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Citizenship and Justice: A survey of Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speakers: Sameena Nazir, senior research coordinator, Freedom House, and Amal Rassam, specialist, Iraq and Gender Issues
Presider: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow, U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
June 27, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations New York, NY

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New York , N.Y.
Monday, June 27, 2005

 

ISOBEL COLEMAN: OK. We are going to get started. I just wanted to thank you all for coming today. We have an absolutely frigid room, which will prevent anyone from dozing off; [there’s] hot coffee to try to keep your blood circulating.

And it is with great pleasure that I introduce our two speakers today. We have Sameena Nazir, who is here from Freedom House and she has been the director of this report that is available out at the front. It’s the first report that Freedom House—and as I’m sure all of you are familiar with Freedom House, they do a number of different reports on measuring the status of freedom around the world, different interviews that they [inaudible], but this is the first one they’ve done looking specifically at women’s rights and I hope that it will become an annual, if not biannual, event for Freedom House. And Sameena has been busy rolling the report out over the past months in the region, and is here to talk to us today about that process.

And we also have Dr. Amal Rassam with us, who is one of the authors of [inaudible] section on Iraq. Dr. Rassam has been an anthropology professor at the City University of New York for many years, and works now as an independent consultant on civil society and gender issues and has been, in the past—spent a lot—grew up in Iraq, is an Iraqi-American today. She spent 2002 working on a USAID-funded project in Iraq, building civil society around the Baghdad area, in particular.

We are going to hear from both of them today. We are going to have just a conversation today. I thought rather than have each of the speakers do prepared statements that we would really hold more of an informal discussion, and for the size of our group today, it offers lots of potential for back-and-forth dialogue.

So I’m just going to start this out by asking Sameena to talk a little bit about the report itself; why Freedom House chose to do this report at this time and how it’s been received in the region.

SAMEENA NAZIR: Thank you, Isobel. And before I start I just would like to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for cosponsoring this event with us and providing us the opportunity to present this to all of you. And I’d also particularly like to thank Mehlaqa Samdani from Council of Foreign Relations and Leigh Tomppert, my colleague at Freedom House, for all the arrangements for the event. So thank you.

As you mentioned, Isobel, Freedom House has been doing a Freedom Report for the last 30 years; most of them focusing on political rights and civil liberty. Our signature publication, Freedom in the World, reviews 191 countries. We have other publications that focus on democracy issues and governance issues and mostly look at political rights and other human rights. So we thought that it was very timely and important to do a study that highlights women’s human rights in the Middle East, which is confronting democracy in unprecedented manners.

And as we have seen in other regions, a lot of times when there are such struggles and movements, the groups that are already marginalized in the society tend to be left behind. So one of the reasons was to present the status of women, to highlight the gender gap that already exists within those societies, and also to reemphasize that, in this current situation, a focus on women’s human rights as—and a focus on women as equal participants of the society—would be very important. Also, to broaden the understanding of democracy issues and women’s right issues in the region, was an inbuilt goal.

COLEMAN: And I know that you have had a number of big presentations in the region. Tell us about how the report has been received.

NAZIR: Well, we wanted to launch the report in the region. As you will see, the report has been prepared by women from the region and we thought it was very important to launch it—excuse me—in the last week of May. I traveled to Jordan, and we took advantage of the fact that the World Economic Forum was holding its Middle East regional annual meeting there and that enabled us to outreach to a large number of media that was present there—national media, regional, and international media—and also policymakers from throughout the Middle East, both of whom are a target audience of the study. So we launched it at the World Economic Forum and then we launched it in Tunisia, where there was a meeting of Arab businesswomen. So we presented it there, again, to capture an audience which we think would be critical—Arab businesswomen are a growing number in the region.

And then, in addition, we’ve had presentations in the region. We have two field offices in the Middle East, so they all have taken it to Egypt and other countries. Then last month, early in June, we launched the report in Washington on Capitol Hill and we were hoping to get a lot of congressional representation, but there was some vote the same day, so we could only get Rep. Jane Harman [D-Calif.]. But the idea was to make it available for policymakers and think tanks in the Washington area.

And we also presented it as a cosponsored event with the Center of Study for Islamic and Democracy in Washington, and the idea there was to share it with the Arab-American community and Arab-American organizations, who we think would be great partners. We have been consulting with them throughout the preparation of this report and we think they will be great partners for us. We also presented it to a large international conference on women’s rights in Washington last week where we were able to reach a large number of women from throughout the world.

The response has been mostly very, very positive, and positive in the sense that the methodology that we have adopted, which is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, makes it the first report that I know of—and I have been working on women’s rights internationally for 15 years—that analyzes women’s human rights in the whole rights context; all the rights within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so it focuses on economic rights, political rights, civil rights, cultural rights and legal rights. So there are things and trends, and presentation of the report is such that it has attracted a lot of positive response.

Also, because it does a rating—and, again, this is the first report that gives scores to governments in the Middle East for their protection or for denial of rights. So it has been well received by all women’s rights organizations. It has been well received by the media, surprisingly. We were a little apprehensive of the Arab media, but they have really made very good comments and I have been giving nonstop interviews on radio, TV, and newspapers in the Middle East.

We have also received some comments that criticize. In fact, only two so far, which say that we have challenged the Islamic shari’a system, and a couple of governments have written and strongly disagreed with how we have mentioned the treatment of women in their country, like Bahrain. So that you know, I think it is a little early for us to assess all the impacts.

COLEMAN: The Arab Human Development Report, the first one that was done in 2002, focused very heavily on women’s rights.

NAZIR: Yes.

COLEMAN: And many people would say that it really began a soul searching in the region, looking at the three areas that [the report] pointed out: The lack of freedom, the lack of knowledge, and the lack of rights for women. And you have really seen a lot of soul searching and internal scrutiny coming from that. Do you hope, and do you already see signs, that this is adding to that debate and providing, in some cases, models of countries that are doing quite well and putting the spotlight or focus on those that are not? I mean, I think the criticism of the Arab Human Development Report is that it generalized across the region.

NAZIR: Yes.

COLEMAN: And as your report points out, there are some very stark differences across these countries.

NAZIR: Yes, absolutely. When we developed the methodology, we referred to the Arab Human Development Report. Throughout the preparation we were in consultations with them. So I think that this is—and we recently had a meeting with them where we presented them the report and both Freedom House and a lot of UN officials—a complimentary effort to the debate. And as you know, the third report that’s coming out from the Arab Human Development Division is going to focus exclusively on women and that will be available next year, in the spring.

And in addition, there are a lot of similar reports in the region. Last year—this year was the 10th year review of the Beijing Platform for Action in the world conference, so there were regional reports coming out and the Middle East was the first to hold a regional gathering reviewing governments’ performance on implementing the Beijing Platform of Action. They were the first to issue the regional report and some of these reports are very hard hitting. And as I mentioned earlier, with all the developments in the region, this is also giving an opportunity for the civil society activists in the region and women’s groups in the region, to also take the benefit of this momentum and put their issues on the table as much as they can. So this is being very supportive, I think.

COLEMAN: Do you think that the international focus on women’s rights in this particular region, the Middle East [inaudible] is warranted? I mean I hear people say, ”Oh, why is there always this focus?“

NAZIR: Yeah.

COLEMAN: You know, why not women’s rights in Latin America or women’s rights in Africa? I certainly have an answer for that, but I would love to hear what you have to say.

NAZIR: Yeah, I think that if we actually loOK at all the available information on women’s rights, Middle East and Central Asia are the ones where there is least information available on gender-specific issues, so this is both needed and very timely. And as our report highlights, there are some serious problems that women face in the Middle East region that are unique to this region and they need to be debated, and women’s groups and civil society activists have been debating that in their own countries. They have been pushing the envelope.

In the last 10 years, more Middle Eastern governments have signed on to international human rights standards like [inaudible] and others and this has not come from outside or a vacuum; this has also been generated—I mean, of course, it’s also being helped from international pressure. But a lot of it is also being generated—there is an Arab Charter on Human Rights now that has been adopted by all the governments, developed by the governments. So I think that this is an appropriate time to raise these issues and also to highlight the severe gender gap that exists between the rights of men and the rights of women in this region, as we have done in this report.

COLEMAN: One of the criticisms that has been leveled against the international community in general, but specifically the Bush administration—in taking up this issue of women’s rights—is that you can promote women’s rights without really promoting democracy. I mean, people who argue that by focusing on women’s rights it’s throwing a bone, in effect, to some form of liberalization; giving women a little bit more freedom in terms of family law or giving them abilities to do things that they couldn’t do before. Some extra legal protection scores a lot of points, but when you come right down to it, it’s not necessarily furthering real freedom and democracy in these countries. And I just wonder, what your perspective is on that.

NAZIR: OK. Well, it looks like they are changing their position. As you have seen the recent comment made by [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice on Friday, I think it was in Saudi Arabia.

COLEMAN: In Saudi Arabia.

NAZIR: She said that democracy is not democracy without the participation of women. So that is—you know—good to know that learning is possible in places where you would not expect. But I think that at some places, these struggles can be parallel struggles for the women’s rights, human rights, and struggle for democracy because we cannot put the progress of one group of people on hold while we look for larger roles. And we have seen this happen, actually, in many countries where—like for example in Algeria—where everybody said, OK, let’s get the freedom first and let’s work on the national issue first and then we’ll deal with other issues of women. And we have seen that women get left behind; minorities just get left behind. So I think that it’s important to take these issues at the same time.

And as we have also seen in the region that groups, civil society groups or media that used to focus only on one issue, are now talking about democracy and women’s rights, democracy and minority rights, democracy and freedom of the press, and freedom of association because at another level it is true that democracy can also not flourish when there is no enabling environment. And women’s right suffer more when there are undemocratic conditions, so if you don’t have freedom to form an association, if you don’t have freedom to have free expression, if you don’t have freedom to challenge government or call for government’s accountability, rights protection for women or other groups within the society that are already marginalized, will become more difficult. So I think the best policy would be to take them hand in hand.

COLEMAN: Thank you. And I would love to turn now to Iraq.

NAZIR: OK.

COLEMAN: Since we have the author of the Iraq report here, to dig a little bit more deeply into that report specifically. And I know Iraq is a special case for a whole variety of reasons, which you can go into in some detail for us, but I just wanted to start out by asking your view on—and I know the report the way it’s written—and I encourage all of you to read it. It’s a truly great encyclopedia reference for the status of women in the region. The report takes us up to the end 2003 and a lot has happened, particularly in Iraq, since then. What is your sense of where women’s rights are in Iraq? What directions are they heading right now?

AMAL RASSAM: Well, I think where women’s rights are heading now is just as much of a difficult thing to predict as anything in Iraq is, at this point, difficult to predict. A lot of what I say, obviously, is very clear to all of you: That things are very much in flux. There are many contending factions in Iraq that represent extremes, if you like, especially when it comes to women’s status and nothing is settled in Iraq.

So I would not say—there is no way for me to predict. It’s like no one has been able to come and say, “What do I see five years from now.” I think the major thing for me is that women in Iraq, in general, are very, very much aware of what is at stake for them at this juncture because they have had a history of gaining a lot of rights in certain areas, benefiting, and then [had] a very sharp decline in their rights and in their freedom. And they reached a point in 2003 where all kinds of possibilities were open, if you like, but the state of insecurity in the country, the state of political instability, the fact that the different power vacuum was created and the contenders to fill that represent a wide spectrum on their view of women.

You have people who are—people like [former Interim Prime Minister] Iyad Allawi, for example, or the party that he is trying to form—a sort of secular, more liberal [party] they have a certain program for women. You have people like the Hawza people—the Dawa, who have a different program for women. And it was interesting when I was there in 2003 and we were trying to mobilize women into the political process at the grass root level. We were not—I wasn’t working with the elite women, the women who came back from exile who had all the tools and the language and the contacts. We were working really at the neighborhood level and we held a lot of meetings and tried to mobilize women, not [inaudible] women, but tried to get them into mixed councils because it is my firm belief, after working with different gender issues in Iraq and other parts of the world, especially in some of these Muslim Arab countries, that if you don’t mobilize men to the cause it is really very difficult to achieve any everlasting sort of, if you like, rights and freedoms for women.

So where are we now? Where we are now—of course, in the question of if you loOK at it from the jury aspect right now—we have a committee that’s writing the constitution, or a new constitution. Now, if you loOK at the constitution, we have, in Iraq, a draft of a constitution going back to 1970 that the Baath had put in place. And in that draft, if you read it, the first clause says that women have equal rights. There is no discrimination in gender. And that is something that was repeated in the Transitional Administrative Law, the TAL, the same sort of language, but that’s a very generic sort of statement that doesn’t really translate yet into anything concrete or practical.

So women today, with the help of outside agencies and outside NGOs and pressure, are definitely mobilized and are trying to make sure that the new constitution will have definite, you know, statements on the rights of women. There are many women’s groups who are also working to try to make sure that their legislation that follows the constitution—the substantive legislation—will also provide for women rights. And in Iraq, really, we are going down to the level of the personal—the code of personal status, which, by the way, tends to affect women very directly in Muslim countries because I think most of you realize it regulates their life in the private domain: Marriage, divorce, custody of children, inheritance, and so on. But also, they are trying to make sure that the labor code, for example, and the penal code, will not discriminate against women because we have clauses in the penal code that do discriminate against women. And the labor code—if I can backtrack a little bit—that was put in place by the Baath regime, was very good for women. It was one of the most progressive labor codes as far as women go. And whereas there weren’t many, many real substantive changes done in the code of personal status under the first year Baath regime, they were very definite advantages given to women in the labor code, as well as in the penal code. And I’d be glad to go into what these specifically are about.

But then there has been a reversal and the women in Iraq are very conscious that any government in place or any power in place can [inaudible] undo a lot of things. And even though that the jury status of women may [inaudible] translate into a [inaudible], which we all know in these countries, nonetheless it is very significant. I used to go back systematically to Iraq to work on certain issues of gender and minorities and I recall in 1978, I went to check on the literacy campaign because they had a law, which says every person between the ages of nine to 15 in Iraq has to be literate. And there was really a campaign of literacy. And I used to go into the villages, and there was a literacy campaign; it was effective because the government backed it with fines if the men do not send the women out, and so on and so forth.

In 19—for example—80, there was a law which says that any man who pleads—who kills a daughter or a wife or a sister and pleads in court that it was an honor killing, is treated exactly as if it’s a murder. There is no—up to something like eight years in prison. Well, comes 1990 and that law is rescinded by the Revolutionary Command Council. He can plead guilty now—he can plead to an honor killing—and he might get something like up to six months in prison. So there is a lot of, sort of, Yo-Yo kind of thing, in at least the jury rights of women in Iraq and women in Iraq, as I say.

And I think the big jolt to them recently, and we are talking about 2003, that really woke them up that they have to work and mobilize, was the Resolution 137. I don’t know if you want me to go too much into that, but this is—I don’t know how many of you are aware that overnight practically in December of 2003, we had a provisional governing council in place that was appointed by [inaudible] by the coalition authorities. And overnight we woke up and we heard this on the radio and so on: There is a resolution that was passed by the Revolutionary Command Council which abrogated in closed session without any oversight the status—the code of personal status, which goes back to 1959, which is a relatively progressive code—abrogated it and said all status, personal status go back to the shari’a, depending on each mazhab or each jurisprudence.

Now, the shari’a, I must simply point out, is not codified, so there could be a whole kinds of—you can pick and chose anything from the shari’a what would work. And the women were just taken by surprise: No public debate, not at all any kind of publicity about this. There was a lot of opposition to this and actually women did mobilize under very difficult conditions in Baghdad. They went out—not so many, but let’s say if you got 100 women out in the streets in Baghdad in December, that’s a lot given the fact that, you know, the insecurity situation—and they put pressure and government did not make this into law and by February, it was withdrawn.

That got women thinking very, very hard that if they are not vigilant and they are not working and so on, they also at the same time must put pressure on the council, on this provisional Governing Council, to include a quota for women in the national assembly—in the coming national assembly. And they first tried to get 40 percent. In other words, in a compromise with the [inaudible] administration and the Governing Council and they ended up with a goal of 25 [percent], which was not too bad. In other words, they were accepting that as a goal, hoping that they would achieve more.

So what I am trying to say, I guess, at this point, is that there are groups of women, who are mobilizing, who are very aware that this is a very, very key juncture for them that they can be sold out, I would say, in the process itself. That they can become either hostages or victims in a power struggle, just like what happened in Algeria at that juncture, so that maybe the new government would sort of buckle down to the more conservative, if you like, Islamist elements and then sell them out in the process itself.

Now, let me say one more thing and I’ll be done. When I talk about Iraqi women, I am not talking about a lump group of people, who all think the same or have the same attitude. We have a very wide spectrum and that became very evident in 2003, when we used to have these kind of neighborhood meetings where we get women to talk about different issues—what do they expect from the constitution, what’s their reaction to the TAL, and so on. We have got a big spectrum of what you would call more Salafi, more Wahhabi, more very conservative women, who could argue that the shari’a is fine. It does not discriminate against women if it is properly—you know, the sort of very well known, if you like, response. And they were well organized. I think they were also well funded.

COLEMAN: Yeah.

RASSAM: OK. And then you have the other group who were more progressive, if you like, more reformist. Now, we have to have laws so that it does not end up in the hand of the conservative clerics, who have a certain agenda and are under the influence of the tribal sheiks who, by the way, have gained enormous, enormous power in the last I would say—well, they started to get a lot of power in Iraq from ’90 on, when Saddam played up to the tribal sheiks, and he played up to the clerics in order to gain some sort of support after the failure of the Iraq-Iran War, in a sense. And he gave them a free hand, if you like, and in these situations, usually women become, as I say, the first target in a way.

So there is of a lot of pressure that is put from very conservative tribal elements and very conservative religious elements. And these were given a privilege position in 2003 under the coalition, for whatever reason—I’m not really qualified to say—so that their influence was very much in the forefront at the expense of the more, if you like, secular, middle class, educated groups in Iraq, many of whom of course had fled the country or were not there at that time.

COLEMAN: Just picking up on your point about the women and the two different groups, the election as you mentioned had a 25 percent quota and the way that they instituted that was every third name on the list had to be a women. As you said, the more conservative parties whether they are Salafi or Wahhabist or just fundamentalist Sunni parties, were very successful at mobilizing women. They are well-funded, well-trained, well-organized and many of the women, who make up that now 25 percent quota, represent a very conservative viewpoint. How is that going to play out? I mean, they are—it is women who are really going to lead, now, the battle to turn back these rights that women have been under over the last 20 years.

RASSAM: Well, I’m not really sure that it’s just the influence of these women because we do have men also who—

COLEMAN: Well, they’re the face, is what I mean.

RASSAM: They are the face, yeah. They are the face, but I think that—

COLEMAN: But they are very astute, these parties. You know, they have taken advantage of—

RASSAM: They have brought certain women—

COLEMAN: Right.

RASSAM: Into the forefront.

COLEMAN: Right.

RASSAM: Definitely. I mean, it’s a big political game.

COLEMAN: It’s a big political game, exactly.

RASSAM: And a lot of these women we never heard of until they were—

COLEMAN: Right.

RASSAM: —put on the ballots and so on. And they were put for certain reasons, you know—but at the same time I think there is more of a—how shall I say it? In Iraq itself, and even when we worked in places like Diwaniyah and Hillah—very conservative Shiite areas in the south—the women themselves, regardless of how they express their piety so to speak, in a sense, whether they were veiled all the way or half way, they are very, very aware of the fact that they do suffer injustices. There is no question.

As for domestic violence—this is a big issue that was raised all over and I’m speaking at the people’s level, you know—we would get into all of them and they all complain about domestic violence and there is nothing in the laws in Iraq that protects women yet against domestic violence, in a sense. We have some issues and we have some clauses in the personal status code, which say that women should be protected from domestic violence. However, it also says that if a man beats his wife, the only way she can get redress is to go and show in court that she is literally battered. I mean, she has got to have evidence on her body. Now, how many women in Iraq are going to go to a male judge in court? And one of the things is that judges are all males in these countries, which is a factor for me that is very important. I mean, will they go and lift up their abayah or whatever and show that they have been battered so that they get some compensation?

First of all, it’s a big scandal for the family. We always have this issue of shame and scandal and honor and so on. And second, there is no guarantee that the male judge—and I have sat in court for years to look at what happens in the court itself when the women are—these are represented by women lawyers. We have a huge cadre of women lawyers in Iraq; we don’t have women judges. They say it’s a shame to go to court. If they do go to court, then the judge would demand all sorts of other proofs that then become too complicated and reflects on the family itself—the honor of the family. It doesn’t work. So what I’m saying is that women, in general, are very aware and do want more rights and more freedom. How that is going to play out, I’m not sure at this point.

COLEMAN: One of the points you just brought up, is the lack of women judges and this is an issue across all of the countries. I mean, some of the countries that you profile have many other issues, too, but this is a very consistent theme across the region. Do you want to talk a little bit about how—what if any changes do you see in this? Because it does come back to an interpretation of the shari’a that women cannot be judges.

Now, in some countries they interpreted the shari’a—they have made an argument that you can pull out of the shari’a a justification for having women judges, but in many other countries they have not. Is that something you can talk a little bit about?

NAZIR: Yeah. This is a problem throughout the region, and as you mentioned, there are also developments where such changes are taking place. And I think the most significant is what has happened in Egypt in the last couple of years, where the Al Azhar University, which is considered the highest place of learning in law in—

COLEMAN: In Islamic jurisprudence.

NAZIR: —Islamic jurisprudence in the Middle East. They made an argument saying, yes, there could be a women judge—and although there is only one so far in the constitutional code—that has really given very strong arguments for women in the country to push for that.

But the situation is also very diverse. We have countries like Algeria and Tunisia, where there are many women judges. In fact, you know, we were surprised at how many women judges are in Algeria. But then we have countries like Amal mentioned, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait, where women cannot be judges. And then we have the extreme case of Saudi Arabia, where women cannot practice as lawyers. So while—I mean, this clearly shows that there is room for interpretation and in fact that’s something that we reiterate in this report.

In pretty much every country report, we show how the shari’a is interpreted, and one thing that comes out from all the reports is that there is a clear monopoly of men interpreting religion. There is a clear monopoly of male-interest views on how laws are interpreted, how social contracts are presented in the society—particularly in the family law area, the balance of power between husband and wife and how it is very strongly tilted towards the rights of the husband. Where in some countries, it is written clearly in the family law that the wife has a duty to obey the husband and in other countries, we have the legal concept of house of obedience, of [inaudible], which gives the judges or the police the room for interpretation to actually imprison women who do not obey their husband, be it that the women wants to work and the husband says no, or she wants to travel and the husband would say no.

So, what we have strongly recommended, and which has been presented by country writers and Freedom House has strongly endorsed this recommendation, is that women should be allowed and, in fact, encouraged and facilitated to take part in the discussions on explaining shari’a, interpreting shari’a, and particularly in family courts because these are issues—divorce, marriage, custody, inheritance, property, housing—that intimately affect women and affect millions of women. And while millions of women suffer, they are not allowed to be part of the system that could reform or improve or change. So, there is a lot of such information that is explained both within—with its context, but that also shows the consequences of such policies.

And let me just add that this book is not the full report, as you might have read in the introduction if you had a chance. The full book actually is much thicker, not in this shape, but this is a sample mini publication that we prepared for the launch event and it only has four countries. But the full report with 17 countries will be available in English in August, and in Arabic in September.

COLEMAN: Thank you.

NAZIR: I just wanted to say that because I forgot.

RASSAM: If I may, one of the things, I think again, you may be all aware of, is this issue of women’s freedom or women’s liberation, especially in the Arab Muslim countries. What you find is there is a lot of suspicion about it, there is a lot of people—“Well, this is the wedge that the West has found to undermine our values, our way of life, our pride, our identity, our sense of who we are.” It’s the—it’s like what happened with the communists in Central Asia: This is the surrogate proletariat, as you absolutely are aware of that issue. They are [inaudible] going to go and they are going to really break up our family and our values and so on.

So one has to tread very, very carefully, in my opinion, when you are working on these issues of women and not be patronizing or not be imposing certain things. And again, to my mind, one of the more optimistic developments and probably the most—you know, is what—you know, is referred to as Muslim feminism, if you like, and these are where Muslim women themselves are taking it upon themselves to study the shari’a, to study the [inaudible] which is really the jurisprudence. And then they can—which is a movement started in Iran very interestingly, in a sense, has actually come, as in Pakistan, where there are some who are doing it—these women. They are becoming [inaudible] so they can argue in the language of jurisprudence; they can argue from within the Islamic framework, if you like, so that they cannot be immediately—

COLEMAN: Marginalized.

NAZIR: —marginalized; this we found out a lot. And it’s a movement that I think has some potential, if you like.

COLEMAN: I have two last questions and then we’ll open it up and they are related. And it’s first built on this point of the power of Muslim feminism or Islamic jurisprudence from a more gender-sensitive viewpoint. And it’s not only women, but it’s also men, and there are several men in this country, who are exiled from their home countries—

NAZIR: Right.

COLEMAN: —who have been very active intellectual thinkers. Khalid Abu Asadl (ph) [COULDN’T FIND THIS GUY ON THE INTERNET] has been here at the Council and spoken on these issues, and there are several others, but it is women within these countries, who really are taking the charge. You’ve already referred to Egypt as a center of this in many ways. I know that there are also a lot of women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in Iran. Will Baghdad be a center of this learning?

RASSAM: It’s going to take a long time because what’s happening right now, [inaudible] it’s very, to me, fascinating because in the late ’70s and ’80s and, again, I am not promoting the Baath so to speak, but as some of you know that the Baath had a secular socialist ideology, which in the case of [inaudible] no political rights, no civil society, and so on. Our women translated into a number of gains through the—which is, they challenged a lot of the points in the personal status code and they tried to train women on how to argue good from a religious prospective, from the shari’a inside prospective. But that didn’t take off because the whole thing started to unravel by the end of the ’80s or during the ’80s—during the Iraq-Iran war.

Right now, what happened is fascinating for me. I did a very brief informal survey in Baghdad and mainly in the Sadr City, which is the stronghold of the Shiite. I had a good lawyer—a woman lawyer, who was on my staff, and I said, please distribute these very small samples—50 questionnaires to women in your area who were lawyers, doctors, and so on. And I wanted their reaction to—if they think that they are at all discriminated in the personal status code and if they want to see any changes.

And I was like blown away. All of them said, “No, this is a great thing and we don’t suffer at all. There is no discrimination against us. You know, the courts are all on our side.” And then when I asked the few women lawyers—I said, “That doesn’t make sense because we were in the courts and I see women coming in and complaining and so on about the alimony, and about the [inaudible] about beating.” They said, “Well, nobody now dare say anything.” It’s like nobody now dares go out without a veil, who used to never put a veil on in Baghdad. These are, you know, doctors and so on, who never had to put it on and all of a sudden you have to put on a veil to go out. Women who are working—but I trained like 35 young men and women to work on the civil society and they came at the first week. They never had—and all of them—you know, so it’s a very unusual time, so to speak, at this point. And there is a lot pressure from extremist elements, who really have [inaudible].

COLEMAN: Yeah.

RASSAM: There is no police. There is no—the courts are not interested in that. Women, as you know, have been threatened. They had been killed in many [inaudible] so it’s not the [inaudible].

NAZIR: May I add to that? I just want to add a personal anecdote. I’m originally from Pakistan and, you know, we have struggled with this interpretation of Islam and Koran for years. There is a lot of very strong women’s rights activists in Pakistan and a large group is just absolutely against it because they believe that unless there is separation of church and state—and that’s the main problem in Pakistan. But you know, with experience and with dealing with shari’a code and all these cases you might have heard, now there is an increasing number of young Pakistani men and women who say we got to deal with it. It’s just—you know, we have to deal with it.

And I met this young member of parliament in Pakistan who said, “I don’t know what to do. I stand up, I want to talk about violence against women, I want— and then this one mullah gets up and he starts saying something in Arabic and nobody can say anything and we all listen to him and then everybody just sits down and we don’t know what he said, but it sounds very religious so we just—you know.” He is now learning Arabic and he wants to study Koran for himself and he wants to answer the mullah in Arabic.

COLEMAN: Fight fire with fire.

RASSAM: Yeah.

NAZIR: And there are also—I just wanted to share—you mentioned Iran and Afghanistan. So we in the, let’s say, Asian Muslim countries, think that the solution is to learn Arabic and deal with it head on.

COLEMAN: OK.

NAZIR: I mean, I don’t know what strategy is being adopted. But it’s a very interesting debate that’s coming out.

COLEMAN: My last question is related to this issue and it focuses on the literacy rate for women. For women, and for men, to be able to tackle these issues from a Muslim feminist perspective, Islamic—creative Islamic jurisprudence, whatever you want to call it—there does have to be a certain level of education. And as your chapter in the report states, and I read in several other places and I have written about myself, Iraq today has one of the largest gaps in just basic literacy between men and women. Can you talk a little bit about that?

RASSAM: Well, I think, the first comment would be that the figure itself is controversial. I don’t think anybody accepts that figure. It comes from the UN, which says that today Iraqi—literacy in Iraq for women is 75 percent, 70-75 percent.

COLEMAN: Illiteracy?

RASSAM: Illiteracy, illiteracy is 75 percent, which is an appalling number as such, but then when it is compared to the illiteracy rate among men, there is a— what?—40 percent or so—

COLEMAN: About 40 percent.

NAZIR: —gap between them.

COLEMAN: Which, by UN/World Bank standards, is the fourth largest in the world gender gap.

RASSAM: Yeah. And that is just—the Iraqi’s I talk to and women activists say that is not acceptable. In other words, they do question it. Now, suppose we accept even a less—still a big gender gap, however you want to adjust these figures.

One way I look at it is—the gender gap is possibly explained by several factors. My guess would be that a lot of the illiteracy rate for women is for women who are younger than the ages of, I would say, maybe 20; that is, for young, young women. And that, perhaps, is a result of the fact that in the ’80s, with the enormous resources that were going into that Iraq-Iran War, there was a huge neglect in—the whole Iraqi—the Baath regime, which was [inaudible] to set up some kind of a welfare state, some kind of a maybe crude but not welfare state, spending a lot of money on education for men and women, health services, and infrastructure—all that came to a halt and a lot of the victims were really women, in a sense, because their education was neglected.

I also, from an anthropological perspective, know what happened in trying to please, again, the tribal elements and the [inaudible], they did not enforce any of the literacy laws, so that as usual, especially in the rural areas, women were kept home; that is, the young girls were kept home. Well, the boy can go and study, but the girl has to stay home and help her mother with the chores and why should she study? She is going to get married anyway and do the work. So that was the element.

Also, a lot of women were discouraged from going to school because they said to me, “Why would we go and get a degree when then there is no job for us because of the large number of men who are coming back from the war in Iran?” That is, there was—let’s take the women out of the job market and let’s give their job to the men, in a sense. So women did not—education became not as significant or as important. Then the—with the sanctions, also what happened—I think a lot of children simply, even if they had a chance to go to school, were kept away from school to do chores, whether it’s in the rural agriculture sector or it’s in the cities. The children were put into work on the street as beggars and so on and so forth. And there was no enforcement of the education because the law in Iraq says everybody has to be in school above a certain age.

That would be a lot of explanation for me; in other words, the cultural factors, the economic factors that would come together. Nonetheless, it’s still an appalling figure, which means that our priority would have to be now is education first if you like. We cannot really—no country should be in that position. I would also question the rate of the literacy rate for men.

COLEMAN: Well.

RASSAM: I don’t think it is that high either.

COLEMAN: Yeah.

RASSAM: I don’t know. But whether anybody will be in a position—certainly not now, because the schools, by the way, are appalling, appalling. It is absolutely shocking in 2003. I wouldn’t send my kids to school even in Baghdad. In most of the areas they had plumbing, schools were falling apart, and the teachers were not being paid for a long time or if paid they were paid a very, very small fraction of what they used to get. The school books were not there. And one of the big, as you know, priorities of the reconstruction plan was to rebuild the schools and the teachers and that took a long—I left in May of 2004, and a very small fraction of—children were sitting on stools that they brought from home in many, many of the schools. But it was really in a very, unbelievably bad situation. I have seen better conditions in Africa, where I worked at that time.

COLEMAN: Open it up for the questions. Just get my attention, I’ll write your name down and I will take them in order that I see them.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, so much for your presentation and your comments. My question is for Amal. Given the fact that the UIA [United Iraqi Alliance] funds a majority of the assembly, is it fair to say that during the constitutional debate the discussion was more—not so much about whether secular or shari’a law should apply, but more about what interpretation of the shari’a should apply? And what contribution do you think women can make, especially women lawyers in Iraq, in trying to codify the shari’a in a way that [inaudible] and sort of start a dialogue within Islamic Shiite [inaudible] and sort of get a more [inaudible].

RASSAM: Well, as you know, one of the issues that has to be, perhaps, addressed first in the constitution, is what place the shari’a would assume. In other words, is it going to be that the laws of the state—that the Shiite would be one source for the laws of the state or is it going to be the major source for the laws of the state? And that makes a big difference because in the TAL, which was very much, by the way, influenced by the coalition, it was stated that the Shiite would be one source. That gives the big leeway in a sense. [Inaudible] you know that, and which is the more moderate interpretation of these.

And so every Muslim in Iraq, whether a Sunni or Shiite, is subject to the same unified code of personal status. For most of the [inaudible] then there is less about—I don’t remember now, maybe about 50 of the articles which then would cater to specifics, so that if you are a Shiite and it comes to inheritance, you might go up—you might then go to a shari’a, a mufti in the shari’a, I think, who would interpret for you or if you are a Sunni or Hanafi or whatever, you do that. So they left it. There is a unified part. There is part which will take care of you if you’re a Christian, for example, or if you are [inaudible].

Now, what is going to happen and how much influence the women who are on the committee, on the drafting committee, will have, I really am not sure at this point. What I do know, is that I have some friends who are very, very much—both Iraqi-Americans and Americans—who are very, very actively working now. Of course, in Jordan—I mean, you can’t work directly or try to consult with, advise, or help these women to make sure that they will have some leeway in terms of what aspects of the shari’a, because there is a very wide range that can be applied, or whether we are going to have the alliance impose more restrictive interpretations of the shari’a. It’s open at this end and I really can’t say.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Both of you have been wonderful for us to be able to hear you. There is this frustration, however, that comes with every time I hear about women in these countries, who are as knowledgeable as you are, because we feel so powerless. If—both of you, and I’m asking both to answer the question —could say one thing that America could do, what would that be? Because we are so unpopular now and the administration does tend to use [inaudible] without getting democracy focus, although, I was pleased to read what Condoleezza Rice said. So we are frustrated also. Do you have any advice for us?

COLEMAN: Sameena?

NAZIR: You know I thought about this a lot, frankly. Because, especially in 2003, when I was [inaudible] personal about it. Before 2003, when I used to go back to Iraq, there were some issues, but there was no problem. “She is an Iraqi-American who is working outside. Then she comes back because her parents are here and her family. She is working [inaudible].” Now, back in 2003, I was in a very awkward position, as you might imagine. You know, “She is an agent of the Americans.”

COLEMAN: “She looked like us.”

NAZIR: Yeah. I look—I talk more or less—you know, I had been living out there and who—you know, and in fact, we were called agents here coming up to promote American ideology in this country and we were going to undermine it [inaudible]. But it’s really interesting and I was working with American-Americans—I mean, what’d I’d say, not hyphenated Americans, in a sense, we were working. It took some time to kind of say, OK, what do you want from these Americans who are here, in other words, and they’re interested?

We are all sisters, so to speak, and we all [inaudible]. What would you like them to do that would help you in a position? And I think the thing we’ve been—first of all, in 2003 they knew very well that American women had the resources that they don’t have, so they wanted resources. There’s no question they wanted funding. And the first thing is, well, let them come and help us with orphanages, healthcare, and a lot of humanitarian, if you like, services. That is no problem. Everybody wants that, if it comes from America or France, Korea, whoever.

And there were some NGOs and money funded—funneled through NGOs—that we are doing. For example, we were working on trying to establish some sort of very, very makeshift thing for battered women. We—in 2003 used the military—the American military would come and call us and say there are women who are out in the streets, who have been beaten and so on, and we don’t know what to do with them. Could you help us? And we tried to get—to call on—there was a French agency that was working, so to call and that is no problem, if you do anything [inaudible]. Hospitals, you know, as I said. There was a big problem with the prostitutes. They closed some house of prostitution. The prostitutes—I never saw this in Iraq in my life, you know—the military would call us and say, what do we do with these women?

So there was a lot of work there that could have been funneled apart from also fixing schools, training teachers, bringing nurses to work in the hospital—because the hospitals were abandoned—and bringing material. So in the humanitarian section, I think. And you can do it through women. You’re helping maternal and childcare. I always thought that was one of the best ways to go under. You’re not doing democracy necessarily. You’re not women’s rights necessarily. You’re promoting maternal and child health and childcare. And this is the thing that we’ve used in many countries, by the way, when we work. And maternal childcare can take many, many things from running workshops for women to teach them, first, about how to take care of themselves; second, about what their rights are and so on and so forth.

So for me personally, I think if you go under the guise of humanitarian help, it doesn’t—it’s not politically volatile. But I just read a blog the other day—this is very interesting, Iraqi women on the web—and it was from a woman who was at one of these conferences in the Dead Sea on constitution and women. And I wish I can just distribute it around it says: You know, that bringing all these experts from out—you know, and they’re talking down to us like we are—you know, like we are idiots. We don’t know what democracy is. We don’t know what human rights is. We know. It is not that we have to be lectured at, so to speak. It is that they should give us the capacity to build and the wherewithal to do it, but we have to make the decisions and we have to translate it into our own culture. And I think that there are ways and means of doing that, without being perceived as—whatever the intention is it’s the perception, obviously, that is important—as being imposing because, also, there is a lot of—I’ll quit here.

COLEMAN: But before the election in January, they had a group of American Congresswomen—

NAZIR: Yes.

COLEMAN: —travel over and they did it in Oman, but they had a training session for Iraqi women who were running for office. And the American congresswomen came with sponges with their face on it and mugs and all these ideas for how they can go out and campaign and build their brand and awareness. And the Iraqi women just sat there looking amused because—[it was like], “Look, we haven’t even told our husbands that we are running.” [Laughter]. And you could see that—I mean, it was quoted in the press a lot of these American congresswomen’s names—we felt so stupid; like we just really misread the whole situation.

RASSAM: There’s a big cultural gap. There’s a big cultural gap. And people come with good motivations and goodwill, but I think it’s the cultural sort of translation from one into the other. I mean, when we were working on women—again, at the very local level to try to get them to join men in these councils, you know, civic organizations and councils—it took a lot of things. We would say—you know, you bring the women. We used even to work on the men and tell them, you know, each of you bring three or four women into these meetings you would want, you know. Bring like sister or mother, and we will set them aside and we will talk with them and then let’s see if we can get you all together. It takes a little time; it takes a little sensitivity to the culture.

And it’s interesting. It’s not just American [women]—you know, when we had a big women’s meeting with [inaudible] at the time. And there were some Iraqi women who had just come from London and from Paris, and they came, again, well-meaning and to do something, but cultural gap even with them was so big.

NAZIR: Could [inaudible] one recommendation?

COLEMAN: Before you answer, could everybody just make sure their cell phones are off because it does interfere with the microphone system.

NAZIR: Well, for the preparation of this report, I traveled to 10 countries in the region and I met with women’s rights advocates and civil society leaders to get their—basically, I asked them two questions: What were the main problems that they saw in the country from their own perspective? And what would be some of the recommendations for policymakers, both national policymakers and international policymakers?

So, American policymaking was a big part of our discussion because in pretty much every meeting— just like Amal, I’m a Muslim, you know, I look like them, I talk like them, but still because I represent an American organization—the first half of the meeting is always very, very strong opinions about what they think America is doing wrong and how good intentions are not enough. First, everybody would not agree there are good intentions and then the ones who agreed to that, would say it’s not enough.

And one recommendation that came—because you asked for only one, one that came from everyone, women, journalists, politicians, teachers—would be to reduce the tension point in the Middle East region so that American policy is seen as supporting principle in human rights—on the basis of principle—so that—it’s not seen as having vested interest, it’s not seen as having an agenda or a preference for some and not for others.

So some people, some civil society activists, are very happy now that the American government is putting pressure on their authoritarian, corrupt, brutal regimes. You know, everybody in the country would not agree with that, but they would, and they want that to continue. But even they would question the intention and so it’s how to promote human rights from a principled point of view that is seen addressing all the issues in the region and reducing the tension point.

RASSAM: The first question they throw at you is, “Why are you doing this now? Why are Americans interested now in our rights and our democracy anyway? This has been going on for many years.” And so you have to have a good answer for that.

COLEMAN: And what is your answer for that?

NAZIR: We do.

QUESTIONER: [inaudible]

RASSAM: Yeah, yeah. I mean, she is speaking on the policy level. I mean you know, you have to say—OK, so then you have to tell them OK, well, even if they’re here for the oil or they’re here for—you know—it’s an Israeli plot, whatever you want, all these rumors. I used to say, OK, well they’re here now. Let’s take advantage of it. [Laughter] Let’s do what we can. You know, let’s—you guys take advantage of it now. Let’s learn what they have learned before. Let’s take advantage of it. So it really—that’s the first—I think, that’s right.

COLEMAN: Is this a winning issue for U.S. foreign policy, to focus on human rights broadly and women’s rights, in particular, in this part of the world?

NAZIR: I think it’s a critical issue. I think that it will be resisted by the government, you know. It will be resisted by many, many actors from the society, but it is, I think, a key issue. And again, as I said earlier, it’s linked with democracy, civil liberties, you know. It’s about helping to create an enabling environment where these rights—human rights, women’s rights, minority rights —can flourish. Because if we study the role of the governments in the region—the national governments—it’s really bad. They’re very anti-human rights, anti-minority rights.

And women’s rights are seen as part of the connection for changing the power structures within the society because there are very complicated power structures. There are minority—women’s rights, interestingly, is very strongly linked with minority rights. And the governments in the Middle East, they don’t want to touch the minority rights issues unless it is the Palestinian issue.

You know, if it is minority rights in their own country, if it is the power sharing and relations between Shiites and Sunnis and Bedouins and foreigners and locals, they don’t want to touch it because it takes away a lot of their negotiation that they’ve done. So I find the resistance to women’s rights in the Middle East coming most strongly from government institutions, no matter what they say on public face, and then coming from patriarchal social attitude.

And everybody may be talking the language of democracy now because it’s popular, but I think that there is resistance and it may not be a winning situation immediately, but from a human rights framework, which is the framework that I work with, and from the voices that I’ve heard from the region, human rights and women’s rights and minority rights focus is very important to keep pressuring on.

COLEMAN: Did you have a question?

QUESTIONER: Just to answer my personal question, when you mentioned people saying, well, why are the Americans interested now—I think, for many of us, Afghanistan and Iraq just blew open the world in terms of the condition of women, and it started out, perhaps, just a focus on Afghanistan and then we all realized how widespread this was and how many, many countries [inaudible] and it’s been going on for a very long time. But getting back into women’s rights and then in particular women’s rights as human rights, and one of things you touched upon was women and their access to—like if you want to call it healthcare or whatever. I think there’s another whole issue which has to do with reproductive rights and then you get into the child marriage.

So there’s an awful lot of linkage, I think. And also I think AIDS has recently—and, again, another topic not for today—but AIDS has also put another whole face on the plight of women because more women now get AIDS than men and there’s an impact in a family, a community, a tribe, a society, whatever, with the illness and death of women and that impact too, so it’s just all very much linked.

RASSAM: Yeah, I’m sure the Taliban, you know, issue that—that whole explosion—the 9/11, I think, brought to their attention and the Afghan plight of the Afghan women, which was an extreme plight. I mean, there was really like an—almost an aberration, in the sense that it’s also the [inaudible]. I mean, the Taliban [inaudible] went into laws, that’s not just the condition. But I mean, from the perspective of us who have been following this and living this for many years, I do think that I’m really— as Sameena said, you cannot have a liberal or any form of democracy, however you define democracy or liberalism, without the issue of women and minorities, they are linked in together. And I’ve worked on minorities in Iraq, way before I even looked at women.

The other thing we have to keep in mind, in these countries, is the demographic profile. These people are all young. The majority of the people are really very young and they don’t think the same way that the leadership does or these old fogies—whether they’re tribal leaders or they’re religious leaders. You’ve got a group of very unhappy, dissatisfied young people; men and women, who now have access to the Internet.

This whole thing has changed their mind, you know. Even in Iraq under Saddam, which banned satellite dishes—[inaudible] kids used to get up at 3:00 a.m. or something and somehow rig their thing and they would get access to the Internet—but there’s no more isolation and they know and they want—and this is the same even in Saudi Arabia, among the youth. I mean, these young people want to have their rights. They want to be—they want to look forward to something.

So I think there is—the group is there. The people are there. I have never heard anybody who said, ”I don’t want democracy. I don’t want human rights, you know. I don’t want to be respected and my ideas to have express on the political arena.“ But there is, again as Sameena says, the regimes have been in power. However, whether they were a dictatorial sort of secular or they were sort of like the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and so on, they have such a lid on democracy or any kind of representation, and women, as well as many groups, suffered. I mean Iraq—it’s not just the women. It’s the Shiite and Kurds and everybody.

COLEMAN: In this whole debate, there is a very strong sentiment among religious conservatives that women should play a certain role in society. And the problem or the tension with that approach is that it runs headlong into economic realities. And in your chapter in the report, you talk about how women in Iraq were very essential to Iraq’s modernization effort. That was then. That was 25 years ago.

Today, I think all of us here would agree that women, again, must be central to Iraq’s modernization efforts. Would religious conservatives in Iraq agree with that or not agree with that?

RASSAM: You know, it’s an interesting question you raise given the Baath ideology, in a sense, and their effort at the time to sort of modernize Iraq and develop it economically. They wanted to educate women and release them to the wage labor sector, not because necessarily for their rights, but because they needed the labor. They needed skilled labor. And, unlike Saudi Arabia, which could import its labor from outside and keep women inside— Saudi Arabia has all the labor coming from—

COLEMAN: Pakistan.

RASSAM: Sri Lanka, Pakistan or whatever. And women therefore—they’re wealthy enough that they could keep women inside, so to speak, and not have them [work]— Iraq did not do it. They did import, but the labor was very, very small in number.

For the Iraqi women then, it’s just like in the socialist model, in a sense. They were forced out into the labor section to help. Also, the Iraqi’s were very interested in breaking down, what they used to call, the feudal structures.

COLEMAN: Right.

RASSAM: So women—now, what fascinates me when I used to go and work in Iraq at that time, is not a single person—except for the very, very sort of tribal, rural people, who wanted to keep women inside to supply their own labor in the fields in the informal sector—no one objected to their daughter going to the college and getting a degree and working because most of these women were—if you went to college to get a degree in the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’60s, you were guaranteed a job with the government in the public sector and it became a big source of pride and income—

COLEMAN: For the family.

RASSAM: [Inaudible] she is working in the family. In fact, we have interesting phenomena where women, who were high in the marriage market, so to speak, were these young women who were earning an income who were out getting—now, what happened [inaudible] yes, but nobody said this contradicts with our Islamic—

COLEMAN: Right, OK.

RASSAM: I mean, that’s very important. And it’s the same thing in Egypt, too. You see the woman, if she is muhajabah [used to describe a woman wearing traditional Islamic veil] that doesn’t mean she is not a doctor, she is not out working and so on. They never—the issue was never raised provided, of course, that the women would also be doing their domestic chores, at the same time. But, I think that we have that here too. I mean that if you’re doing your double role, you’re fine.

So nobody raised a religious issue about women out in the workforce or sitting side by side. You used to go into offices in Iraq and there’s men and women working. We had women in very high positions all over. So I think what’s happening is very interesting because the economic thing forced them to do that because everybody was trying to get into the middle class and buying this and—then what happened when the economy went bad all of a sudden by the ’80s, then it became a matter of pulling women—I mean, it’s really a manipulation—out of the labor market to make room for the young men who were coming back and it became—it almost took on a religious tone, all of a sudden. Women’s place is in the home; mother role, in the primary role.

COLEMAN: But if you look today, comments by [Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani for example—

RASSAM: Right.

COLEMAN: He does not argue that women should not go out and work.

RASSAM: No, absolutely not.

COLEMAN: And he does not argue that women shouldn’t go to university. I mean, he, in fact, argues, quite articulately, that women should be part of the political process; that they should go and vote and that they should be educated, so I think that the debate is—it’s certainly not on a Taliban level, by any means.

RASSAM: Right.

COLEMAN: But the debate is more nuanced over, no doubt, the role of shari’a in effect, and how that’s going to play out legally and constitutionally.

RASSAM: Well, that’s where—I mean I don’t need to tell you that. But in Islam as, you know, unlike in Catholicism, there is no Pope.

COLEMAN: Right.

RASSAM: Nobody talks for everybody.

COLEMAN: Right.

RASSAM: Nobody can say this is what the Islamic thing is. There are many opinions all over the place and Sistani happens to be now the most respected and, he is very moderate in his pronouncement. So if you have some other ayatollah, who may come up with something and was very powerful, you may have a different thing, and there is a debate within that. So it’s a question of who can mobilize more power and who will win and I think that women are very aware of that. Who do you mobilize on your side and who can then become a fatwa that there’s nothing wrong about women going on and working, side by side with men?

And then you may have another cleric who would say, no, it’s haram. It’s against the thing for women to leave the house and work with strangers, you know, strange men; that her labor should be really reserved for the family. So it’s a really open thing and we don’t—so far, we have not had a movement in Islam like the reformation or [inaudible] through and said, OK, we are going to have—I always compare it to Judaism here or—we don’t have reformers and conservatives and ultra-orthodox and [inaudible] you know, and they’re all interpreting.

COLEMAN: We’ve got just a couple of questions. Is there one over here? No. Angelita (ph), Susan, why don’t you just ask them together, then we’ll have a closing comment?

QUESTIONER: OK, this is maybe for both of our speakers. There’s a general feeling that democracy is being imposed from the U.S., as you all have mentioned. But I’m just wondering, is there a way to explain democracy and human rights or gender-oriented human rights for these various governments, especially the Islamic regimes, who may be opposing democracy because it’s supposedly coming just from the U.S.? You mentioned translating into cultural rights; can you elaborate on that? Or translating democracy into cultural rights into shari’a?

COLEMAN: Susan?

QUESTIONER: Do you think there’d be any influence, negative or positive, from the recent election in Iran on progress in Iraq?

NAZIR: No, I don’t think necessarily. I mean, Iran, definitely, is a big player in Iraq and has been historically, so it’s nothing new there. But again, I’m giving only my own opinion. I’m not a political analyst or anything. In Iraq, certainly Iran played a big role in harboring some of the opposition [inaudible] Saddam and so on and has an influence, but Iraqi Shiites, in general, are really independent in their own—you know, they have their own—I don’t know— constituencies. They always [inaudible] things.

It might encourage some of the more conservative elements; that’s all I can say. But I don’t think it would necessarily have a very direct influence because, as I say, they’ve always had separate paths in many ways. If in terms—just if I can answer you—I always thought one of the things lacking in the Iraqi [inaudible] case, is that there wasn’t any time for the country or the people itself to have internal debates about democracy and what it means—you know, public debates and public campaigns.

We tried one in 2003, even before the TAL. We tried to hold some public debates and bring Iraqi—not just Iraqis from outside, but Iraqis inside—to talk about what does democracy mean in the context of Iraq, given its history, its cultural makeup, its ethnic/religious makeup. People have dealt—there is not the same thing with women’s rights. I was very much interested in having a lot of like colloquia all across in Baghdad. Let them debate it. Let them come to terms with it. Let them come to some sort of a compromise or some of a modus vivendi; what does it mean for us in terms of our [inaudible]? There [inaudible]. In fact, some are very suddenly, you know. Let’s impose democracy. Let’s get this thing done. Let’s get that thing done. And we don’t have even the institutions, if you like. We don’t have the institutions to support it in a way, and it takes some time to build these civil institutions that would support it.

But the concept is not alien because we’ve had elections in Iraq in the ’40s. We’ve had contending political parties in the ’40s in parliament. True, only a small percentage was involved, but nonetheless there is precedent.

RASSAM: I certainly heard in the region that democracy is being imposed by America and by the West, so the view is there, but I don’t think it is a popular view. I think it is a view that is pushed by very small extremist group in pretty much every country. In some countries they’re more influential. If we look at the larger number of religious leaders in the countries or the larger religious/political parties, they all like election. They all want women to participate.

They—you know, from Algeria to Pakistan to Afghanistan to Egypt—women voters are a key asset and in a lot of countries where religious groups are winning, women voters play a very important role in voting for them. So I don’t—and I’m not saying democracy is only election; I’m just taking the issue that always comes into discussion. And I also think it’s important to remember that a lot of the governance or relationships between the citizens and the state are still evolving in the Middle East.

You know, we have some countries that have old histories, but a lot of the countries still have—still are experimenting with—these systems and the relationship between the citizen, the government, the authorities, and the duty are not really something that are clear or generally accepted because there’s a lot of discontent in the region about how citizens view their government.

There is lot of distrust. I mean, you talk to an average Egyptian and say your government will do this or can do this and they will say, “My government?” You know they don’t trust their government or their institution or the system.

So just like these issues and debates are evolving and taking different shapes throughout the region, the issue of democracy is also being debated. And while there is the opinion that the U.S. is imposing it, there is also an opinion that these values are Muslim values, you know. There is also opinion that the commonalities between Islam and human rights, Islam and democracy, are more than the differences between Islam and democracy and Islam and human rights. So people are also pushing for focusing on the commonalities and not always looking at the differences.

There’s a lot of interest in democracy. One of the most popular, I’d say, viewing, was the presidential elections in the U.S.—the debates, the party debates. This was the first time that some big TV channels—al Jazeera— showed it to the public and people were glued to the screen. They were fascinated—”Really? All this happens?“—because they don’t know what it is and there’s a lot of interest in and people look out for hearings and discussions. So I think that the jury is still out on that issue.

COLEMAN: Well, thank you all for coming and thank you to our speakers for a very informative and interesting session. Thank you. [Applause].

COLEMAN: A last announcement.

RASSAM: OK. And again, thank you so much. Really enjoyed your questions and it was a very [inaudible] conversation. I just wanted to say that we have these books outside on the table. They’re free, so please feel free to take them. And also, we have order forms for the full publication that I mentioned will be available in August, so if you want to take the order form and then send them to us, we’ll be happy. And it’s also on the website. Thank you.

COLEMAN: Thank you. Thank you for coming.

 

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