Iraq's lengthy and costly war with Iran has produced unexpected benefits for Iraqi women. While her Iranian counterpart must live by the Khomeini regime's restrictive codes of Islamic fundamentalism which proscribe women's participation in economic life, the Iraqi woman is playing an increasing important role in Iraq's economy.
Although an estimated 55 percent of Iraqis belong to the same Shiite Muslim sect that is dominant in Iran, few women on the streets of Baghdad wear the head-to-toe black robes that are standard dress for post-revolutionary Iranian women. Most Iraqi women wear Western-style clothes and mingle freely with men in caf'es and shops.
In universities, government offices, factories, and industrial plants, Iraqi women work with their male counterparts and, according to the government, receive equal wages for their labors.
``I deal with female engineers all the time here,'' says one Austrian businessman who travels frequently to Iraq. ``I've never seen that in another Arab country.''
The practical reasons for expanding the role of women are self-evident: As the war drags on, the Iraqis are suffering severe shortages of skilled manpower, whereas in Iran, with a population three times that of Iraq, the toll is not so evident.
But underlying the immediate cause for expanding the role of women is the longstanding policy of the ruling Baath Party of bolstering the position of women.
Christine Moss Helms of the Brookings Institution in Washington points out in her book on Iraq that the Baath Constitution ``recognized women's rights as early as the 1940s.''
Support for the Baath policies toward women is enthusiastically -- and predictably -- voiced by party officials. Westerners have virtually no opportunity to question Iraqis privately on their attitudes toward expanding the role of women, because Iraqi society is tightly controlled and most Iraqis simply refuse to discuss anything controversial with foreigners.
But the Baath concept of women having equal rights in the work place and improved rights within the framework of family law is undoubtedly controversial in a society that remains deeply conservative socially.
Maarib Ahmed Kamal, vice-president of the General Federation of Iraqi Women and a Baath Party official, stressed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has personally championed the rights of women in Iraqi society.
``Many have asked us why we, the Iraqi women, are different from other Arab women,'' said Mrs. Kamal. ``This is because of our Baath Socialist Party and President Saddam Hussein. It is an important thing for the party to create the personality of the Iraqi citizen. We say, your work is your honor. If you don't work, you have no honor. Saddam Hussein respects the Iraqi woman very much.''
Kamal said the women's trade union represents 1 million members. All its members are full-time workers, she said. The organization, like all Iraqi trade unions, is controlled by the ruling Baathist regime.
Kamal said the federation's emphasis now is on the war effort -- Iraqi women serve in the Popular Army, a national militia. The federation organizes blood banks, and it provides volunteers to serve at hospitals, work as cooks for the Army, or mend uniforms, according to Kamal.
But their most important contribution, Kamal said, has been in filling jobs vacated by men at the freont.
``Women replace men in the factories, the workplace, in all sectors. There is an attempt to place women in all areas of work,'' she said.
Kamal said she believes women will remain in the work force after the war, despite the return of thousands of men to their jobs.
``Now we have many Arab workers in Iraq and foreigners too,'' she said. ``Employment for our women will not be a problem. We have many development projects planned and we will need more and more workers after the war, God willing.''
But bringing women into the work force has not been an entirely trouble-free transition. Kamal, who generally stuck to the determinedly upbeat view adopted by all Baath officials, acknowledged that childcare for the children of working mothers presents a problem.
The federation itself is running 45 nurseries that care for 2,850 children, she said, ``and still the number is not sufficient.'' In addition, the Ministry of Social Affairs runs another 70 nurseries around the country, says Kamal.
The nurseries serve two purposes. They free working mothers -- who can leave their children there six days a week for a cost of 15 Iraqi dinars (about $45 at the official exchange rate) a month -- and they begin the inculcation of Baathist ideals in the children.
Four-year-olds welcoming a reporter to one federation-run nursery in suburban Baghdad saluted the Iraqi flag and chanted ``Our life for the Baath Party.'' The director of the nursery said 156 children, ranging from newborns to four-year-olds, are dropped off every day. Alongside children's drawings on the walls are the same Saddam Hussein posters displayed all over Baghdad.
The regime seems to take care to simultaneously promote the role of women as wives and mothers -- the government encourages large families by increasing payments to families with several children.
The party also``considers the family the most important cell'' Kamal stressed.
She said there is no evidence of back-- either from men or from young women.
``Some Iraqi women wear these abiyehs [head-to-toe garb], because women are free here to choose to do what they want. But a woman who wears an abiyeh cannot oblige me to put this on.''
Young women, Kamal said, are increasingly choosing to pursue higher degrees -- although she had no statistics on the number of women graduate students.
``Here, a woman is free to choose whatever she likes. She is not obliged to work, but she can go to college and she can choose work,'' Kamal said.
The Iraqis like to portray their attitude toward women in contrast to that of Iran, where the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has introduced laws that greatly restrict women's rights.
For Baathists, the differing attitudes toward women are just another example of the clashing ideologies of the Iranian Shiite fundamentalist regime and the secular, nationalist ideology of the Baaths.
Starting Dec. 12, the Monitor will present a five-part series on women in the third world.