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[casi] Find a role for women in rebuilding Iraq

from the May 15, 2003 edition

Find a role for women in rebuilding Iraq

By Laura Liswood

COLLEGE PARK, MD. - Iraqi women will certainly be better off without Saddam
Hussein, but will they be better off in postwar Iraq?

For the past 100 years, Iraqi women have struggled for equal rights, with
some success. Women had held 20 percent of Iraq's parliamentary seats in
recent history- more than the 14 percent held by women in the US Congress,
and far greater than the 3.5 percent average among Arab states. Iraqi women
historically had the right to vote, drive, work, be educated, and dress as
they please. They once pursued the same professions and salaries as Iraqi
men. And they received five years of maternity leave from their employers, a
benefit American women can only dream of.

But last month, six very worried Iraqi women leaders met with Secretary of
State Colin Powell to share their concerns about two looming threats to the
near-parity they once had with men and to the establishment of a true Middle
Eastern democracy.

The first threat is one of exclusion. Right now, it seems that women's
voices in the postwar reconstruction process may not be heard at all.

The Iraqi Reconstruction Group, set up presumably with the blessing of the
US and British governments, has only five women among 30 members. At a
recent meeting in Nasiriyah, only four of the 80 selected delegates were
women. Of 13 legal experts assembled by the US Justice Department to help
rebuild Iraq's shattered court system, none are women.

Women need to participate in this rebuilding at a level of critical mass. At
least 30 percent of those involved - both at the local and national levels -
must be women to ensure a real voice. A token few are not sufficient.

As history has shown, women's involvement in the initial stages is critical
to the eventual success of any agreement reached. Women in Northern Ireland,
for example, played a significant role in maintaining the Good Friday
agreement because they were at the table. Women at the table in South Africa
ensured that the country's new Constitution guarantees women equal rights
and representation. And, if international law carries any weight in postwar
Iraq, it's important to note that the UN Security Council Resolution 1325
mandates that women have meaningful participation in postconflict
resolution, wherever it takes place.

The second threat is one of extremism. The huge public demonstrations by
certain sectors of the Iraqi Shiite community immediately after the war's
end raise questions about what will happen to women's rights and roles in
society if fundamentalists gain power.Already there have been calls by some
religious leaders for bans on women wearing makeup and for taking up the
head-to-toe covering of the burqa. Afghanistan under the Taliban is a short
memory away.

Should the extremists succeed in establishing a religious state, women could
be denied the opportunity to learn, have access to healthcare, speak in
public, hold political office, and participate in the economy. The United
States would win the battle and lose any hope for a thriving democracy.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Right now, the US, Britain, and other
interested governments have the opportunity to erase the threat of exclusion
and, in doing so, head off the threat of extremism.

Women can help fight fundamentalist rule. Look no further than Iran, where
women and youth played a major role in the movement toward a more moderate

L. Paul Bremer III, the new US special envoy and civil administrator of
Iraq, can ensure that women are equally involved in the rebuilding of the
government ministries as he appoints or recommends Iraqi citizens to interim
government posts.

Beyond appointments, the US can use some of the $2.5 billion it has pledged
to Iraqi reconstruction to ensure women's continued and enhanced
empowerment. Funds should go for training women in political organizing,
grass-roots activism, and campaigning. Access to financing for women
entrepreneurs will stimulate the economy. Money should be spent on
classrooms, teachers, computer literacy, and healthcare, particularly for
pregnant women.

Ultimately, the Iraqi people must decide their own fate. Iraqi women for
decades have enjoyed greater equality and opportunity than women of
neighboring Arab countries. It will be an ironic twist of fate if the
position of women in Iraq is neither preserved nor further enhanced in this
formative time.

. Laura Liswood is a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Academy
of Leadership. She is the secretary-general of the Council of Women World
Leaders, a network of current and former women heads of state and government
based at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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