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Washington File

27 June 2003

Iraqi Women Demand Role in Steering Iraq's Future

(State Department and NGO discuss the role of women in post Ba'athist
Iraq) (910)
By Laurie Ball
Washington File Special Correspondent
Washington -- Iraqi women can and must play an essential, active role
in the reconstruction of a free Iraq, said State Department Senior
Coordinator for International Women's Issues Charlotte Ponticelli and
Women for Women International's Founder and President Zainab Salbi
during discussions hosted June 20 at the State Department.
Addressing the "Women's Foreign Policy Group," a Washington-based
association of professional women, both speakers expressed their
belief that, with improved security, Iraqi women will find their voice
after years of brutal suppression.
"This is a challenging and exciting time -- the end of a Stalinist
regime that extracted a huge price from its citizens for more than two
decades," explained Salbi, an Iraqi-American whose non-profit
organization has already helped women in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
Both Ponticelli and Salbi emphasized that women in Iraq suffered under
Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship, where the abuses included rape,
torture, and impunity for "honor killings," beheading, imprisonment
and other forms of oppression. While Saddam built palaces, and stole
Iraqi oil wealth, he had little interest in supplying hospitals, or
pharmacies or schools. Maternal and infant mortality and women's
illiteracy rates in Iraq are among the worst in the Arab world, they
said.
"On a public level, [the Hussein regime] promoted women. The writings
were there, the practice was not ... if you dig deeper you reveal the
violations," Salbi said. "Chauvinism and sexism by the government were
at the core of how to treat women."
Salbi described the relatively prominent role of Iraqi women in
economic and political spheres in the 1960s and to a lesser extent
through the early 1980s. In the last decade of his regime, Saddam
Hussein minimized women's public role as part of his efforts to
increase tribal support for the dictatorship, she explained.
Salbi told her American audience that she did not see a specific
traditional or cultural limit to the role of Iraqi women, but that the
glass ceiling of women's participation in society and government has
not yet been tested.
Ponticelli noted that some older Iraqi women held leadership
positions, such as judgeships, which predate the regime. "They've been
in power, they know it can be done," she said.
Salbi, who visited Iraq in early May 2003, also shared her firsthand
impression of the current conditions for women in Iraq with other
professionals gathered at the Department of State.
"Wars always impact women. They deal with the consequences of war, the
basic needs of the family. Right now, their security is the number one
priority," she said, adding that the security situation, as well as
access to water and electricity have improved for many Iraqis since
the arrival of U.S. Special Envoy Ambassador L. Paul Bremer.
"We need to incorporate Iraqi women -- every single woman, rich or
poor, religious or secular in planning Iraq's future," Salbi said. The
overwhelming majority of Iraqi women she met with support the
formation of a secular government within an Islamic state.
"[Most] people are asking for a civilian government that respects
Islam and leaders that are Muslims. ... We see [extremism] starting,
but I think we can still put a lid on it," she said. The antidote to
extremism, she said, was a "shock and awe campaign of economic
development."
Ponticelli discussed the State Department's interaction with Iraqi
women, both free Iraqi women in exile, Iraqi-American activists in the
United States, and Iraqi women inside Iraq. This dialogue has been
under way for months, Ponticelli said, noting President Bush's
discussions with Iraqi women at the White House March 4. The was
followed by a number of meetings with non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), including an April 24 meeting with Under Secretary of State
for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky.
Ponticelli urged a partnership between American and Iraqi women and
said it is important to highlight gender issues within the broader
reconstruction efforts.
"Initiatives cannot be just government-to-government. We must find a
way to mobilize the private sector to create partnerships in conflict
and post-conflict societies," Ponticelli said. Mentoring, exchanging
information, and sharing best practices are methods her office
encourages to "identify critical needs on [the Iraqi] side and
resources on [the American] side and match them."
Salbi advised listeners that there was no civil society under the
Ba'ath regime. Iraqis are starting from "ground zero," meeting in
their homes and in schools. "They are the people who suffered and who
understand what they went through and the nuances of what they need,"
she said.
"While we address security concerns we have to push full speed ahead
with building civil society," said Ponticelli. To support this goal,
Ponticelli announced that Ambassador Bremer, himself a strong
supporter of the participation of Iraqi women in reconstruction, has
appointed Judith Van Rest, a senior member of his Democracy and
Governance team in Iraq, to reach out to women and see that they have
the tools necessary to play their proper role in steering Iraq towards
a more prosperous future.
More information about Women for Women International and the Iraq
Emergency Response fund it sponsors can be seen on the web at
HYPERLINK "http://www.womenforwomen.org/" .
Information on the State Department's role in promoting the equitable
treatment of women is available at HYPERLINK
"http://www.state.gov/g/wi/" .
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:
http://usinfo.state.gov)



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