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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Where are Iraq's women?
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News Online

Iraq, some women fear, is in danger of becoming a man's world. Efforts to establish an interim government that reflects the country's diverse ethnic and religious character are gathering pace. But where are the women - who make up the majority of the population - in this process?

Earlier this week, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the BBC that the Americans were intent on setting up an interim administration by the end of this month - one, he said that would be representative of the population in most areas. But he acknowledged that the participation of women in the process had been inadequate.

"If there's an area where I feel thus far we've fallen short, but having realised that, we're going to correct it, it is in the representation of women. We need to have even higher levels of participation of women in this process. We've realised that we haven't done as well thus far in that area and we're redoubling our efforts," he said.

Iraqi students return to Baghdad university
Iraq's women are among the most well-educated in the Middle East
So far, there have been two meetings aimed at forging a constitutional future for the country, but out of more than 250 delegates, only six were women. They included representatives of the "Iraqi exile" working groups set up by the State Department before the war.

Elisabeth Rehn, independent author of an extensive report for the United Nations, Women, War and Peace, says she was shocked at how few women are involved in the process.

'Disastrous'

"There has been so much talk about how to reflect the diversity of Iraqi society - the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds - but what about the women? Some 55% of the population has been forgotten," she told BBC News Online.

Ms Rehn said the issue needs to be addressed urgently because choices are already beginning to be made about who will be elected to officials bodies.

The issue of women is seen as secondary - when we try to raise it, the men say they want to go back to the essential issues
Dr Shatha Beserani

"If not, it will be disastrous, women are needed to build up education, social security and health - everything that is important to the people themselves. They are the ones with the knowledge of all this."

Dr Shatha Beserani, an Iraqi doctor living in London and founder of the Iraqi Women for Peace and Democracy Campaign in 2000, says she is hopeful that she will be able to participate in the next meeting in Baghdad.

Lessons from Afghanistan

She says the UK Government is trying to get women involved, but one of the real difficulties is that among the Iraqi exile groups, the participation of women is not seen as a primary issue.

"At meetings in London, we have tried to raise it but the men say they want to go concentrate on the essential issues. It is just seen as secondary. But if we don't push it now it will be difficult to do it later," she told BBC News Online.

A file picutre of women surfing the internet in Baghdad
Many women enjoyed more freedoms than their Middle East counterparts
The experience of Afghanistan is a case in point. Only a few women were involved in the peace negotiations - the Bonn conference that led to a legitimate government - but they did not have any real say, says Ms Rehn. A ministry for women was eventually set up but it lacks real power and resources, she adds.

"If we want to have a sustainable peace, women should be allowed to participate fully in the planning stage, and not afterwards as cosmetic extras. This is what happened in Afghanistan," Ms Rehn says.

She says she is shocked that governments involved in the Iraq process appear to be ignoring their commitments to UN resolutions that emphasise the role of women in conflict resolution. UN resolution 1325, passed unanimously in 2000, reaffirms that women must be included in all aspects of the peace-making and peace-building discussions.

Kurdish model

Iraqi women have been among the best-educated in the Middle East and have held a large proportion of professional positions. More than a decade of sanctions eroded this but, while some 75% of women are illiterate, there are others who are highly educated.

"Iraqi women are strong and relish being in the front line," says Dr Beserani. "But Saddam didn't allow women to fulfil their potential."

I don't believe Iraq will end up with a conservative government
Zainab al-Suwaij, Iraqi exile
She says there was a strong tradition of woman being engaged in political activity, through women's organisations, although less so after "Saddam's brutality came to the fore".

"We want to reach out to contacts within Iraq and get them engaged again," says Dr Beserani. "Look at the Kurdish model, women became very politically active after the region was given its autonomy more than a decade ago. If you give Iraqi society its freedom and democracy, women would definitely get involved."

Zainab al-Suwaij, an Iraqi exile, and a member of one of the working groups set up by the US State Department's "Future of Iraq" programme before the war, attended both of the meetings in Iraq to discuss the new interim government.

"I raised the issue of women's participation at the Baghdad conference," she told BBC News Online. "I said there should be more women in the leadership as well as proper support for grass-roots organisations.

"A lot of people received it with an open mind - even some of the imams [religious leaders]."

'Diverse society'

There have been reports that some women fear an Islamicisation of Iraq, with the participation of religious leaders in the political process. Shia Muslims make up the biggest religious group in the country and many would like to see the establishment of an Islamic state.

Ms al-Suwaij, herself a Shia originally from southern Iraq, dismisses these fears.

"I don't believe Iraq will end up with a conservative government," she says.

"It's a diverse society and it is unlikely that any one group would take over."

She added that while there were those from the Shia community who would like to see Sharia (Islamic) law established, many Shia are secular.

Dr Beserani agrees that a secular constitution would get most support throughout the country. But she said any new legal code should repeal the elements of Sharia that discriminate against women.

Both the US and UK Governments have said they are committed to getting more women involved.

The test of that commitment will be how many turn up at the next meeting scheduled to be held in Baghdad at the end of this month.




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