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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 March, 2004, 10:46 GMT
Shouting to be heard in new Iraq
By Lisa Mitchell
BBC News Online in Basra, Iraq

"Our centre must be for all the women," declares Ghaida al-Suhail.

Under the old regime, not only would the $145,000 centre just for women not have been possible, neither would Dr Suhail be able to decide who should use it.

This is the new Iraq and women are fighting to make sure they have a voice in building it.

Dr Suhail, a university lecturer, is chairing the weekly meeting of a new Basra women's group.

Dr Ghaida al-Suhail and Dr Intisar Hassan al-Saraji
Both Dr Suhail and Dr Saraji are university lecturers with Phds

They are meeting at the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) compound in one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces, but what they would really like is a place of their own.

"Before we had the Women's Union but it was really a branch of Baath Party. All the community refused to join because it was one of Saddam's tools," said Dr Intisar Hassan al-Saraji, 41.

Journalist Ahood al-Fadhly chips in: "The Women's Union did not have the power to help women in Basra. We were afraid of it."

Dr Saraji, a university lecturer, continues: "Now we want to form an association where we are allowed to express our opinions freely on political and general life."

Women in Iraq are often well educated. Among this group are judges, lecturers, translators, journalists, city councillors and an actress.

"My impression is that they are not as downtrodden as we in the West may think," says Farkhanda Chaudhry, a Glaswegian working for the UK Department for International Development (Dfid) which helped set up the group.

"They are quite capable of expressing their opinions.

Women's group in Basra
The women meet weekly to push forward their ideas

"They've told me that under Saddam's regime they had to be careful what they were saying in front of their children in case they repeated it at school. The level of suppression was so great.

"But people did discuss things in secret."

Saddam Hussein's secular viewpoint worked well for women in comparison with other Arab countries.

In fact the women fear they will be pushed into the background by, ironically, democracy, if it brings with it increased religious fundamentalism.

The day before the meeting, two women who worked on the coalition compound were murdered on their way back from work.

There was no evidence it was because they worked with westerners but it frightened other Iraqi female staff and several called in to say they were too afraid to come to work.

Sharia fears

There were concerns among the group about an attempt by religious leaders to make Islamic Sharia law the source of law in Iraq's interim constitution.

This failed, and Sharia is one of the sources of legislation. But efforts to introduce the strict religious legal system are what worry the women now.

"In an exercise in a democracy workshop we ran, we asked people to draw posters representing women's equality," said Mrs Choudhry.

"Some of the men drew scales with the men's side slightly higher than the women's. They explained that the Koran taught them that women can't do some things as well as men.

"Religious parties gaining power is of concern particularly to women."

Ahood al Fadhly
Putting women in government is a priority for Ahood al-Fadhly

Apart from getting their centre off the ground, the women discuss a clause in the draft constitutional law which talks of a target of 25% of MPs being women.

Ms Fadhly, who edits a newsletter called The Iraqi Women's Echo, says their aim to have the figure guaranteed in the final constitution.

"It's the most important thing for us. Many people think it is already the rule, but it is just a hope and it needs to be the reality."

The biggest challenge facing the women is working out how to make their opinions count in the new government.

Mrs Choudhry says Dfid is trying to teach them how to lobby and having a building in which to meet - funded by coalition donations - will make organising easier.

"They don't have the means of talking together and giving them that is one of the building blocks to political participation," she said.

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