(WOMENSENEWS)--Shortly after giving birth, Berivan Dosky was forced to flee her village when Saddam Hussein's forces gassed it in 1991. Another chemical attack confronted Dosky with a Faustian choice: use her only gas mask for herself or for her 2-year-old son. She decided neither; both would live or die together. They did survive, but Dosky says she is forever emotionally and physically scarred.
At 14, Katrin Michael was arrested by Iraqi authorities for joining the Iraqi Women's League. She recounts harrowing tales of torture under Saddam's regime, notably the practice of gang raping political dissidents' wives, daughters and mothers in front of them.
These are just some of the grisly tales Iraqi exiles have been telling at recent roundtables hosted by U.S. State Department. They are part of a campaign to link the war against Iraq with atrocities against women, much the way the Taliban's unspeakable cruelty to Afghan women was used to justify that military operation.
"We have fought this war both to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and to free the Iraqi people from the clutches of a brutal dictator--and that includes Iraqi women," Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula J. Dobriansky said in a recent speech at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Dobriansky is also spearheading an effort to include women in Iraq's future regime. She insists that "empowering women is a top priority in shaping Iraq's provisional government. Ensuring women's rights benefits not only individuals
. . . it also strengthens democracy."
Women Question U.S. Commitment to Iraqi Women
U.S. women's rights activists here and abroad, however, are questioning the U.S. commitment to this ideal and warn that early indicators do not bode well. They also argue that Afghanistan is not like Iraq, where women enjoy the right to vote, drive, get educated, work and hold political office--rights they could actually lose under a U.S.-backed regime.
"Our concern is how much the rhetoric will be matched by serious levels of funding for Iraqi reconstruction and for women's programs in particular," says Ritu Sharma, director of Women's Edge, an international aid group. "The only indication is a program that puts an emphasis on girls, but there's a whole lot more that needs to be done."
Others also point to the first U.S.-choreographed "town hall" meeting in Iraq last week, which brought together 80 Iraqi opposition leaders and exiles to plot the country's democratic course. Only five women attended. And the man widely considered the U.S. pick for leading a new government, Ahmad Chalabi, is head of the Iraqi National Congress, which has been criticized for failing to put women in leadership positions.
British Member of Parliament Joan Ruddock said she was "shocked" by the gender imbalance at the meeting. She issued a warning to Jay Garner, the retired U.S. general tapped to head the interim government in Iraq, about the sheiks and clerics who turned out in full force.
"Despite all the brutality of Saddam Hussein's rule, Iraq has a long history of secularism, in which women have not suffered the specific gender repression often found in Islamic societies," Ruddock wrote. "Many women will be deeply concerned by any attempt to put Islamists in control because of the effect this would have on women's rights."
Anxious to avoid charges of imposing a government on the Iraqi people, Dobriansky insists that while "the women of Iraq have a critical role to play . . . the U.S. will not dictate what the future Iraqi government will look like. Those decisions are for the Iraqi people to make."
Those words make Women's Edge's Sharma cringe.
"We have to get away from the view that women's rights are a cultural thing and we have to let the country go at its own speed. Rights are fundamental and ideally we'd like to see Iraq go back to the tradition of women's participation. We have to be very careful to guard against fundamentalist elements that may not want to honor that history," she said.
Such has already been the case in Afghanistan, she adds, arguing that in its desire to build a pluralistic Afghanistan and let Afghans lead their own country, U.S. officials have allowed in "very fundamentalist elements."
"The question of women and women's priority are something that gets negotiated away very quickly," said Sanam Anderlini. Iran-born Anderlini, director of the Women Waging Peace Policy Commission in Washington, believes Dobriansky is sincere in her efforts for Iraqi women, but she notes the growing rifts in the U.S. administration.
State Department May Lack Enough Clout
"We might have the State Department saying one thing, but you have to bear in mind the level of their influence," she says, pointing out that it's the Pentagon running Iraq's reconstruction show and that officials there have said nothing about involving women.
In fact, one of the first agencies already up and running, the coalition-appointed legal team currently developing a new legal code for Iraq, is made up exclusively of male lawyers and judges.
The administration dismisses concerns about the lack of women's participation. Officials hail the success of their first town hall meeting, where delegates adopted 13 principles, including a role for women.
"The meeting in Nasiriyah was only the first, only the beginning of a complex process to help Iraq in its transition to a representative democracy," a State Department official said when asked about the poor showing of women. "Given the dark, political background and the fact that the closing statements from this first meeting in 25 years placed as number five a goal that Iraq must be building in diversity, it is magnificent."
And while the upcoming series of town halls in Iraq are still likely to want for women, at least Washington will be flooded with them this week when the State Department hosts a two-day conference on how to promote female leadership in Iraq.
Gretchen Cook is a freelance writer in Washington. A former White House correspondent, Cook is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio, Marketplace Radio and The Washington Post.
For more information:
U.S. State Department--International Women's Issues:
Women for a Free Iraq:
Also see Women's eNews, December 10, 2002:
"Survivor of Attacks Speaks for Iraqi Women":