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Role of Women in New Iraq of Concern

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The State Department says the Iraq war was fought in part to improve the lot of women. Yet, experts on the status of women in Iraq are concerned that the relative freedom women enjoyed will be lost as conservatives gain power in the new government.

The State Department says the Iraq war was fought in part to improve the lot of women. Yet, experts on the status of women in Iraq are concerned that the relative freedom women enjoyed will be lost as conservatives gain power in the new government.
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An Iraqi girl greets U.S. troops

(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 Dobrians