Iraqi women argue, but agree on their special role

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Pascale Warda
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."

That is where women come in says Warda - who lived in France from 1981 to 1995, when she returned to the Kurdish north. In sufficient numbers, astute women - and not just puppets - can tip the balance to a government focused on the services that women and children need, she says. Warda herself was denied a seat in the new National Assembly by what she labels "political corruption." "Women don't so much work for their own power at whatever terrible cost," Warda says. "So if we can make women stronger in our politics, things will be better."

Rashad Zaydan
Physician

Rashad Zaydan holds that knowledge - not politics - is what will change the course for Iraqi women. Suspicious of politicians, male or female, Dr. Rashad says women need skills. That is why her Women and Knowledge Society focuses on teaching women practical tools like cooking, sewing, and computer skills.

"We teach widows more about cooking and sewing, so they can do things in their homes to make some money and keep their families alive," she says.

Rashad's organization also serves the growing number of war orphans, either by helping them find family members to live with, or by opening orphanages in places like Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad.

An opponent of US military presence in Iraq, Rashad blames the Americans as much as anyone else for Iraq's slide into sectarianism: She says they raised sectarian profiles by forming post-Hussein governments on the basis of ethnic criteria rather than skills.

"They started to speak in that way. And it was the wrong way," she says, shaking a finger. "Whether the Americans knew it or not, they arranged for this."

But she sees a role for American assistance. Citing an American woman who sent three computers so her organization could teach computer skills, Rashad says, "Imagine what more we could do if America's money was not for war but to assist and educate the Iraqi people?"

Lamia Jamal Talebani
Founder, Voice of Independent Women

Lamia Jamal Talebani left Iraq shortly after the Baathist coup of 1963, and she returned after the Baathist regime's fall. The health specialist and sculptor dismisses those who call for the US military to leave Iraq: "They call it invasion, but no, we say that it is liberation."

Women have a specific role in Iraq, she says: First is to work with the youths "who are confused and lost" in the violence. For that reason, Ms. Talebani founded the Voice of Independent Women Organization, which she says "works to empower women and youth."

Second, says Talebani, a cousin of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, women must be active in resisting the divisions that "benefit certain political forces" but hurt Iraqi women. "There are no sectarian divisions among the ordinary women, the ordinary people," she says. "It is all created by the political parties to get more power and higher positions in the new government."

US officials are mistaken in focusing on political leaders holed up in Baghdad's Green Zone, "who claim to be our leaders but are not from the grass-roots," she says.

But initiatives like the one in New York suggest Americans are beginning to envision a different relationship with Iraq, she says. When she returns to Baghdad, "I will tell the young women there that we are not alone, because I have seen the faces of the American women who are so much with us."

Shahla Waliy
Director of nonprofit development organization

Shahla Waliy is fed up with war: She's in her early 30s, and she's already lived through three. But that does not mean she believes the answer for Iraq is for the foreign forces to leave. "Don't think that you just put out the American soldiers and everything will be right in Iraq. No, totally wrong," she says.

Expressing a calm wisdom for her young age, the Sunni Kurd says Iraqis and Americans must step back from the growing divisions between them and "come up with a new plan to rebuild Iraq."

Part of that should be insistence from the US, particularly from American women, she says, that Iraqi women's rights not be subject to local application of sharia, or Islamic holy law, as provided for in the new constitution. "The radicals in government are hiding behind their religious identity," Ms. Waliy says, "but I do not want us to be Iran No. 2."

However, she is wary of the new election provision mandating that 25 percent of a party's candidates be women. "The parties simply choose weak women, and it destroys women's image in Iraq," she says. "They should be there for their talent."

Waliy whose organization helps Iraqis secure basic services, wants Americans to question the picture of an increasingly divided Iraq, and to understand that "ordinary Iraqis," and especially women, want no part of sectarian splits.

"I'm proud to be Kurdish and Sunni," Waliy says. "But let me tell you, I am Iraqi."

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