The Pursuit of Gender Equality in Post-War Iraq

Saturday, January 1, 2005
Western Asia

Iraq's post-war reconstruction period occupies a brief moment in time but holds long-lasting implications for women. During this window of opportunity, decisions are underway which will determine women's permanent roles in governance, their rights under civil law and their future status in Iraqi society. The outlook for women, and society as a whole, is diminished when individual women, and their representative NGOs, are excluded from decision-making processes.

As recent events have shown, Iraqi women have been marginalized and excluded by both the U.S.- led Transitional Governing Authority and its successor, the Iraqi Governing Council. The accelerated timetable for the turnover was one factor in women's lack of participation, but the entire process was characterized by a series of unfulfilled promises. Without direct participation in the upcoming elections, constitutional votes and parliamentary decisions, the window of opportunity for women will permanently close.

In an ominous backdrop to the political struggle, individual women have been targeted for retribution. Their profile is consistent. Women with Western dress and progressive ideas have been attacked. The abduction and murders of these prominent women
have sent a ripple of fear through local communities. Though the press has covered the stories of highprofile
foreign aid workers, Iraqi women have seen members of their own communities—pharmacists, lawyers, councilwomen —assassinated. The effect is chilling and threatens the participation of Iraq's most educated women

At the grassroots, the general lack of security is also demanding a high toll. Though low-income women benefited most from the informal economy such as street commerce, the spasms of violence have driven women out of their jobs and into their homes.
Fear of violence, abduction and rape has emptied the streets of women and caused disruptions to education as children are also increasingly kept at home. Growing numbers of women are leaving the country.

During this pivotal time, with its atmosphere of societal constriction, it is vital to report the opinions and needs of women. Women for Women International spoke directly to women in their homes through its 2004 Household Survey of 1,000 women
in seven cities in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, three governorates, which are major political and commercial centers of Iraq. The survey shows women's high degree of engagement in civic and political issues and dispels notions about tradition, customs or religion limiting their participation. The survey highlights include:

Women believe that their legal rights and ability to vote on the constitution are the most important items on the Iraqi national agenda:

  • 93.7% want to secure legal rights for women.
  • 83.6% want the right to vote on the final

Women want the opportunity to work:

  • 56.8% thought there should be no restrictions on women's employment.
  • Of those who thought work should be restricted, only 15% thought tradition or custom should curtail employment. By a 4-to-1 majority, women gave circumstantial reasons to limit work (a total of 67.6% cited security factors and job availability).

Women support the education of girls and women:

  • 95.1% felt that there should be no restrictions on education.

Women see direct participation in local and national politics in a positive light:

  • 78.6% believe in unlimited participation in local councils.
  • 79.5% believe in unlimited participation in national councils.

Given the level of violence and the deprivation caused by lack of adequate food, water and electricity, another remarkable statistic emerged from the survey: 90.6% of Iraqi women are hopeful about their future.

During the reconstruction process, it is crucial that women gain inclusion and see measurable progress on a variety of legal and social issues. If the window of opportunity closes and the optimism of women is squandered, Iraqi society as a whole
will suffer. If women are bystanders, their full range of potential as peacemakers, providers and educators will be lost.

Some of the most potentially damaging influences are disingenuous parties who claim to speak for women or religious leaders who ingratiate themselves through token support while advocating restrictions for women. Women can and should speak for themselves, without proxy. There is an entire generation of educated Iraqi women and a growing corps of determined grassroots

women ready to step forward. The full and free participation of women is a barometer for the future health and prosperity of all members of Iraqi society.

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