Empowering Women in Iraq: Defining a Blueprint for Moving Forward
Empowering Women in Iraq, moderated by Carla Koppell, Interim Director of the Conflict Prevention Project looked at the current environment in Iraq and ways to ensure women's involvement in reconstruction. The meeting featured Rend Rahim Francke, a founding member and executive director of the Iraq Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy and human rights in Iraq and Ambassador Swanee Hunt, founder and chair of Women Waging Peace, an initiative of the Hunt Alternatives Fund. Co-sponsors were the Conflict Prevention and Middle East Projects of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Women Waging Peace.
Francke, recently returned from Baghdad, stated, "what has happened in Iraq is an earthquake of monumental proportions...it has brought seismic change in Iraq." Everyday brings with it banners for new political parties, new organizations are emerging and there are currently 34 newspapers. Unfortunately, much of what is published and advertised are the negative aspects of the situation. According to Francke, in terms of women, there are positive developments and challenges. Women are holding many meetings. For instance, a group of 40 women met under the auspices of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad to organize a conference to deal with a broad array of issues. They are also forming non-governmental organizations including the Iraqi Women's League and Women for Peace and Democracy. "There is a renaissance of women's projects and women's organizations." Important in this renaissance has been the role of expatriate women who have provided a necessary leading role; they are the "sparkplug," and provide the "boldness to counteract [the] residual timidity."
While there is progress, women still face new and lingering challenges. Many of these are surfacing as a result of the lack of government. Francke stated that a dangerous precedent has been set as Islamists and Islamic clerics fill the vacuum. For instance, Francke noted, not more than 3 weeks ago "three women in one household were killed by men because a daughter of the household married a man against the choice of the extended family." Islamic clerics have also begun to issue fatwas against women declaring they should wear the veil, not work outside the house, not go out unaccompanied by male relatives and that those who do, should be censored.
Francke suggested that there are several lingering obstacles to women's political advancement. First is the idea of the patriarchal society; women are still regarded as the "ward" of a man. The notion is that whatever women achieve or are able to do is a result of the rights "bestowed" upon them by men. In order to remove this obstacle there must be a serious change in the status of women legally and socially. "The equality and independence of women must be accepted by men." Second, society in Iraq is focused on the group rather than the individual. While this has many advantages for society rendering it more caring and group focused, Francke said, "it means that the rights of women are not the individuals' rights," her individual rights are subservient to her rights in relation to her role in society. Finally the recent focus by the Coalition on resurrecting tribal structures is inimical to women's rights, and reinforces group rights over the rights of the individual person.
Islam also itself presents obstacles, Rend emphasized. While Islam itself is not hostile to the rights of women, selectivity and interpretation create hostility. For instance, Francke said "there are passages in the Qu'ran that say men and women must dress modestly. It does not say that women must wear a head scarf." However, as the wives of the Prophet wore headscarves, many interpret this as a "pillar of religious observance." Finally, Francke suggested that one of the biggest obstacles to women's advancement is that they are "fearful of public engagement, protest and defiance." They need training in leadership, organization and mobilization to be able to speak up and protest for change.
Hunt commented that while Francke's discussion focused more on the current environment in Iraq, she wanted to reiterate more clearly why the role of women is important in post-conflict situations. The international community has begun to think of women and their needs as victims in conflict situations but they continue to have a difficult time thinking about them as strong agents who have the power to support change. "Women are an extraordinarily important resource. They have a greater sense than men of what is [happening] on the ground." They are important for the sustainability of lasting peace processes. Women know what will and will not work in agreements and they are also acutely aware of what people are thinking within the family and the community. Another reason that women are important in the peace process is that they have developed a strength that is "vital to adverting a conflict and stopping it when its starts." According to Hunt, women are highly motivated; they are "intensely interested in creating a safe place for their family and their children." To demonstrate this, Hunt recounted how she had asked several EU officials why there were no women on the various peace talks in Africa and they replied, "the Warlords won't have them because they are afraid that they will compromise."
Rather than weakening the rationale for including women in peace processes, such reasoning strengthens the case for their involvement. Since women are not typically included, Hunt explained, they are accustomed to working outside the existing power structure especially when that power structure is involved in the conflict. Hunt suggested that women are more creative. For example, "women in Rwanda used dance" to prepare a village for the return of those involved in the genocide. Finally, Hunt noted, women are very adept at bridging conflicts. Women are able to come together across conflict sides using their "mother identity" or "women identity." Whatever the reason, Hunt concluded, women are an important resource in post-conflict transformation and recovery. Their importance is gaining recognition as organizations including the United Nations (Resolution 1325), the OAS and the G-8 issue statements and reports mandating their key role in the processes. Yet the words on paper have yet to translate into action. Women most often remain on the fringes, making the mandates and statement a "benchmark" for the failure to ensure their increased involvement.