In post-war Iraq, women reach for a voice

 

IRAQ ADDIS
Rahbiya Momad, center, and Ammear Hussein, left, are seeking to advance women’s rights  in post-war Iraq. Momad is president of the Iraqi Women’s League. (Noah Addis)

BAGHDAD — Rahbiya Momad has lost count of the new political parties vying for power in postwar Iraq. She knows they number in the dozens now, their names and slogans brightly spray-painted on dusty brown buildings once occupied by Saddam Hus s government.

Momad, 61, welcomes their growth, calling the development a step toward democracy. But she says she is deeply troubled by one striking omission: The parties are run almost entirely by men.

From the Kurdish powers in the north to the resurgent Shi’a majority in southern and central Iraq, men are positioning themselves to map the country’s future in consultation with U.S. overseers, most of whom, incidentally, are men.

“Women have no voice right now,” said Momad, reflecting a concern of many Iraqi women. “There is a lot of talk about a democratic government, but I fear we are being left behind.”

Momad is the new president of the Iraqi Women’s League, which was a leading voice for the country’s women before Saddam’s Ba’ath Party banned the group — along with all other political-minded organizations — in the 1970s.

Women who continued to agitate for greater rights, Momad said, sometimes disappeared, driving the league’s remnants so far underground that members dared meet only in groups of 10 or less, and then only once every six months.

Momad, who was 16 when she attended her first meeting of the Iraqi Women’s League, would like to see the group’s clout restored. At the same time, she wants to see more women campaign for a greater role in the interim government planned for Iraq.

To that end, Momad has taken over a former regime building, which had been looted and partially burned after Saddam’s fall, and erected a large sign that carries her organization’s name. She has printed fliers calling for social, economic and political protections for women.

She’s also working to organize demonstrations, to be held in Firdos Square, the highly symbolic spot where the world watched jubilant Iraqis smash to bits a toppled statue of the Iraqi dictator on April 7.

But the streets of Baghdad illustrate Momad’s most immediate problem. They are almost devoid of women. In shops and marketplaces, along bustling main thoroughfares and in neighborhood alleys, men outnumber women 20 to 1, remarkable in a nation where the population is 55 percent female.

IRAQ ADDIS
Nadia Hamdan works as a translator for an international aid agency. She said many women are afraid to go outside without escorts because of widespread lawlessness. (Noah Addis)

SECURITY A CONCERN

Women who venture outside usually do so in the company of men, saying they don’t yet feel safe enough to walk alone at a time when crime continues to be a top concern. While the U.S. military has flooded the capital with patrols in the past week to stem lawlessness, neighborhoods across Baghdad remain rife with accounts of abduction and rape.

“Every woman knows someone in her neighborhood or has heard about someone who was kidnapped, assaulted or threatened since the war ended,” said Nadia Hamdan, 29, who works as a translator for an international aid agency operating in Baghdad. “Until the issue of security is fully addressed, it will be extremely difficult for women to emerge as a political force.”

If women do not quickly organize and enter political life, many fear they will lose the rights they did enjoy under the Ba’ath Party, which made school compulsory for girls, greatly increasing literacy rates, and which permitted women to become doctors, lawyers and university professors as long as they joined the Ba’ath Party.

Particularly worrisome to many women today is the political emergence of Shi’a Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population. While opinions about the place of women in society vary among the Shi’a, conservative clerics promote a philosophy that would see women relegated to two positions: homemaker and teacher.

Two weeks ago, a prominent Baghdad cleric, Muhammed Al-Fartusi, told an Arabic-language radio station here that women should be banned from acting in live theater productions. Al-Fartusi and other clerics have previously called on all Iraqi women to don head scarves. Many women already do so of their own choosing, but some consider scarves a tool of subjugation.

“I think there’s tremendous fear that the Islamists will take control and that our rights will decrease,” said Rana Al-Khero, 29, a bacteriologist at Baghdad’s Kindi Hospital. “I worry especially about the younger women, who might not have the same opportunities I had.”

Al-Khero, who works in a laboratory at the hospital, would look right at home in any Western country. She wears jeans, form-fitting blouses and sandals that reveal toenails painted red. Her thick black hair frequently flops in front of her eyes.

She said she’s satisfied with her job and with the treatment she receives from her colleagues, but she worries about the lack of female representation among the political parties that have set up shop in the capital.

“The men represent us now,” Al-Khero said. “I’m not comfortable with that.”

While Al-Khero’s view is expressed by many women here, it’s hardly universal.

IRAQ ADDIS
Rana Al-Khero, left, and Maha Karim work as bacteriologists at Kindi Hospital. They said they are not comfortable with a government run solely by men. (Noah Addis)

‘A MAN SHOULD BE FIRST’

On the campus of Baghdad University, a 19-year-old student named Hiba, who declined to give her last name, said she would support a government made up solely of men. When asked why, she hesitated a moment, flashing bright blue eyes from the sky to the ground. In the silence, a male friend, 23-year-old Muhammed Al-Kaisi, answered for her.

“In our religion, a man should be first, ahead of a woman, because he can think better than her,” Al-Kaisi said.

Asked what she thought of Al-Kaisi’s statement, Hiba responded: “It is reasonable.”

A first-year economics student, Hiba said she would not pursue a job after obtaining her degree.

“Of course I will be a mother and a housewife,” she said.

Like Hiba, Azhar Salim Daoud is a Shi’a Muslim. And like Hiba, Daoud wears a head scarf. But the 32-year-old accountant said she finds the thought of remaining at home repugnant.

“I have ambitions to achieve, to work, to succeed,” said Daoud, a married mother of three. “Women had some chances in the past, but only if they were with the Ba’ath Party. Now we want more. We want to help shape our destiny, not have it dictated to us by men.”

That sentiment is shared by Ammear Hussein, who walked into the headquarters of the Iraqi Women’s League last week looking for information. Hussein, a 40-year-old elementary school teacher, said she is too old to dream of remaking her life. But of her five children, three are daughters.

“I want them to have the freedom to do any kind of job,” she said. “I want them to have freedom to live as they wish.”


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