Iraqi women leaders and international policymakers gathered for a two-day conference April 21-22, to discuss the critical importance of women in building a democratic and prosperous Iraq. The Center’s Conflict Prevention and Middle East Projects, along with the organization Women Waging Peace co-sponsored this event which involved Iraqi women expatriates as well as experts from the World Bank, United Nations, U.S. Departments of State and Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development, and nongovernmental organizations.

The open sessions on day two of the conference featured two panels—the first focused on the future prospects of Iraqi women, the second focused on key issues in the transition to self-government for Iraq. The session opened with introductions by Ambassador Swanee Hunt, founder of Women Waging Peace, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, and Charlotte Ponticelli, senior coordinator for international women’s issues at the State Department—all of whom were active participants in the conference.

On the first panel, Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress Zainab Al-Suwaij described the challenge to “heal the Iraqi family.” Reconstruction and Development Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government Nasreen Mustafa Sideek described the advances in Kurdistan that could serve as a model for the rest of the country. Ambassador Hattie Babbitt, senior vice president of Hunt Alternatives Fund and Women Waging Peace, then discussed the key findings that emerged the day before in the closed-session working groups.

In her remarks, Zainab Al-Suwaij said she had participated in the failed uprising against the Hussein government in 1991. “We’re now picking up where we left off,” she said, proudly. “It’s both wonderful and scary at the same time.” She was privileged to attend a meeting of Iraqi leaders in Nasiriyah, Iraq a week earlier—her first time back to her native land in 12 years. She was one of only four women present and used the opportunity to assert that women must play a central role at all levels in building the new Iraq, from restoring the oil fields to serving in government to starting new businesses.

Restoring the Iraqi Family

Al-Suwaij underscored the larger role of women in restoring the Iraqi family—both the immediate and the national family. For two decades, she said, the Iraqi government pitted ethnic groups—even children and parents—against each other, using civilians as government informants and in the secret police. The challenge, Al-Suwaij said, is to bring the divided people back together and help people emerge from this dark period toward one of democracy. “We must restore positive values,” she said, adding that, she hopes, “women will take the lead in developing civil society, especially education.”

Nasreen Mustafa Sideek, Minister of Reconstruction and Development of the Kurdistan Regional Government, was pleased to remark that there was broad agreement within the U.S., within the world community, and within different Iraqi political parties that women must play a prominent role in the relief, reconstruction, and development efforts in Iraq. “Women must be planners, they must be implementers, and they must be beneficiaries.”

Describing the current situation in Iraq, Sideek enumerated the enormous challenges in rebuilding the country—not only the physical infrastructure, but also the minds and spirit of its citizens who have experienced many years of dictatorship and war. Landmines plague Iraqi Kurdistan, more than one million people are displaced within the country, a majority of them women and children, with hundreds of thousands more refugees or missing. “Housing is ravaged, farms untended, irrigation systems destroyed, schools closed.”

The Iraqi-Kurdistan Model of Redevelopment

In 1991 at the conclusion of the Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdistan was freed from Sadaam Hussein’s grip. At that time, 80-85 percent of the infrastructure of Iraqi Kurdistan had been destroyed. As in Iraq today, there was an administrative vacuum. The people of Kurdistan had to rebuild in terms of security, governance, health care, education, employment, gender equality, human rights, and participatory decision-making. “Together with the support of the international community, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan transformed a devastated and crumbling region into a functioning one once again,” said Sideek.

Iraqi Kurdistan today can boast a pluralistic political system with 40 parties from different ethnic, religious, and political interests, more than 120 civil society institutions (25 of which are women’s organizations), a free and active media, and free education for both girls and boys. Sideek went on to say that access to education, safe drinking water, sanitation, and health care are all relatively high and improving. “The achievements in Iraqi Kurdistan are an example of what Iraq as a whole could become once it is free and supported by the international community.”

The Status of Women in Iraq

Sideek pointed out that relative to other Arab nations, Iraqi women have many rights including equal pay, the right to drive, uncover their heads, and serve in the army. This lack of cultural barrier should be seen as an advantage in allowing women to play a fundamental role in the governing and rebuilding of Iraq. According to Sideek, “A plan of action should be developed to begin mainstreaming gender into the process, through raising the awareness levels of local authorities and communities to gender issues. This will be further promulgated through the highlighting of equal participation, access and recognition of both men and women in all phases of reconstruction.”

Sideek described specific ways that the international community can help the people of Iraq. The UN’s oil for food program, while not perfect, was effective in directing proceeds to the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. In time, she believes that the management of the program should shift from UN control to Iraqi control. However, the UN will continue to be needed for its assistance to refugees and humanitarian relief. Nongovernmental organizations can also play a vital role in community mobilization and management, promotion of human rights and democracy. International research organizations could play a useful role in modernizing and reforming Iraqi institutions, government, and the universities. The governments of the world can make donations to reconstruction with debt forgiveness.

Sideek also pointed out that women’s organizations in northern Iraq were well organized and that they need further support during this transition in the hopes that they will seed other organizations throughout the country.

Issues in Transition and Reconstruction

Ambassador Hattie Babbitt discussed the key findings from the previous day’s closed-door sessions. She noted the surprising lack of information about the situation on the ground in Iraq. Currently, she said, there is no broad international presence as has been the case in other countries emerging from an authoritarian regime. Participants agreed that a gender-needs assessment should be conducted. Conference participants also noted that the international community seems to recognize that women’s issues should be a high priority. Today, Iraqi women confront many dangers, from lack of water and electricity to being vulnerable to violence.

Helping these women will require a well-defined agenda and international financial resources. That agenda, she said, should include training Iraqi men in inclusive governance and gender equality, changing existing laws regarding child custody, divorce, freedom of movement, property ownership and inheritance, and enforcing rule of law and accountability. In addition, women should be involved in creating the ongoing legal framework for a new Iraq. Participants concurred that the media would be a good vehicle to help explain new laws, perhaps using skits and lively discussion to make radio spots more stimulating. “We must identify women who will participate in rebuilding Iraq,” Babbitt said, “and arm them with this collective wisdom.”

A second panel addressed issues in the transition, specifically the role of religion in society, humanitarian assistance, and security sector reform. Four panelists gave presentations: Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia; Zainab Salbi, president of Women for Women International; Rakiah Al-kayssi, of the Iraqi Jurist Association; and, Sanam Anderlini, policy commission director for Women Waging Peace.

The Place of Religion in Post-War Iraq

Both Sachedina and Salbi stated the importance of acknowledging the role religion must play in transforming a traditional society. “Religion today will not sit on the margins,” Sachedina said. “It is going to play a greater role and this is where we need to be alert, and need enough information on exactly how this dynamic will play into controlling or freeing the other half of society.” Religion can play a vital role in shaping the new Iraq, he said, by helping to push societal changes through. A secular leader can have credibility difficulties in a traditional society; therefore, it is necessary to find voices that can reach out to and help build consensus among the people.

While a new secular government could bring democracy and respect for human rights to Iraq, he said, the memory lingers of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party that deemed itself secular and set in motion a hateful ideology and committed gross rights violations. As the freedom to address human rights emerges, debates can begin over genuine legal and ethical reform and how to meet the new demands of freedom and modernity. That new society, he said, “must respect the dignity of a woman as a human being,” and include women in working to build a new society that incorporates gender justice. To illustrate the antiquated laws in Iraq, he cited family law. The marriage contract, he said, is negotiated by the men; they decide upon divorce rights and child custody among other issues. “This legal doctrine now would be unconstitutional if a democratic constitution were in place,” he said. “We need consensus on gender justice.”

Humanitarian Relief and Assistance

Zainab Salbi cautioned that the Iraqi population has expectations for rapid economic development, despite the fact that most post-conflict societies generally are slow to develop. Therefore, she said, the international community must either meet or address these expectations. According to Salbi, economic reconstruction should not be dependent on oil. Rather, building factories and a stable infrastructure would promote sustainable economic development. Although she warned against creating a cycle of dependency, she stressed that more food shipments are needed to prevent a humanitarian crisis. She also pointed out that women have special needs in terms of diet and hygiene that need to be addressed.

Salbi concurred with Sachedina in the need to be aware of religion’s role and the difficult, yet important task of open dialogue about religion and women’s rights. “You must incorporate men in the process of empowering women.” Men are fundamental in increasing women’s rights and promoting women’s economic opportunity. She warned that what could be destructive is ignoring their views or seeking to impose a set of foreign values on them.

She urged that women be incorporated into all sectors of society, including political debates, policymaking, and economic restructuring. Rather than a microeconomic focus on aid and credit, she recommended macroeconomic development, including political and social reform, to create sustainable progress. A recurring theme among speakers was the debate over creating a women’s ministry and whether it would be more effective to have women in high posts in other government ministries. Salbi recommended creating a women’s ministry to advise on policies, based on the Rwanda model, as well as having every government ministry incorporate gender issues at their core. “It’s time to ask for our utopia,” Salbi said. “We can make Iraq an example for the rest of the Middle East.”

Transitional Justice

Rakiah Al-kayssi of the Iraqi Jurist Association has determined that the success of the transition to self-rule is dependent on two things—education and the rule of law. She spoke of education on two different levels—a social awareness campaign that can employ media outlets and reformation of the school system. A strong education system is critical for democracy. According to Al-kayssi, the rule of law is necessary to protect and meet the demands of civil society and must serve as the foundation and structure for democracy. She stressed the importance of the separation of the branches of government, and above all else, an independent judiciary, freedom of expression and association, and real dialogue to settle differences at all levels. “The transitional government can strengthen legitimacy if the last word does not rest with the ruling elite, but with the rule of law.”

Security Sector Reform

Sanam Anderlini of Women Waging Peace discussed the demobilization and reintegration of soldiers and security sector reform. “Security is such an important part of the post-war reconstruction framework because it is critical to shaping the nature of the government and society that comes afterwards.” She noted a few challenges for women in this arena. Few women and NGOs currently are engaged in this debate. “Women naturally look at social welfare issues—but women peace activists have trouble engaging with the security sector because it is like working with or legitimizing with your nemesis. It is also perceived to be the domain of experts and a mystified arena.”

The post-war environment, she said, is very unstable, yet security is the key to sustainable development and peace. In Iraq there is a pervasive fear of an all-powerful security sector. Iraqis lived under torture and abuse for decades and the challenge will be to create a new security force that represents the Iraqi people and can gain their trust. In addition to fighting crime, which is particularly acute in post-conflict societies, Anderlini stressed the importance of human security, which must encompass social justice, human rights, environmental protection, and economic empowerment. It is difficult however, to even have discussions with police or security forces on respect for human rights. It requires a fundamental shift in thinking on the part of the security forces. They are accustomed to asserting control and maintaining order rather than protecting and serving. Another issue to tackle is the accepted norm of sexual abuse of women. The cycle needs to be broken and impunity put to an end.

A more practical yet equally complicated problem is the question of retirement, rehabilitation, and indictment of former security forces. Who needs to be retired, who can be rehabilitated, who needs to be tried for crimes, who are members of the Fedayeen? With an estimated 100,000-200,000 security forces in Iraq, many with dependants, these will not be quick decisions and must be handled with sensitivity. Reeducation and skills training programs must be developed to help these populations readjust to a new life. Anderlini stressed the need for an economic safety net for demobilizing soldiers. If this population is neglected, there is the risk of a large, disempowered, and potentially volatile group of people.

The conference proved a very successful first step in helping bring together Iraqi women around the world to advance their rights and role in the transition and reconstruction. It proved an illuminating opportunity to identify the critical issues, and develop conclusions as to how to increase the participation of women as Iraq is transformed into a stable democracy. Only through discussion, brainstorming, analysis and cooperation will women ensure their role in decision-making.

Over the next months, the Wilson Center will continue to encourage dialogue around this issue. Already, Zainab Sahlbi has returned to the Center following a trip to Iraq to discuss the status of reconstruction. Future events will highlight the concrete findings and conclusions regarding women’s inclusion in Iraqi reconstruction. We will also bring together women on-the-ground in Iraq with Iraqi women in the diaspora to discuss moving forward. Finally, the Center will continue to host updates on the reconstruction process.