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PeaceTimes Edition 91. Listening to
Iraqi Women: A Candle of Hope

18 March 2009 No Comment

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- by Mary Liston Liepold

Earlier this week, on March 18, the BBC, ABC, and the Japan Broadcasting Company (NHK) jointly released a survey conducted in late February showing that Iraqis are more optimistic and less afraid than they were at this time last year.

Of the 2,228 Iraqis over age 18 included in the survey, 85% described the security situation as very good or quite good—up 23% from a year ago; and 59% said they feel safe in their neighborhoods. That’s up 22% from last year.

The Iraqis surveyed expressed increased confidence in their national government (61% said a great deal or quite a lot, up from 48% last year) and even greater confidence in their army and police, with 73% and 74% saying a great deal or quite a lot. While 64% say democracy (defined for survey purposes as “a chance for the leader to be replaced from time to time”) is the best political system for Iraq, 64% also see the US role as negative. Only Iran, with 68%, got a higher score for having a negative impact on Iraq.

It’s great to hear positive news about the nation that the Global Peace Index ranked 140th, at the very bottom, in 2008. We are awed at the courage and strength Iraqis have shown, and we truly hope that lives are better with every passing day. But what do the women say?

The survey results were broken down among Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds, with Kurds reporting the highest satisfaction and Sunnis the lowest. One report noted in passing that people in Central Iraq, and especially Baghdad, are less positive than those in outlying provinces. Yet in a country that is 65% women, there’s no gender breakdown in this survey. The value of any survey depends entirely on who is being surveyed, of course—and that population is likely to reflect the agenda of those who commission and conduct it.

What Are Women Saying?

Actions can speak louder than either words or numbers. On February 3, Nawal al-Samaraie resigned her position, created in 2003 after the US invasion, as minister of women’s affairs. She had found it “hard, if not impossible” to improve women’s lives from an office in the Green Zone with no branch offices in the other provinces and completely inadequate resources. Al-Samaraie accused the government of ignoring what she called an “army” of uneducated women, widows, domestic violence survivors, and female internally displaced persons in dire need of assistance. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accepted her resignation reluctantly, and the post remains vacant.

Our own small ministry of women’s affairs is a highly informal structure: the Peace X Peace Global Network. Talking to Global Network members this week, we’re seeing a less than sunny picture. The BBC, ABC, and NHK survey didn’t ask what’s for dinner. They didn’t ask if the children are afraid. They didn’t ask how many women are widows, or how they fare.

Naba Hamid and Sharon Simone

Naba Hamid and Sharon Simone

Iraq has two million widows, according to Naba Hamid al-Barrak, a longtime Peace X Peace member and a former professor at the University of Baghdad. In a total population of about 28 million, that’s every 7th woman. Given the gender imbalance, it’s probably even more. Earlier this year Mazin al-Shihan, head of Baghdad’s Displacement Committee, proposed his answer to the profusion of widows: paying single middle-aged men the equivalent of US $8,500 apiece to marry them. Women’s activists like Hanaa Adwar, who heads the Baghdad-based NGO al-Amal, called the plan cruel. Naba agrees, but adds that al-Shihan was only citing a precedent established during earlier wars.

There is food in the market for those who can pay for it, according to Nahla Arif, Legislative Coordinator at the Institution for International Law and Human Rights in Baghdad. But many cannot pay. A welfare program created after the invasion in 2003 pays widows and the disabled the equivalent of $50 – $70 US dollars a month. People say that’s not enough, and aid experts agree. The International Committee for the Red Cross says it takes about $250 a month for a household to get by. Most depend on a system of government food parcels that began before the invasion, during the embargo and the Oil for Food program. But this year, since oil prices have dropped worldwide, there has been talk of cutting back distribution. The nation’s 2009 draft budget was recently reduced from $80 billion to $64 billion, and further cuts are likely.

Of those who were mothers, 40% said their children were not going to school.

Oxfam did ask women how they’re doing, in a survey of 1,700 women in five provinces that the organization released on International Women’s Day. A third of all respondents said they had received no humanitarian assistance over the past five years, while three-quarters of the widows interviewed said they had received no governmental support. Of those who were mothers, 40% said their children were not going to school. In many families, even children need to work to survive, and five million children are orphans, so this is hardly surprising.

Sectarian Violence: Beyond Statistics

Some 55% of the women said they have directly or indirectly experienced violence since the US-led invasion in 2003, and 30% had family members who died violently. Perhaps security is better now, but for the person who loses a loved one, the devastation is 100%. Peace X Peace member Taghreed al-Karakoly relates her own recent experience:

Taghreed al-Karakoly

Taghreed al-Karakoly

“I was born in a secular Muslim Iraqi family that is very far from intolerance and racism. My family respects the Islamic religion and other religions, inside and outside Iraq, so I have friends from different religions and sects, and I am still in a good relationship with them till this moment.

Two and a half months ago, one of the big Sheikhs of the Al-Karakoly families in Al-Youssfyiah city in Baghdad invited all the tribes of the family in Iraq, including Sunni and Shi’ite Karakolies, to an assembly. My father felt moved to meet the call because of his belief in the need for twinning Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, despite his lack of faith in supporting the presence of Sheikhs. So my father went to attend this assembly taking with him my brother and two other cousins. The event consisted of more than 650 invited persons, and in the last half hour of the ceremony a young Iraqi nephew of the sponsoring Sheikh came and loudly shouted in the middle of the attendees, saying, “We do not want the Shi’ites to be with us in this assembly.” The nephew immediately blew himself up and killed about 300 of the attendees.

“To this moment the death of my brother is still not believed by my father.”

My brother was one of them—age 33 only—and the 2 cousins were killed too, and my father was seriously wounded by shrapnel and fragments that filled his body. To this moment the death of my brother is still not believed by my father. He is still in shock from the terrible way in which my brother lost his life, leaving behind him a young wife and two children one and two years of age.

To be honest, my thoughts completely changed during the first month of the loss of my brother. I wanted to become a criminal and kill anyone who caused the killing of my brother. But after a month past his death, I realized that criminals and killers can be Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians, Jews or any other sect, as each community in the world has bad, stupid-minded backward people and good, big-hearted, big-minded people that have a real soundness of principles in life.”

Taghreed goes on to provide a detailed list of 16 “actions that will contribute to easing the burden of injustice and tyranny against the different communities living in the territory of one country such as Iraq.” Her list includes education for tolerance, economic investment, equal rights for women, employment, and one law for the entire country.

Jobs for Some, But Not for Others

The survey report noted that unemployment has moved to the top of most Iraqis’ concerns, and Nahla confirmed that.

Nahla Arif

Nahla Arif

“It is true that there are positive changes in the security situation, but since it is common knowledge that security is also related to political parties’ will, the situation is still critical. Personally, my biggest challenge is to find jobs for my sons. I have three sons, 25, 23, and 21, and a daughter who is still in school. The only jobs available for the last three or four years have been with the security forces. Those pay fairly well. But if young people had other options, they would not want these dangerous jobs. They don’t get enough training, for one thing. The preparation has been reduced from four years to just a few months. The big problem is that all the good jobs are political. You have to know someone and belong to their party, or pay a bribe.

There are probably thousands of NGOs working in Iraq right now, but very few of them are providing real benefit to the people. Some are giving assistance directly to the government. People in the government and the NGOs both take care of themselves first and then work with the very small amount that is left. And their agendas are too narrow. Take UNIFEM. Violence against women is real, and raising awareness is good. You could spend a year raising awareness, but five years (as these programs typically run) is too much. And after awareness, then what? Too much of the funding just moves in a circle on the same subjects. Activists in every area have to take a step forward.

A democracy isn’t about the government; it’s about the people. People here are too far away from their representatives and they don’t know how to push for change. We need to fight corruption, hold elected officials accountable. Our constitution provides for oversight, but parliamentary oversight is paralyzed. That reflects the constituency’s lack. People need to be educated to be citizens in a democracy. It’s something to practice, not just to read about.”

“A democracy isn’t about the government; it’s about the people.”

The electorate is inexperienced, and so are the legislators. “Some of them never held a job before they became members of parliament,” Naba says. Inexperience plagues Iraqi society at many levels. Naba estimates that 5 million professionals have left in the last 6 years, including 2 million engineers. Their absence makes daily life difficult for everyone. The 12 young Iraqi professionals who spoke at the Wilson Center here in Washington last fall agreed that having to work without mentors is even worse that working without computers, medical equipment, and other essentials. The newly minted doctors who are running the hospitals come from schools where even their professors were young and inexperienced.

Some exiles who left under Saddam returned with the Americans and are now in privileged positions. Those who left later may hunger to go home, but they have little to go home to. “They will come back if they see something that attracts them,” Nahla notes, “but if they are living in a developed country, why would they come back?”

Baghdad before the Invasion

Professor Ghida Al-Askari is part of the diaspora. Her information about the current situation all comes from relatives and friends, but her knowledge of Baghdad before the 2003 invasion puts the media survey in an illuminating context.

Ghida Al-Askari

Ghida Al-Askari

“Is it good that 59% feel safe in their neighborhoods? Before the invasion, before the infrastructure and every vestige of the social fabric were disassembled, 95% of the city’s residents felt safe in their own neighborhoods. Yes, there was political repression under Saddam, but very few of us lived with a personal sense of danger. There was no overt manifestation of any religious allegiance, and women were free. The invasion created a vacuum and the religious extremists moved into it. The first thing to go was moderation. Now the extremists have taken control, and women, as always, pay more of a price for this than anyone else.

Before the invasion the country was ruled by fear. Now there is a total lack of trust between people. How long will it take for the civic dialogue to begin and the golden rule to return?

The quiet in Baghdad has been achieved at the cost of ethnic cleansing, and no one talks about that. For 1500 years and more, we prided ourselves on our tolerance. Sunni and Shi’a lived together, and most educated families were intermarried. Now people are sorted into ghettoes, and there are very few pockets of the city left where Sunni and Shi’a can live together. The occupying power has fomented strife, as colonial powers always do. Sewage is running in the streets, people have to boil their water, and electricity is up to eight hours a day. Yes, this is better than it was a few years ago. Security is better. But nothing that was destroyed during the bombing has been rebuilt.”

Is There Any Hope?

We asked all four women about their hopes for the future. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon went to Baghdad in early February to congratulate government leaders on the relatively violence-free provincial elections—8 candidates killed, vs. 200 in 2005. Nahla finds hope in the election results: “The major Shi’a religious party lost in its own governorate. The biggest Sunni party also lost in its own area. People are rejecting the extreme positions. At the end of this year Iraq will have a general election for a new parliament and security instability is expected—not on a sectarian basis this time, but for political reasons. Change has to come from inside. I believe it will come.”

“Iraq is like a patient on life support.”

All of the women we talked to agreed on several things. Because Iraq is a country where urban women enjoyed the same standard of living as men just a short time ago, “women’s issues” as defined by the occupation are not the most urgent challenges. Unemployment and corruption are more urgent. Second, they tell us that healing and rebuilding cannot begin in earnest until the occupation ends.

“This is an unnatural situation,” Ghida says. “The perception among all the neighboring countries is that Iraq is a puppet state, propped up by the United States. It’s a corrupt, Vichy government. What self-respecting person would run for office? Most of those who are there are in office to line their pockets, not to serve.”

Naba is discouraged and deeply wounded by all that she has lost, her country has lost, and the world community has lost, in the destruction and looting of the priceless antiquities of this ancient culture. She says, “Iraq is like a patient on life support. I want the machines turned off so we can either live or die. We cannot stay fragmented and torn, living on tranquilizers, waiting for nothing.

When I think of Iraq I picture a mountain of ice, and myself at the bottom with one candle, trying to make my way to the top. Perhaps as women together we can bring many candles to the mountain of ice, and we can protect each other’s candles from being extinguished.”

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email maryl@peacexpeace.org.
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