July 27, 2004
By Helle C. Dale
When members of Congress recently asked a delegation of Iraqi
women what they thought of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the answer
came right back, "What took you so long?" For the women of Iraq,
the American and allied intervention holds the promise of better
lives, more freedom, contact with the world, political
participation. After life under Saddam Hussein with its oppressive
strictures, secret intelligence agencies, control by torture for
anyone who dissented, the immediate elation was palpable.
The State Department, through its office of International Women's
Issues, is banking on the idea that the women of Iraq and
Afghanistan can be a moderating, modernizing force within those
countries. The Iraqi delegation spent half a day at the Heritage
Foundation, which provided a program in public speaking, media
appearances and professional presentation for this highly educated
and motivated group of ladies. Anyone who has doubts about or
opposes the liberation of Iraq ought to hear the stories of Iraqi
women who have been through so much, and now face an uncertain
future, with determination, hope, as well as trepidation.
They, and we, still have a long way to go. Iraq's Interim
Constitution may mandate that Iraqi women occupy 25 percent of the
seats in the new parliament to be elected in January, yet cultural
attitudes and an unstable security situation in the country could
make these promises hard to fulfill. Women - indeed anyone --
seeking higher government positions in the new Iraq, or becoming
visible parliamentarians, may well be risking their lives. You hear
the same fears expressed time and again.
"I would like to run for parliament," says a young female City
Council member from Mosul. "I would like to be involved in
politics, but I fear it would be too dangerous." Many of Iraq's
well-educated women remain scared, which means that a great human
resource in Iraq cannot reach its full potential until the security
Despite concerted American efforts through the Coalition
Provisional Authority (CPA), the earlier provisional Iraqi
government boasted just one female member, Nesreen Berwani,
minister for reconstruction and development for the Kurdistan
Regional Government. In February this year, Iraqi women and
moderate Islamic leaders narrowly fought back a resolution that
would have given religious courts jurisdiction over inheritance,
marriage and divorce, previously governed by Iraq's 1959 Uniform
Civil Code for family law.
One member of the delegation to Washington, Deputy Minister for
Higher Education Beriwan Khailany, had been tapped by the Coalition
Provisional Authority to be a minister. Yet, she declined on the
grounds that it would be too dangerous; in fact, just being
friendly with Americans can be a serious security hazard. With a
doctorate from a University College, London and years of teaching
at Baghdad University, she was an obvious choice. Eloquent,
thoughtful, dedicated and politically and religiously moderate,
she's exactly the kind of person one would like to see shape the
new Iraq. At present, she prefers to make her contribution at a
lower level of visibility, working to rebuild Iraq fractured
university systems with the help of a grant from USAID and the
University of Oklahoma. Just speaking to the media, any kind of
media, makes her nervous.
It is important to keep in mind the generally high educational
level of Iraq's women, Miss Khailany says. While the social lives
of Iraqi women remain extremely constricted, and arranged marriages
are basically the only kind that exists, "more than 50 percent of
Iraqi women have some degree of higher education." Education under
the rule of the Ba'ath Party clearly had a political agenda - for
instance, English textbooks were banned and Arabic mandated
everywhere - but female literacy was high. Iraqi women moved ahead
in fields like medicine, education, and engineering.
By contrast, under Saddam, Iraqi men were less likely to receive
higher education. During the 1980s, they became cannon fodder in
the Iran-Iraq war waged by Saddam Hussein. During the 1990s, the
hardships under international sanctions meant that Iraqi men had to
work several jobs to sustain their families. This disparity in
education -- which clashes head-on with traditional Muslim
attitudes toward the roles of women and men -- compounds the
challenges facing Iraq's women today. Particularly in rural areas,
educated women are regarded with suspicion and accused of being too
influenced by the Americans.
Well, some of them are influenced by Americans, and one hopes in
all the right ways. During their visit to the U.S. Capitol, a
member of the delegation was spell bound by the quotations of the
American Founding father's inscribed above portals in the building.
One in particular stood out: Jefferson on "Government by the
consent of the governed." "We never had anything like that," she
said. Hopefully, someday, they will.
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies
at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: email@example.com. Her
column ordinarily appears on Wednesdays.
First appeared in The Washington Times
When members of Congress recently asked a delegation of Iraqi women what they thought of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the answer came right back, "What took you so long?"
Helle C. Dale
Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
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