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In Iraq, a different kind of drama stages a message of reconciliation

A brave band of Iraqi women are defying insurgent threats and taking back their streets.

By Edward O'Connell, Cheryl Benard / December 18, 2008

In September 2007, amid the wreckage of an earlier suicide bombing in Baghdad's Karraba district, Ghada Hussein Al-Almy (center) directed the Al Mada street theater troupe’s opening-night performance of “A Day in our Homeland.”

Courtesy of RAND Corporation



The actor stands on a makeshift stage at a bombed-out, dusty intersection in Baghdad. It's an unusually cool evening in September, and a crowd that looks like most of the neighborhood has assembled to enjoy the rare entertainment.

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"Sunni! Shiite!" he yells. "Whatever ethnic group – I don't care! Spurn each other's hand no longer. Long life and success – to both of you!" This is the message of reconciliation carried by the Al Mada street theater troupe, led by one of Iraq's rising female stars, Ghada Hussein Al-Almy.

While female suicide bombers in Iraq have been getting all the headlines, a very different cadre of women has emerged on the scene with the opposite goal of forging peace and paving over the sectarian differences. Above all, these activists want to take back the streets and neighborhoods of their country.

We have spent the past several years studying how women promote conflict resolution in places such as Belfast, Sarajevo, and Damascus. But we've seen nothing like the women activists we encounter now in Iraq, especially given the personal risk they take to advance their message.

Ms. Almy's street theatrics are only one example of this courageous new female activism. Other women roam their local streets as self-appointed social workers, looking after displaced persons, widows, and street children. Some have set up welfare centers and education programs, persisting in the face of leaflets and letters threatening them with death. Still others pound the doors of government offices, demanding nonsectarian help for the needy Sunni and Shiites in their neighborhoods.

Such activism has a long tradition in Iraq. During the civil war between warring Kurdish parties in northern Iraq in 1994, hundreds of women from both sides got together for a three-day march on Kurdish parliament. Finding the doors closed and the peace talks stalled, they broke into the building and carried out a two-week sit-in strike that forced the warring parties to reconvene and negotiate a cease-fire.

Nowadays the activists are employing unconventional platforms such as Almy's to start a grass-roots counter-revolt against war and division.

Almy is a Baghdad University professor-turned-"theater resistance leader," as her fans call her. In the wake of some of Iraq's worst suicide bombings, she and her troupe decided to use culture as a defensive weapon, producing and staging plays that mobilize the audience against violence and killing.

In July 2007, minutes after a suicide truck bombing, Almy marshaled her "quick reaction theater troupe" and got to work. The next day, they visited the bomb site and began to build an impromptu stage. She assembled poets, actors, and musicians – including some of Iraq's most famous – for some all-night brainstorming. They began to create an original script, and to rehearse.