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Women's Political Participation in Post-War Iraq

May 6, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

1. What we know:

Iraq’s recent history, with respect to participation of Iraqi women in the country’s economic, political and civil society, can be divided into the following phases.

  • During the 1960s, Iraq had many educated and politically active women, and economic opportunity in the public/government sector had started being offered to women.

  • The Baathist party assumed power in the early 1970s and launched an ‘Education for All’ campaign. Women’s liberation was a tenet of the party’s socialist ideology and men and women were, by law, equal in the public sphere. The private sphere, that is, family law however was regulated by the Shariah, and generally discriminated against women.

  • The 1980s were consumed by the Iran-Iraq war, and the Iraqi government adopted secularism as the ideology in opposition to that of the clerical government in Iran. Overtly religious people were discriminated against during this period, which resulted in a backlash and increased social conservatism. Women were very active in the economy because the men were at war, but in the political sphere, the decade witnessed an increasing use of violence (e.g. rape) against women.

  • A wave of religious fervor, this time opportunistically supported by the government, swept Iraq during the 1990s. More young women started covering their head with the hijab - it was as much a political choice as a religious one. Many educated women dropped out of the work force – the worsening economic situation and the debilitating impact of sanctions made the salaries so low that it was no longer worthwhile for the women to continue working. A decline also took place in access to girls’ education – mothers who were educated now had illiterate daughters.

The situation of women under Saddam’s regime, especially when compared to the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban, was debated. One speaker contended that it is a misconception to think that Iraqi women made great progress under Saddam Hussein: all Iraqis, including the women, were brutalized under Saddam. According to UNESCO, only 25% of Iraqi women are literate and only 20% of the women are employed. (The World Bank estimates however that almost 50% of Iraqi women are literate.)

In the post-war phase, encouraging signs include public proclamations like that of M. Al Fadhal, the new Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Justice in Iraq: “I support women to play a political role in the future of Iraq, so they can be leaders in politics and the economy. It's very important because the woman is the half of society- - not the half of the man." President Bush and Secretary Powell also proclaim the U.S. government’s commitment to the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity” which underlie “respect for women” and that “women’s issues are core to civil society and have profound implications for all mankind.”

2. What we don’t know:

Statistics regarding the condition of women in Iraq are few and unreliable and should be read with caution. Consequently it is hard to evaluate women’s situation in Iraq accurately.

3. What are the next steps; what should be done and by whom?:

Women must be included in the reconstruction of Iraq.

  • According to the United Nations Arab Human Development Report 2002, Iraqi women scored highest amongst all Arab women on the UN measure for gender empowerment, largely because of their relatively high rate of political participation. They held almost one-fifth of the parliamentary seats under Saddam Hussein’s regime; the average for the Arab states is 3.5%. However, with the process now underway to identify Iraqi nationals who can fill postwar leadership positions and as various factions and parties jostle for power in Iraq, few women have been visible.

  • In the post-war meeting in Nasiriya, to discuss the new political structure for Iraq, four women were handpicked, along with 76 men to participate. All these women are expatriates. It is necessary that women with leadership potential from within Iraq are also selected for and included in the reconstruction process. Like in South Africa, where blacks with no experience in politics or governance were trained, capable Iraqi women could also be trained. It might even be necessary to include ex-Baathist party members because most politically-inclined Iraqis had no choice but to join the Baathist Party.

  • Women who represent different age groups and thus different historical phases in Iraq should be incorporated because they bring different experiences to the table.

  • Mere tokenism should be avoided, since the quality of participation is just as important as the sheer number of women participating.

Once women are included in the process, they must participate in issues beyond those traditionally reserved for women. (e.g. the Women’s Ministry or similar social issues posts.) The Gender and Development theory, which requires the participation of women in each avenue of life, needs to be adhered to. Economic opportunities for women should be considered in broader terms than merely the provision of micro-credit.

Dialogue with the religious establishment is also necessary; their inclusion ensures that they can be held accountable for outcomes. While the Baghdadis and the Iraqi upper classes vehemently desire secularism and the United States will not permit a theocracy to take power in Iraq, a channel of communication should be opened up with the religious representatives who believe in the separation of state and religion.

There is immense and unrealistic expectation in Iraq regarding the pace of reconstruction. The United States needs to be upfront about how long this will take, as well as how the transition from a subsidized economy to a market-based one might not be a smooth one. Women will bear the bulk of the pains of transition and need assistance in overcoming the legacy of dependence on government handouts.

It is unclear which model will work best for Iraq, but there is an opportunity to “do it right” and make post-war Iraq the model for all future reconstructions. For Iraq itself, the South African model was offered as one giving primacy to women’s issues and for purposes of reconciliation. Another model is the Kurdish zone in Iraq, which has been developing democracy under the protection of the no-fly zones. Afghanistan was emphatically considered too bleak a model.

The urgency of certain measures was debated. While humanitarian assistance and women’s needs for food and security must be prioritized, it is unclear how much the United States should shape the evolution of other social and civil society concerns. Education reform, especially of the curriculum which has hitherto promoted intolerance, is critical.

The United States has allocated $2.5 billion towards humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in Iraq, through the supplementary budget request. For women specifically, $1 million has been allocated towards Iraq under MEPI (Middle East Partnership Initiative) and the State Department is working towards setting up an institutional structure, akin to the Afghan – U.S. Women’s Council. Greater participation by American NGOs, think tanks, businesses, and private citizens is however needed to help develop democracy in and to rebuild Iraq.

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