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Iraq: Women's Rights Put on Hold
Published on Saturday, October 4, 2003 by the Inter Press Service
Iraq: Women's Rights Put on Hold
by Peyman Pejman

BAGHDAD - Six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women are waiting on the sidelines to see if and how they can achieve the rights they were deprived of under 35 years of dictatorship.

In the fluid condition in which the future of the country is being discussed, there is a debate also among women over what rights and roles they should demand.

”So far we have not seen any benefits from this war that the Americans said would liberate us,” says Kowthar Ahmed, a Baghdad University student. ”If anything, things have become worse for us.”

In some respects, she is right.

Women rights organizations, hospitals and United Nations agencies report continuing, though decreasing numbers of rapes and kidnappings of young women. Many have become assault victims, and often held for ransom.

No accurate numbers are available, but rape and kidnapping cases in the past six months run well into the thousands.

”We never had this kind of problem under Saddam,” Ahmed says. ”We could walk outside, alone, and late into the night. Not any more.”

Indeed, one can see very few young female Iraqis, married or single, walking alone in the streets of Baghdad during the day, much less after dark.

But security is not the only issue on the mind of Iraqi women. Women activists are concerned about the need to change laws and cultural dogmas, and encourage women to be aggressive in demanding their rights.

With the Saddam era laws and constitution nullified, several Western-oriented Iraqi women activists have returned from countries such as the United States, Canada and Britain to champion the cause of their compatriots.

They have held several ad hoc rallies. A conference was organized in July in which six committees looked at the needs of women in social, economic, legal, constitutional, and the political arenas.

Much of the help in advancing the cause of women has come so far from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the civilian arm of the coalition forces headed by Ambassador Paul Bremer.

Bremer made it clear at one of his first meetings in Baghdad with representatives of Iraqi exile groups that he wanted them to include women in their all-male ranks.

”He gave them two weeks to come back with an expanded exile community,” says a CPA official. ”What he meant was, 'bring me some women'. When they came back two weeks later with more men, he basically told them they do not represent all of Iraq, and threatened not to deal with them as seriously.”

Of the 25 members appointed to the interim governing council, three were women. One, Aqila Hashemi, died last week of wounds she suffered in a shooting.

Several Iraqi female activists say they want women's rights, not feminist rights. ”We want basic rights,” says activist Maysoun Damulji. ”We want the laws to consider men and women equal. We are not working against men. We want to work with them. We want women to have the same protection under the law.”

She said women particularly want stronger laws against so-called 'honor killings' that can lead to killing a woman for bringing 'shame' to the family just for being seen in public with an unrelated man.

Some of the demands put forward by women activists delve deeper into cultural and religious norms. Some have called for the right of women to refuse to wear the Islamic veil. They are asking for abolition of polygamy, for banning the marriage of teenage girls, and for the right to travel freely without being accompanied.

Many Iraqis, on the other hand, say some of these practices are a part of religious beliefs, and of cultural values that go back many centuries.

This situation is leading some young women to look beyond their country's borders.

”I don't want to stay here,” says Nana Atiya, in her early 20s, who works for an international courier company. ”I am in danger here because people say, you are working with the Americans. I can make my own decisions, and I want everyone to leave me alone. I have a family that respects me and between us, we can make the right decisions.”

What rights the new Iraq will offer women is still not clear. What is perhaps more clear is that the women's movement, like the rest of the society, has put itself on hold until nationwide issues such as security, constitution, forming a new government, and regaining the country's independence from the coalition forces are settled first.

Copyright 2003 Inter Press Service


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