Iraqi women argue, but agree on their special role
In a roomful of Iraqi and American women, brought together to explore how they can join to build a new Iraq, the discussions are stuck in recriminations, accusations, the past.Skip to next paragraph
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Were we worse off under Saddam Hussein or with the current splintering violence? Should American troops stay, or should they go? What is the place of women who left Iraq, while others endured, but have returned and want a piece of the power?
At times it's all shouts, dismissals, and walking out.
Then a voice of reason rises above the din. "I would like to stop talking about the dictatorial regime, or [how] the Americans made this and this mistakes, and go forward," pleads Shahla Waliy, a young Iraqi woman in a colorful Kurdish veil. "Our country is bleeding."
This kind of intervention surfaces periodically during the two-day gathering, organized recently in New York by the Global Peace Initiative of Women.
While there is talk of practical solutions to Iraq's needs - of job banks for widows, programs to help orphans and street kids, and arts education in the dreary schools - the conversation is often heated, a single-room microcosm of the wrenching issues Iraqis face back home. Perhaps one of the most pressing needs, judging from this assemblage, is for reconciliation.
"I know from working with women in Rwanda, and Israelis and Palestinians that a critical step in healing is letting go of the past," the program's convener, Dena Merriam, tells the group.
Other delegations of Iraqi women visited the US since the fall of Mr. Hussein, but they have usually been more like-minded than not: members of a post- Hussein provisional government, for example, or teachers.
The Global Peace Initiative's "women's summit" was a first for bringing a cross section of Iraqi women to meet with American women. Organizers say it wasn't easy - first, because of visa issues. But difficulties also stemmed from the desire to include a broad spectrum of Iraqi women - with a result that reveals the divisions in a torn country.
"We need to end the occupation! We need to end the occupation!" shouts one Iraqi woman as she storms out of a discussion. Others take a different view. "We don't want America to withdraw now!" insists Zakia Hakki, a jurist and member of Iraq's National Assembly who returned from the US after Hussein's ouster. "In that case they would come back to power, those Baathists, those murderers!"
At times, the divisions leave organizers wondering if Iraqis are ready for dialogue on putting their future first. It's the same doubt some US officials in Baghdad express in view of the long deadlock among political factions over forming a new government. If Iraqi women are stuck in the same divisions, do they really have a special role in healing the country?
Despite their differences, the women say yes. For one thing, they recognize that they are still all treated as a secondary group, despite their majority status in the population and the skills learned while war took men away.
"We should remember that in reality we are still unrecognized," Judge Hakki says at one point. Even as this group meets, she adds, "the future of Iraq is being decided behind closed doors, among the leaders of political groups, and still there is not a single woman there."
The women at the summit hold different views, but they all tend to focus less on power and violence and more on the well-being of children. Below, four of these women explain their hopes for Iraq.
President, Assyrian Women's Union
Pascale Warda is a true believer in the necessity of political power for women. "If the Iraqi woman has the support of other women, then we will change the country, believe me," says Ms. Warda, who was a minister in the interim government under Allawi who now works to empower women.
So what does she make of the divisions so evident among the Iraqi women?
"It is important to see that it is not a division of religions, no - it is the past and the present, those who were OK with the time of Saddam Hussein and those who were not."
Like others, she insists the sectarian strife roiling Iraq today is fed by political leaders looking to advance their own power. "In Iraq we have no religious fanaticism, please say that," says the Chaldean Christian. "It is the politicians using the religious card to arrive at their own political gains."