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Women in the New Iraq
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Women in the New Iraq

Opinion is sharply divided on how women will fare in the new Iraq. Just take a look at the headlines: "Will Women Be the Biggest Losers?" "Women Still Under Veil in Iraq;" "Women Making Their Mark in Iraqi Politics;" "Iraqi Women Poised To Win Big In National Elections;" "Iraqi Women Find Election A Cruel Joke."

Before the election the U.S. State Department created the Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative in order to train candidates. The election itself was designed to insure the presence of women in the new political system. At least a quarter of the 275 seats were reserved for women and all lists of candidates had to include a woman in every third slot.

But all did not go smoothly for women candidates. Wijdan al-Khuzai, a candidate running on a secular platform, was found murdered in late December. In March, Salama al-Khafaji, a prominent female Shiite candidate, just escaped assassination in an ambush — she was traveling with armed bodyguards. Zakia Khalifa al-Zaidi, a 72-year-old member of a Communist Party banned under Hussein and parliamentary candidate, has reported she has received death threats. What is certain is that women voted in great numbers on January 31 — for both religious and secular candidates.

NOW's guest Zainab Salbi, who heads an organization that helps women find opportunities in post-Saddam Iraq, discusses what the future may hold for Iraqi women as their country moves toward democracy. Her group Women for Women recently released the a post-war survey of Iraqi women. Their top-line findings "dispels the prevailing notion that women believe tradition, customs or religion should limit their participation in the formation of a new Iraqi government." Among the key results:

  • 94% of women surveyed want to secure legal rights for women.
  • 84% of women want the right to vote on the final constitution.
  • Nearly 80% of women believe that their participation in local and national councils should not be limited.
Read the full study.

Read additional opinions about the prospects for women in Iraq below.

The United States appointed only three women to the 25-member Interim Iraqi Governing Council, and they did not have the right to serve on the Presidential Council. No women were appointed to be governors of 18 provinces in Iraq, nor were any appointed to a committee overseeing the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution. If the elections are to signal any kind of new beginning for Iraq, women many of whom risk their lives to take part must help shape that future. --"Will women be the biggest losers? Iraq's elections II," Mona Eltahawy, INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE, January 29, 2005, Mona Eltahawy is a columnist in New York for Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic newspaper.

Before the election, we were not sure how many women are going to turn out to vote. From what you learned yesterday, according to Iraqi TV stations...the majority of the voters who got out actually to vote in the south were women. One of them they featured as an elderly woman in Baghdad who was at the voting station, for example, when there was some bullets and some fighting broke out. She insisted on staying while everyone was running away. And she said, "I will not give up my right to vote." So what we see are women becoming very resilient, very courageous and adamant about protecting their legal rights. And now this stage becomes the critical stage for Iraqi women. --Zainab Salbi on CNN, January 31, 2005
Al-Ghita is one of hundreds of Iraqi women now running in Sunday's national elections. They are almost guaranteed to win a significant chunk of seats in the National Assembly, because by law they must make up 30 percent of each list of candidates... The law means Iraqi women could have a strong influence on the policies developed by the country's new government...Al-Ghita sees her campaign as a natural extension of her role as head of an Islamic charity that cares for women and children. "We should protect the rights of the family as a whole -- the man, the woman and the children." --"Iraq's Female Candidates Focus on Rights," Juhi, Bushra, Associated Press, January 28 2005

In reality, these elections are, for Iraq's women, little more than a cruel joke. Amid the suicide attacks, kidnappings and U.S.- led military assaults since Saddam Hussein's fall, the little- reported phenomenon is the sharp increase in the persecution of Iraqi women. Women are the new victims of Islamic groups intent on restoring a medieval barbarity and of a political establishment that cares little for women's empowerment. Having for years enjoyed greater rights than other Middle East women, women in Iraq are losing even their basic freedoms - the right to choose their clothes, the right to love or marry whom they want. Of course women suffered under Saddam. I fled his cruel regime. I personally witnessed much brutality but the subjugation of women was never a Baath Party goal. What we are seeing is deeply worrying: a reviled occupation and an openly reactionary Islamic armed insurrection taking Iraq into a new dark age. --Houzan Mahmoud, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER, Guest columnist, January 30, 2005

Sunday's elections in Iraq guarantee that women, who make up 55 percent of the population, will have a prominent role in the country's political process...But in the south central Iraqi city of Najaf, not all Iraqi women are speaking with a single voice... But religious women in Iraq say they do not share the views of secular women, who advocate a clear separation of state and religion. Many female Shi'ite candidates say if elected, they will support measures to impose Sharia Islamic law in Iraq. Iraqi feminists say they fear that based on the way the law is interpreted, Sharia could severely limit women's role in society. Determined to keep their hard-won rights, the feminists say they foresee a bruising battle on the issue after January 30. --"Religious Shi'ite Women Mobilize for Iraqi Elections," Voice of America, January 28, 2005

Additional sources: THE NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, Associated Press, Department of State.

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