agreement reached. Women in Northern Ireland, for example, played a significant role in maintaining the Good Friday agreement because they were at the table. Women at the table in South Africa ensured that the country's new Constitution guarantees women equal rights and representation. And, if international law carries any weight in postwar Iraq, it's important to note that the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 mandates that women have meaningful participation in postconflict resolution, wherever it takes place.

The second threat is one of extremism. The huge public demonstrations by certain sectors of the Iraqi Shiite community immediately after the war's end raise questions about what will happen to women's rights and roles in society if fundamentalists gain power.Already there have been calls by some religious leaders for bans on women wearing makeup and for taking up the head-to-toe covering of the burqa. Afghanistan under the Taliban is a short memory away.

Should the extremists succeed in establishing a religious state, women could be denied the opportunity to learn, have access to healthcare, speak in public, hold political office, and participate in the economy. The United States would win the battle and lose any hope for a thriving democracy.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Right now, the US, Britain, and other interested governments have the opportunity to erase the threat of exclusion and, in doing so, head off the threat of extremism.

Women can help fight fundamentalist rule. Look no further than Iran, where women and youth played a major role in the movement toward a more moderate government.

L. Paul Bremer III, the new US special envoy and civil administrator of Iraq, can ensure that women are equally involved in the rebuilding of the government ministries as he appoints or recommends Iraqi citizens to interim government posts.

Beyond appointments, the US can use some of the $2.5 billion it has pledged to Iraqi reconstruction to ensure women's continued and enhanced empowerment. Funds should go for training women in political organizing, grass-roots activism, and campaigning. Access to financing for women entrepreneurs will stimulate the economy. Money should be spent on classrooms, teachers, computer literacy, and healthcare, particularly for pregnant women.

Ultimately, the Iraqi people must decide their own fate. Iraqi women for decades have enjoyed greater equality and opportunity than women of neighboring Arab countries. It will be an ironic twist of fate if the position of women in Iraq is neither preserved nor further enhanced in this formative time.

Laura Liswood is a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership. She is the secretary-general of the Council of Women World Leaders, a network of current and former women heads of state and government based at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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