Iraqi women on the verge of a revolution

The election holds both danger and hope for women -- but some Iraqi women's advocates fear the worst.

Published February 23, 2005 12:34AM (EST)

As the Shiite clerics and Kurdish nationalists, who suddenly find themselves in power in Iraq, debate the form and function of the new government, one often ignored group of Iraqis finds itself ambivalent about the future. Although women participated in January's election in unprecedented numbers, a heartening sign that women would have a strong political voice in Iraq, many Iraqi women remain extremely anxious as religious party leaders, with strong ties to Iran, sit down to write a constitution.

Women's rights activists are particularly disappointed by the election. "The results are disturbing indeed," offers Naba al-Barrak of New Hope for Women, an Iraq-based group. "People chose to vote for sectarian reasons, which is very sad." Her group had hoped that voters would find the liberal agenda of the more secular parties attractive, while also trying to break the Arab mentality of supporting one's tribe or clan over one's individual rights. Yet the portrait of the country that emerged from the election, she says, "is the face of tribal loyalties."

What's also dismaying to activists is that the election appears to conflict with what Iraqi women really want. Women for Women International, an American-Iraqi advocacy group, recently conducted a survey of Iraqi women and found that high percentages of them expect a role in the reconstruction of Iraq. "Many Iraqi leaders have claimed that women do not want to be involved in the reconstruction process," Women for Women founder Zainab Salbi said in a statement. "This survey clearly shows that women overwhelmingly believe they should have a seat at the table." The survey also reveals that Iraqi women expect equal rights -- 94 percent want legal protection as women, and 84 percent want to vote on the final constitution.

Perhaps the most outspoken activist is Yanar Mohammed of the Iraqi Communist Party. A petite woman who speaks perfect English from years of living in Canada, Mohammed moves constantly in Iraq due to death threats, and uses a small entourage of armed bodyguards to protect her. "I get the [threatening] e-mails and I know religious extremists want to keep me from talking to women but" she shrugs.

It's pretty clear why a Shiite ticket, endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and led by a coalition of religious groups headed by Abdul Hakim Aziz, would not be happy with Mohammed, a woman whose newspaper recently used a sardonic editorial to propose that if Iraqi men are allowed to take multiple wives, then Iraqi women should then opt for multiple husbands.

As Mohammed points out, the name of Aziz's group -- Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- and its close relationship to Iranian clerics, hardly bodes well for a secular Iraq. Last year, during efforts to create an interim constitution, SCIRI led a group of conservative Islamicists to overturn much of the family law that Saddam used to grant women equal rights. Far from a feminist utopia, the Baath Party did allow a larger role for women than most Arab countries, in no small part because Iraq's men were being killed by the hundreds of thousands in a series of wars from 1979 until 2003.

"Iraqi women can be quite outspoken," Mohammed says. "And there's not as much fear among them as you see in places like Kuwait, Saudi and other Arab countries." Yet she is cynical about the prospect of women gaining equal rights under a new Iraqi government.

"Our position was to boycott the election because the winner was going to be a cleric from Iran -- bred with its version of Islamic fascism -- or Allawi, a Baathist," she says. "Not one of them will do anything to help women. And how can a people in search of a secular state have an election in which [Sistani] mandated participation as a religious duty?"

Women, Mohammed adds, continue to suffer under religious rule. "The moment Saddam's regime closed down, Iraq became infiltrated by [Sunni] Wahhabi extremists, Iranian intelligence and others, who are heavily funded from outside Iraq," she says. "This is what we see all over the world, political Islam imposing religion on politics. It started with sanctions here [in the 1990s] and continues all throughout the Muslim world. When you are isolated from the rest of the world, religion becomes your way out."

Mohammed says she often tries to reason with Shiite religious leaders. "I ask them about why every woman in Najaf [the site of the shrine of the Imam Ali] wears the abaya [a veil that covers the body and face] and they tell me, 'Oh, it's voluntary,'" she recounts with contempt. "You're telling me every last woman in Najaf wears the abaya because she wants to? None of them are forced by their husbands, by their brothers? All of them? I can't even talk to these people!"

So Mohammed has stopped talking and is now trying to form a coalition of secular, educated Iraqis to fight for a party that will remove all mention of religion from the new Iraqi government. Or at least participate in the next government with those goals in mind.

"I would like a socialist Iraq free of mention of gender, race, and religion," she says. "Start with a secular government and adopt the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. We want to end the American occupation of Iraq, so the Wahhabis and Iranian intelligence people stop coming here."

When I point out that it seems unlikely that the foreign jihadis and Iraqi Sunni and Shiite radicals will retreat from their battles when the Americans leave, she disagrees. "The American presence gives legitimacy to these radicals in the eyes of the people," she argues. "It's like the Americans are a big hive of honeybees. The bear will leave when the honey is gone."

Women for Women founder Salbi, however, says the issue surrounding equality in Iraq is not so black and white. In an interview with Newsweek, she agrees that an Iranian-like government ruled by religion poses a real danger to women. "And if you see what's happening toward women, in terms of the violence that's targeted toward them, in terms of the culture becoming more conservative, then the indicators show that it may be like that," she says. "Religious leaders definitely are the ones to be watched, clearly, but secular leaders as well. 'Religious,' by definition, doesn't mean 'bad toward women,' and 'secular,' by definition, doesn't mean 'good toward women.' We need to look at the substance of both of them."

Real proof of Iraqi's women's political strength, however, will come in the creation of a new constitution much later this year. "The election was not the most critical point," Salbi tells Newsweek. "The constitution-drafting committee, that's the most critical point. If women are not represented in the drafting of the constitution, most critically they're going to lose their rights. And usually these rights are represented through family law: custody, divorce, inheritance, work opportunities, representation -- all of these things."

Right now in Iraq, the days mark the festival of "Moharam," a 40-day event that represents the Shiite mourning period of the defeat of the Imam Hussein, son of Imam Ali, whom the Shiite consider the rightful leader of Islam after the death of the prophet Mohammed. After years of strife, Hussein was slain in battle near the Iraqi city of Karbala almost 1,400 years ago, a moment that relegated the Shiite into minority status in the Islamic world.

At the holy Shrine Imam Khadam in central Baghdad, pilgrims are arriving for the ritual flaying, chest-pounding and hitting themselves in the head with swords, a tribute to the suffering of Hussein to protect Islam. On the eve of taking power for the first time in Iraq, Shiite pilgrims crawl on the street, praying in tribute to Hussein for his and their loss. It's a momentous thing to witness.

To speak to the people about the new Iraq is heartwarming. "We are not like Iran, we are Arab Shiite, we love our Sunna brothers, Christians, Jews," says one man. "We want a government for all Iraqi people." If the Shiite can indeed harness the sense of self-sacrifice that they have shown their leaders for hundreds of years, whether on the field at Karbala or in defying Saddam, and find a middle ground with their political opponents, maybe Iraq does have a chance for a representative, egalitarian government -- one that incorporates lasting and equal rights for women.

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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