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Iraqi Reconstruction Can Build on Women's Existing Progress

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
March 26, 2003
USA Today


Iraqi women have suffered enormously under Saddam Hussein's regime -- as victims of political rape and torture, as mothers unable to provide for their children, as wives who have lost their families. Yet they also have attained roles that are still off-limits to many Arab women -- as employees, as politicians and as visible rather than enshrouded members of society.

In the political struggle that will ensue as postwar Iraq rebuilds, Iraqi women risk being subjugated again by traditional forces, particularly in the Shiite south. If the United States is serious about peace and development in postwar Iraq and the region more broadly, it must help secure the gains achieved by Iraqi women and ensure that women's rights are a central part of its postwar agenda.

For 30 years before and under Saddam Hussein, Iraq has been largely secular. Women participate in the economy and what meager civil society has been allowed. Today, they make up more than 20% of the Iraqi workforce, holding a wide range of technical and professional jobs. They score highest of all Arab women on the United Nations' measure of gender empowerment, largely because of their relatively high rate of political participation. Women hold almost a fifth of the seats in Iraq's parliament; the Middle East average is 3.5%. While Iraq's parliament is a sham, that critical mass of women already in government is a precedent that should be nurtured.

Look to north for model

In northern Iraq, 3.6 million Kurds have carved out an economic and political system under protection of the U.S. and British no-fly zone. Kurdish women travel there freely, hold high-level economic and political positions and have been critical to the region's revival. Several Kurdish women serve as judges, and two regional government ministers are women. Hotels and restaurants there have flourished, patronized in large part by Iranians who cross the border to enjoy the freer, no-veil-required environment for women.

Winning the war in Iraq should not be the hard part. The real challenge will be improving average Iraqis' lives after the war ends.

A recent U.N. report, "Women, War and Peace," focuses on the often-overlooked but key involvement of women in so many issues that will be pressing in postwar Iraq: internally displaced persons, infectious disease, malnutrition, reproductive health, military-civilian interactions and the exploitation of women by peacekeepers. If the USA expects to achieve its short-term humanitarian goals and longer-term objectives of a peaceful, self-sufficient Iraq, it must take into account Iraqi women's roles in each of these areas -- and more.

With hunger rampant and child mortality a staggering 13% before the bombs began to fall, the immediate humanitarian task in Iraq is clear. But if Iraq is to have a hopeful future, improving the sorry state of its educational system also should be a major objective.

Low for men, even lower for women

Although Baghdad once was a center of learning in the Arab world, universal education never was achieved. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but illiteracy rates remain high and significant gender gaps exist, particularly in the largely Shiite south. UNESCO data indicate that less than a quarter of Iraqi women and 55% of Iraqi men are literate. (The World Bank's figures show that 45% of women and 65% of men are literate.) Improving educational opportunities for all Iraqis while closing that gender gap will be crucial.

Only the most naive optimists cling to the notion that regime change in Iraq will unleash democracy in that country, let alone in the entire Middle East. But it is realistic to expect an immediate and significant improvement in the lives of most Iraqis after the war. Cementing and building on these improvements over the long term will be the real challenge.

Prospects for success will be greatly enhanced if Iraqi women can play a central role in the country's reconstruction and development, and its political processes. U.S. intelligence now is identifying Iraqi nationals who could fill postwar leadership positions. Special attention should be given to female leaders in Iraq -- not only for the important role they can and should play in shaping the future of their own country, but also for the role they can play as Arab leaders.

Isobel Coleman is a U.S. foreign-policy senior fellow and director of the Project on U.S. Foreign Policy and Women at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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