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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.