By Judy Martin
Thursday, June 8, 2006
Violence against civilians and widespread infrastructure damage are making it difficult for Iraqi women to agree about the U.S. occupation or concentrate on pushing for a role in the reconstruction process.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Voices suddenly amplified, hands waved in the air in frustration and accusatory fingers pointed in return.
A recent meeting of Iraqi and U.S. women to discuss present concerns and the future of Iraq post-Saddam Hussein gave way at times to a yelling match about U.S. troops on the ground: Does their presence demonstrate liberation or occupation?
"It was America that liberated us from that bloody regime," shouted one Iraqi woman on a panel reviewing the role of women in post-Hussein Iraq.
But another shot back that liberation hardly describes her life in Iraq, as violence has escalated and made daily business almost impossible. "What do you think, I'm liberated?" she demanded in disbelief. "I'm risking my life talking. I'm dying for my people."
The two-day meeting in March brought two dozen Iraqi women to the United States to give firsthand accounts of the situation on the ground and to explore how American women can support the needs of the Iraqi women. It was organized by the New York-based Global Peace Initiative of Women, a nongovernmental group that stimulates reconciliation efforts in conflict and post-conflict regions.
On Monday the Global Peace Initiative released a report on the meeting that recognizes the women's chief point of disagreement and No. 1 common enemy as the same thing: ongoing violence and instability.
While sectarian violence has increased, the women's religious differences are not their main problem, the report says. The issue that splinters them most is their view on the U.S. presence in Iraq and their varying experiences during decades of war.
"They gave personal accounts from different perspectives and periods in Iraq from pre-Saddam time, during Saddam's regime with the Iran-Iraq war and sanctions, the overthrow of the regime to the present," the report says.
During Hussein's regime, thousands of educated and professional women who had the financial means to leave the country did so. Now women who endured the tough times are anxious not to be sidelined by those returning with higher levels of education, more developed political and business skills as well as English fluency.
"They have just come to Iraq; there is clearly a difference in experience," says Dr. Rashad Zaydan, a pharmacist who never left the country and who works with widows and orphans in Baghdad and Fallujah. "It's been 14 years of suffering under sanctions. We are the majority, we need more of a say."
She adds that some expatriates pay too much attention to troop withdrawal and an Iraqi government and constitution free from outside influence. "We must discuss different ideas, respect everyone and work for the peace of all, but we need water and medicine. Just to be alive. Then we'll speak of the constitution," Zaydan says.
The women's report comes out amid charges that U.S. marines shot and killed 24 civilians, including women and children, in the city of Haditha last November. The Pentagon will soon release its investigation of the incident, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is demanding that the United States hand over evidence on the alleged atrocities so Iraq can conduct its own inquiry.
Nuri al-Maliki has vehemently expressed concern about daily violence against civilians by the U.S. military, saying it is unacceptable.
The women's report echoes the prime minister's outrage.
"Another theme that surfaced repeatedly was the tragic consequences of mistakes made after the U.S. invasion," the report says. "There was much discussion about the loss of dignity and poor treatment of the Iraqi people and culture."
Women at the meeting frequently said the ongoing violence might freeze the expansion of women-owned businesses and that women might feel trepidation about competing for contracts to rebuild.
"It's very difficult to work in Iraq," said Adeeba Abdul Amir Hussain, who runs a real estate and building company in Baghdad. "I used to go with my car to the office, but now I need a chauffer. My company now does nothing." Hussain says she spends more time keeping her family safe than on running her business.
The bidding process for a large portion of the reconstruction contracts goes through the Department of Army's Iraq Project and Contracting office. When large companies are awarded contracts, they subcontract work to Iraq-owned businesses. But that means women might have to do business amid the daily violence in Baghdad, where many of these companies and government agencies have offices.
Jane Arraf, the Edward R. Murrow press fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and former CNN Baghdad bureau chief, told Women's eNews the security threat could hinder women's chances of securing contracts.
"Generally, as it becomes more dangerous and conservative, women might take more of a backseat role. There is pressure to take care of the family at home," says Arraf who lived in Baghdad during Hussein's regime. "Heading out to do business, some decide, is not worth dying for. It's a choice you make."
The arrival of U.S. troops brought hopes that life would get better, the report says, but a shortage of electricity, potable water and damaged roadways have exacerbated problems such as unemployment, which hovers between 40 percent and 50 percent.
The report says there is no functioning social service program and an agonizing lack of health care and education for those hardest hit by the war, women and children.
Such problems are even more of a reason for women to push for a stronger voice in government, Judge Zakia Hakki, a current member of Iraq's National Assembly who returned to Iraq after Hussein's fall, told Women's eNews during the meeting.
"Women have about 30 percent representation in political office and Parliament, but believe me, there's not a single woman truly dialoging with the men to draw up the future," says Hakki. Despite the quota, Hakki contends that women still face discrimination and that outspoken women are ostracized.
Some nongovernmental organizations are making it possible for women to advance socially and economically, says Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, which has offices in Iraq, Cambridge, Mass., and Washington, D.C. "Women are the pioneers in rebuilding Iraq," says Al-Suwaij. "If you look at the last 35 years, men were the ones drafted to the army and women were holding down the fort, so women have a great need for income, as well as the desire to play a more prominent role in business."
At the summit, Al-Suwaij said that the American Islamic Congress runs financial education and empowerment programs for women living in rural parts of Iraq. "We have people working on micro-lending programs aimed at women; even back in 2003, 3,000 of these loans were given to women in Iraq," she said.
But Al-Suwaji says security concerns make the project difficult. "It's an obstacle to promote more lending programs and expand them throughout Iraq."
Judy Martin is an Emmy-award winning TV and radio journalist who has contributed to NPR, Marketplace Report, BBC Radio and the World Vision Report. She is currently writing a book entitled, "Practical Chaos," about conquering conflict, based on her experience in news and as a hospice volunteer. You can learn more about her work at http://www.judymartinspeaks.com/
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