Giving Birth to a New Nation: Women Leaders Discuss their Role in Reconstructing Iraq

Dec 15, 2003

By Peter Bean

Nearly twenty prominent Iraqi women arrived in Washington November 9, 2003 for ten days of workshops, trainings, seminars, and site-visits to government agencies and non-governmental organizations. The Conflict Prevention Project and Middle East Program of the Wilson Center hosted the delegation in partnership with the World Bank, the American Bar Association's Central Eastern and Eurasian Legal Initiative, the United States Institute of Peace, and Women Waging Peace. On November 13, eight Iraqi women, including the two female members of the Iraqi Governing Council, discussed reconstruction and the role of women in formal and informal governance structures in Iraq during a public meeting. In addition to meetings at the World Bank and the American Bar Association, the women visited the Penatgon, State Department, White House, and met with women members of Congress and the Supreme Court.

This ten-day meeting was a continuation of work began last April when Iraqi women leaders and international policymakers gathered at the Wilson Center to begin a dialogue on women's role in post-war Iraq. Findings from that initial set of meetings were published in the Winning the Peace Conference Report: Women's Role in Post-Conflict Iraq. (PDF) Continuing the fruitful dialogue of last spring, the women leaders discussed many aspects of post-conflict efforts in Iraq, focusing particularly on women's issues. Among the most prominent themes of the discussion were: security, inclusion of women in governance structures, building civil society, and cooperation between Iraqis and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The members of the delegation stressed that Iraqi women are determined to have their voices heard. Read the findings and conclusions from the meeting (In English) (In Arabic).

Women in Formal Governance Structures

Women comprise an estimated 55 to 60 percent of the population in Iraq, yet only three women were selected to serve on the initial 25-member Governing Council. One of those women, Akila al-Hashemi, was tragically assassinated in Baghdad in September. Rajaa Habib Khuzai, member of the Governing Council and president of the Iraqi Women's Organization in Diwania, concluded, "As you [Americans] nominated the original Governing Council and failed to represent the full voice of women in Iraq, it is your responsibility to nominate more women now." She opined that women should hold a minimum of 10 spots on the Council. Read Khuzai's speech.

Ala Talabani, former vice president of the Kurdistan Women's Union, pointed out that of the 25 ministries that have been created, only one is being headed by a woman. Regarding women's participation in the ministries, Khuzai noted that every member of the Governing Council was allowed to nominate two people for a ministry, but her female nominee was rejected in favor of her male nominee.

"I realized as a woman that our voices were weakened," Khuzai said. "We needed more women to be at critical mass with a voice that could be heard. The birth of my vision of a new democratic Iraq is at risk."

Iraqi women have international law on their side. In October, 2000, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1325---Women, Peace, and Security---acknowledging women's capacities in peace building and asking all actors to ensure women's inclusion in the peace processes. Panelists agreed that the transitional authorities need to do more to train and support women in government and ensure their capacity to lead effectively.

Perhaps most important, the women noted, is the need for proportionate representation of women in the group that will draft the constitution for Iraq. Khuzai insisted that the process must be deliberate and inclusive. "If mistakes are made at the beginning, the final solution will be flawed. I therefore strongly urge the U.S. government to stop and think. Do not build on your first mistakes." She speculated that a constitutional draft would take between six months and a year, but no longer.

Siham Hattab Hamdan, member of the Baghdad City Advisory Council, noted that inclusion of women was important, but argued that there need not be a special women's constitutional committee. "We are not two armies," Hattab said during an interview on Dialogue TV, the Wilson Center's television program (Watch video). "We are one. We just ask to have our share. The constitution is not for women or for men. It is for everybody."

Security in Iraq

All of the panelists agreed that security was among the highest priorities for Iraq as a whole, and for women in particular. "We have to prioritize," said Hamdan. "If we cannot provide security for women, we cannot ask women to join us."

Panelists expressed their desire for more cooperation between the CPA and Iraqis. "We all have a stake in making Iraq safe," Khuzai said. "We need to provide a framework of responsibility and accountability of the government to the Governing Council. At present, only the CPA is accountable. This makes for ineffective governance."

It was also pointed out that Iraqis themselves are the single greatest counter-measure to terrorist operations. "We have to go to the Iraqis themselves," Hamdan said. "They know everything and every person. They know the whole strategies. Only they have the ability to find out what they [terrorists] can do."

Building Civil Society

The panelist concurred that there must be stronger efforts to build civil society in Iraq, as well. Iraqi NGOs need training, administration, funding and media support in order to achieve full impact. They also need linkages with other NGOs internationally. At present, the deteriorating security situation has made these tasks difficult and dangerous.

"These organizations need assistance and support," said Songul Chapouk, member of the Governing Council and founder of the Iraqi Women's Organization. "In particular, the vulnerable groups that do not have enough support—-widows, orphans, the disabled—-all need support and assistance."

Talabani mentioned that Iraqi women's organizations are springing up all over Iraq, but they are in dire need of assistance. She said Americans need to cease debating whether the war was justified. "My message to the United States is to stop talking about whether the war was right or wrong. Support the Iraqi people, and Iraqi women, in building their country. If you are not supporting us, we are going to lose our hope. We need help-—any kind of support. We need to build a network with you and with the international community."

Iraqis in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq have created the Women's Network, an umbrella group of 20 women's organizations that now plays a key role in the development of public policy. The Women's Network emphasizes the need for inclusion of women in political life while contributing to the overall democratization of society. It is groups like this, Talabani said, that must be at the forefront of reconstruction efforts in creating civil society.

Looking Forward

While the security situation in Iraq remains dangerous and the transitional Iraqi authorities struggle to find their proper authority, there remains reason to be optimistic. All of the women admit that it is a difficult time, but all expressed hope that life for Iraqi women—-and the population at large—-would be better in the months and years ahead.

Khuzai, a gynecologist, recalled talking to her husband after she was told she had been selected to be on the Governing Council. She asked her husband if he thought she should accept the position. He smiled and said, "After giving birth to so many Iraqi babies, it's time to give birth to a new Iraqi society."


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