Iraqis Discuss Their Country's Future: Post-War Perspective From the Iraqi Street: Challenges For Women in the New Iraq

Monday, July 28, 2003
Thomas O. Melia and Brian M. Katulis
Western Asia

Women in Iraq, as elsewhere in the world, face special challenges in their quest to fully participate in their country's politics. The challenges became evident even in the preparations for this research – getting a full turnout for the women's groups was a greater
challenge than it was with the men's sessions. Some of our male recruiters would say they did not even know a woman who was qualified to recruit women participants. Furthermore, several women seemed more reluctant than their male counterparts to talk about issues related to politics and the future Iraqi government. Some of the women, particularly those with less education, simply professed ignorance on many of the topics – something one rarely sees in sessions with men.

A great deal of the problem seemed to be related to self-confidence. One Christian woman in Baghdad said in response to a question, “I don't understand the basic principle of democracy. My husband is a college graduate, and he could explain it better.” A Shi'a woman from the Sadr City district of Baghdad tried to turn questions on politics back to the female discussion moderator and get the moderator to answer her own questions. Another woman from Sadr City said, “We are simple people – we take care of the house and we are setting cake and tea for others.” So, for many average Iraqi women, the first barrier to full participation may be centered on basic issues of access to information and self-confidence.

Despite these challenges, Iraq is not Kuwait – no one in the focus groups thinks that women should be barred from voting in the election. This is not even a question for the most conservative male focus group participant.

The question of women serving as political and government leaders is more complicated. Most male participants – and a few women, too – did not think that a woman could lead the country or hold senior positions in the government, mostly on the basis that women are too emotional and not capable of handling leadership positions:

Women work from their heart, not from their brains. Men are efficient and can manage. (Shi'a Man, Sadr City, Baghdad)

In Najaf, I don't think that (having female political leaders) could be accomplished here. Maybe in other places, but here in Najaf, families are very religious, and the father can't allow their daughters to go out. It is not socially accepted. (Shi'a Woman, Najaf)

As an Islamic country, it would be hard for a woman to rule in Iraq. Men are better than women in holding such strong positions, because women are emotional. (Shi'a Woman, Karbala)

There are a few voices – both male and female – in support for having women in leadership positions in the new government. In fact, one Shi'a women in Diwaniya believes that women would be better leaders than men, saying, “We think that in the current
circumstances, women are more reasonable than men. Men are reckless, angry, upset always, and taking reckless actions…Women are reasonable. Men here in Iraq are more revolutionary than reasonable.”

Working with women to overcome the obstacles to their equality and full political participation will be a key challenge in building a new democratic Iraq.