Winning the Peace: The Role of Women in Post-Conflict Iraq

Jul 22, 2003

Iraqi women leaders and international policymakers gathered for a two-day conference April 21-22 to discuss the critical importance of women in building a democratic and prosperous Iraq. The Center's Conflict Prevention and Middle East Projects, along with the organization Women Waging Peace, co-sponsored this event, which involved Iraqi women expatriates as well as experts from the World Bank, United Nations, U.S. Departments of State and Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development, and nongovernmental organizations.

The open sessions on day two of the conference featured panels on the future prospects of Iraqi women and key issues in the transition to self-government. The session opened with introductions by Ambassador Swanee Hunt, founder of Women Waging Peace, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, and Charlotte Ponticelli, senior coordinator for international women's issues at the State Department.

Status of Iraqi Women
Conference participants concurred that women, who represent 55 percent of Iraq's total population, are underrepresented in efforts to structure and manage the transition to democracy. Many women in Iraq are well-educated professionals who could contribute significantly.

"Women must be planners; they must be implementers, and they must be beneficiaries," said Nasreen Mustafa Sideek, minister of reconstruction and development of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Sideek enumerated the enormous challenges in rebuilding the country-not only the physical infrastructure, but also the minds and spirit of its citizens who have experienced decades of dictatorship and war. More than one million people are displaced within the country, a majority of them women and children, with hundreds of thousands more refugees or missing. "Housing is ravaged, farms untended, irrigation systems destroyed, schools closed."

But, she added, women's organizations in northern Iraq are well organized and require further support so that they will seed other organizations throughout the country.

Another participant, Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, was one of four women who participated in a meeting of Iraqi leaders in April in Nasiriyah, Iraq. She used the opportunity to assert that women must play a central role at all levels, from restoring the oil fields to serving in government to starting new businesses.

At the conference, Al-Suwaij underscored the role of women in restoring the Iraqi family-both the immediate and the national family. For two decades, she said, the Iraqi government pitted ethnic groups-even children and parents-against one another, using civilians as government informants and in the secret police.

The challenge, Al-Suwaij said, is to bring the divided people back together. "We must restore positive values," she said, expressing her hope that "women will take the lead in developing civil society, especially education."

Transition and Reconstruction
Panel discussions examined the role of religion in society, humanitarian assistance, transitional justice, and security sector reform. Both Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia, and Zainab Salbi, president of Women for Women International, stated the importance of recognizing the role religion can play in transforming a traditional society.

"Religion today will not sit on the margins," Sachedina said. "It is going to play a greater role," and also could help push societal change. A secular leader can have credibility difficulties in a traditional society, but religious leaders may have more success in reaching out to, and helping build consensus among, the people.
While a new secular government could bring democracy and respect for human rights, Sachedina said, the memory lingers of Hussein's Ba'ath Party, which deemed itself secular but had set in motion a hateful ideology and committed gross rights violations. As the freedom to address human rights emerges, debate can begin over genuine legal and ethical reform. That new society, he said, "must respect the dignity of a woman as a human being," and must include women in building a society that incorporates gender justice.

Sachedina and Salbi stressed the need for open dialogue about women's rights and incorporating men in the process of expanding women's rights and promoting their economic opportunity. Salbi primarily addressed humanitarian assistance. She cautioned that the Iraqi population has expectations of rapid economic development, despite the fact that most post-conflict societies are slow to develop. The international community, therefore, must either meet or address these expectations. Salbi advised that reconstruction should be dependent not just on oil but also on building factories and a stable infrastructure to promote sustainable economic development.

Rakiah Al-kayssi, of the Iraqi Jurist Association, asserted that a successful transition to self-rule depends upon education and the rule of law, to meet the demands of civil society. She said, "The transitional government can strengthen legitimacy if the last word does not rest with the ruling elite, but with the rule of law."

Sanam Anderlini, policy commission director of Women Waging Peace, addressed security sector reform. "Security is such an important part of the post-war reconstruction framework because it is critical to shaping the nature of the government and society that comes afterwards."
Anderlini said that because Iraqis have lived under torture and abuse for decades, today, many fear a security force that would continue to abuse power. The challenge will be to create a new security force that represents and gains the trust of the Iraqi people. In addition to fighting crime, which is particularly acute in post-conflict societies, Anderlini underscored human security, which must encompass social justice, human rights, environmental protection, and economic empowerment. But such protections will require a fundamental shift in thinking on the part of the security forces, who are accustomed to asserting control and maintaining order, rather than protecting and serving.

Key Conclusions
Today, Iraqi women confront many dangers, from lack of water and electricity to vulnerability to violence. Helping these women will require a well-defined agenda and international financial resources. That agenda, participants agreed, should include training Iraqi men in inclusive governance and gender equality, changing existing laws regarding child custody, divorce, freedom of movement, property ownership and inheritance, and enforcing rule of law.

Conference participants agreed on a series of recommendations to secure women's rights and participation in post-conflict Iraq: Women should be incorporated into all sectors of society, including political debates, policymaking, and economic restructuring. Women should be involved in creating the ongoing legal framework for a new Iraq and in the earliest drafting of key instruments ensuring that the Iraqi transition process does not permit the erosion of women's rights.

Panelists recommended immediately forming a committee of Iraqi women lawyers, and other qualified professionals, to define and protect women's rights and interests, and to draft principles and provisions to be included in any Iraqi constitution. In this period of transition, it is imperative to draft immediately an interim constitution that is secular and guarantees equality, separation of powers, and freedom of religion and that includes a bill of rights.

International assistance is urgent. Immediate and proactive efforts by policymakers within the United States and throughout the international community would ensure ample women's leadership and participation in all discussions regarding transition and reconstruction. The international community immediately should address gender perspectives in humanitarian aid and include gender-specific supplies that address women's medical and reproductive health needs. NGOs can play a vital role in community mobilization and management, promotion of human rights, and democracy. International research organizations could play a useful role in modernizing and reforming Iraqi institutions, government, and the universities.

"It's time to ask for our utopia," Zainab Salbi said. "We can make Iraq an example for the rest of the Middle East."

The Conflict Prevention and Middle East Projects will continue to track the reconstruction process and the role of women in that effort. For more information, visit the Conflict Prevention Project

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