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Women of Iraq

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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 situation improves.

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: helle.dale@heritage.org. Her column ordinarily appears on Wednesdays.

First appeared in The Washington Times

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