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.
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Six weeks later – timed to coincide with Ramadan – her troupe performed "A Day in Our Homeland." Focused on one of nearly 200 casualties from a bombing in Baghdad's Karrada district, the play followed the struggles of a dying young man, his grieving fiancé, and his badly wounded mother. The play was staged only a few feet away from the bombed-out apartment building where they had lived.Skip to next paragraph
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The open-air dramas typically run for two weeks at locations around Baghdad where bombs have been exploded by extremists. Almy's statement to the extremists is simple: "You will not take away our way of life, or our culture."
"We are trying to use culture as a weapon," Ghada told us. "We want to make the terrorists feel the strength of our culture."
The thousands of all ages who throng to her regular events add their own exclamation point to her stark objective.
Unfortunately, many courageous and innovative efforts such as Almy's go unreported. Indeed, she is only one example of an informal but growing network of women activists in Iraq who, despite threats to their safety and that of their families, are finding ever more creative ways to resist.
Another woman we encountered from Baghdad, Kareema, shook her fist in the air as she showed us a flier she had received "compliments of Mr. Sadr's Jaysh Al-Mahdi militia" threatening her if she didn't stop her popular cultural program.
The threats only seemed to strengthen her determination.
Unlike Almy, who dons an elegant hijab to complement her otherwise-Western apparel, Kareema declines to wear the hijab or abaya in public.
The first lady of Iraq, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed (Talibani) later told us, "I saw this woman [Kareema] on TV, reporting from Basra, without a hijab.... I thought this is the bravest woman in Iraq, I must get to know her."
In their efforts to counter violent extremism, US and Iraqi authorities have overlooked Iraqi women as voices of inspiration and persuasion. Both parties should refocus their resources to support these women who are already engaged – but not networked. A simple start: security for these grass-roots events, marches, and protests that stimulate the public's role in Iraq's reconciliation should be made a priority.
Almy frowned when we suggested that other women may not want to put their own lives and the lives of their families in peril.
"Don't you see us? We are already on the front lines of this war for years," she said. "We are beyond fear, beyond loss. We are not the crazy suicide bomber or the weeping widow the West portrays us to be. We are creative and courageous; we are the new women of Iraq!"
• Edward O'Connell and Cheryl Benard are co-directors of the Alternative Strategy Initiative at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. They travel regularly to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in conjunction with RAND's work on building civil societies.