June 19-25, 2003, Issue No. 643

Rasha Saad

Women's fate

Rasha Saad, in Baghdad, looks at the challenges facing Iraqi women and speaks to an Iraqi activist, recently returned from self-imposed exile, about her vision for the future

This is not Dalila Roelli's first visit to Baghdad, but it is proving to be the toughest. Roelli, a Moroccan living in Switzerland, is looking to recruit Iraqi women to support her Swiss-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Abir. Roelli wants to establish a small workshop where women can make and sell goods, providing them with an income for their families.

She is searching for people to act as a link between her and Iraqi women, to ascertain their requirements so that she can help provide what they need. Her task is proving difficult.

Roelli's organisation, established in 2000, is looking to provide an alternative to the now-defunct Iraqi Women's Union, a former offshoot of the Baathist regime. She visited Iraq for the first time in the late 1990s. "I have been following the consequences of the 1991 war on the Iraqi people, and as an Arab was moved by the reports of the humanitarian crisis caused by the economic sanctions."

Roelli, a mother of two who teaches Arabic in Switzerland, encouraged one of her students — a journalist particularly interested in Arab affairs — to travel with her to Baghdad to see things first hand.

"It was a new experience for both of us. We hadn't the slightest idea how to go. It was not easy for two women travelling alone to Iraq. First of all, we were not allowed to stay in just any hotel. Only one hotel took the risk and put us up," Roelli said, pointing to that very hotel.

Roelli discovered that more than 50 per cent of the Iraqi women are the main breadwinners in their families. This is a direct consequence of two wars in one decade as well as economic sanctions. Some women were made widows during the wars, some have husbands who were wounded or are involved in military service, and the spouses of other women are unemployed.

"Women would sell their jewellery, if they had any, or furniture to raise money. Then there was the psychological pressure of raising children in the harsh conditions caused by the sanctions."

[Picture: An Iraqi woman sells newspapers in Baghdad]

Roelli decided to try and help, and so she established the Abir organisation, naming it after an Iraqi woman who suffered four miscarriages as a result of malnutrition.

Roelli flew from Switzerland to Jordan, driving then 12 hours through the desert to Baghdad. Having made her contribution, she now feels the Iraqi women are letting her down.

"It has been a week now and I can't find even one woman who is willing to do the job. There is no feeling of solidarity here. Everyone is so self-absorbed. No one wants to volunteer to help their fellow impoverished women."

However, according to almost all women who spoke to Roelli, it is mainly fear and insecurity which is stopping them from accepting the post. In the chaotic aftermath of the Iraqi war, reports of kidnapping and rape of dozens of young girls and women have become commonplace.

The future of Iraqi women, who constitute almost 55 per cent of the population, is proving to be a vague one. The sight of Iraqi women walking in the streets of Baghdad is now rare, as is the sight of a woman behind the steering wheel of a car. Thousands of Iraqis have prevented their daughters from returning to schools and universities. Others allow them to attend, but accompany them to the institutions which are guarded by armed security personnel. With some fatwas having been issued by Islamist clergymen decreeing that women should don the hijab, those women courageous enough to want to return to work are unsure of how to proceed out of fear of retribution.

Roelli finally achieved her goal after 10 days, and found an Iraqi woman just as interested in bringing about change in Iraq. Hanaa Edward has just returned to her homeland after almost 20 years of self-imposed exile. Having been a member of the Iraqi Women's Association and the International Women's Union, she is particularly interested in women's rights.

Edward is currently secretary-general of the Syria-based Al-Amal association which is now operating in Baghdad. [See accompanying story.]

Roelli was complaining to Edward that whenever she spoke to an Iraqi woman about future plans, they spoke mainly about their sufferings and the past. "It's as if they don't want to believe that Saddam is gone, and they don't want to live their lives in the new situation."

Roelli mentioned a talk she had with one particular Iraqi woman. This woman feared that, after working hard to reach as many poor women as possible, the new government, once established, would then prevent her from continuing her work. "So why take all the pain?" the woman asked Roelli.

Edward seemed unsurprised at this reaction. "The Iraqis, including the women, have been ruled by an iron fist for more than 30 years. They know nothing about the workings of civic institutions. They have not been taught how to assume leadership, and, above all, are too exhausted from everything that has happened. You can't just flick a switch and expect them to embrace change."

According to Edward, women suffered a lot during Saddam's rule, and one of the main targets of her association is to "eliminate the unfair discrimination against women imposed by the regime of Saddam Hussein".

Edward said she recently visited a humanitarian institution which monitors women's affairs. This body is quite worried about the ritual murder of women. "I lived in Iraq for many years, and this phenomenon never occurred [while I was here]." She explains that in 1990 Saddam issued a decree permitting "honour killing" of women. "Any man was allowed to kill his mother, sister, daughter or aunt, even distant relatives. Saddam encouraged violence against women in particular," she said.

Saddam also ordered the execution of Iraqi women accused of being prostitutes. According to Edward, many women were executed under this charge, women whose only crime was that of being political activists. One of the best-known cases is the execution of Najat Mohamed Haydar, an obstetrician who was known for her opposition to the regime. Edward also believes that the execution of prostitutes is a crime in itself. "Who was behind the fall of these women? Wasn't it Saddam himself, his policies, the wars he dragged Iraq into, the economic sanctions which drained the country, which made [these women] take that path?" she asked.

Edward also charged the Ba'ath regime with forcing women into prostitution for the purposes of spying. During the reign of Saddam, apparently, many social decrees were issued to the detriment of women's rights. In the aftermath of the Iraq-Iran war, for instance, a man was allowed to divorce his wife without paying compensation, and men were also allowed to marry several wives without consulting current spouses.

Edward is looking for a new start, ensuring women receive their fair share of power. "This is the right time to address women's rights. I give this priority over other political issues. It should not be subject to negotiation."

Only time will tell how and when Iraqi women will take up the challenge.

An unpaved road

Returning to Iraq after almost 20 years of self-imposed exile, Hanaa Edward has plans of her own for reconstruction

Hanaa Edward's newly rented flat is swarming with construction workers.

The mood at the apartment contrasts sharply with that in the rest of Baghdad — Edward is enthusiastic about her plans for a new beginning and already work is well underway towards achieving them. To look at the streets of the capital, though, where many shops are closed and destroyed buildings are commonplace, gives one the impression that Baghdad is are more circumspect about their prospects for the future.

The reason for Edward's enthusiasm is not too hard to guess. She has, I discover, been living for this day — the day she could return to her homeland.

When she left Iraq, she knew she would return, and did so not long after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government on 9 April this year.

Each day she drops by the apartment to make sure that the work is proceeding as planned for what will be her first medical clinic. "I want it to be able to accommodate as many patients as possible," she tells the contractor with whom she eagerly discusses every detail.

The clinic is to be the first project in Baghdad by an non-governmental organisation founded and run by Edward. Fittingly, the organisation is called Al-Amal, or hope. Having recently sprained her ankle, Edward gingerly edges by the slabs of granite partially blocking the entrance to the flat.

"You have to pick your course carefully, which makes it easy to tell where to step next," she said offering advice that sums up the way she runs her own life.

Edward, now in her early 50s, was a university student when the Ba'ath regime took over in the late 1960s. "From the beginning, the Ba'ath leaders contradicted what they preached. Promises of democracy gave way to a bloody dictatorship that showed its true colours in 1968 when it killed thousands of Iraqi youths who turned against it."

Luckily, Edward averted such a fate even though she was well-known for her anti-regime activities at university.

After her graduation, she joined the Iraqi Women's Association — supervised by the Iraqi Women's Union, which in turn was run by the Ba'athists. Edward tolerated the regime's harassment until she was nominated in the early 1980s to represent the association at a conference held by the Prague-based International Women's Union. On that trip, she decided she would not return to Iraq unless Saddam's regime fell, and she subsequently settled in Berlin.

The 1991 Gulf War proved a turning point in Edward's life. She knew from the outset that the military strikes and economic sanctions would give rise to a major humanitarian crisis. So, with a group of Iraqi and other Arab friends who were also living abroad, she began to think about how she might help her country. "Our minds were set on establishing a humanitarian association that would encourage Iraqi families living abroad, along with some international humanitarian organisations, to take action to alleviate the crisis in our country."

The result: the Iraqi Al-Amal Association. Damascus was chosen for its headquarters because of its proximity to Iraq, which facilitated transferring aid into the country.

The association began its activities in the Kurdish areas in the north of Iraq — work made possible by the political and administrative void created in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. The organisation set up health, education and cultural projects in Arbil, Suliemaneya and Kalar which have flourished over the years.

Edward explained that the Al-Amal Association was unable to operate in the rest of Iraq, because "the Iraqi regime was against the operation of NGOs unless their activities were fully dictated and supervised by it. The few NGOs that worked back then in Iraq were forced to follow the rules. We refused to operate in such circumstances."

A second reason that kept Edward and her colleagues from expanding into the rest of Iraq was that most of her compatriots in exile were on the regime's black list.

Edward, like many other opponents of the regime, refrained from telephoning her family in Iraq during the two decades she was abroad. "Being acquainted with the regime's methods, I knew my family would be harassed as a sort of revenge against me and that the regime would, at the same time, record information about my whereabouts and activities. I just wanted to save my family the trouble of hiding information," she said.

Edward was shocked when she returned to Iraq. It wasn't so much the destruction of infrastructure that was responsible for that feeling, although that itself was very upsetting. What appalled her most was what she described as "the destruction of Iraqi souls". For Edward, the people she returned to had been transformed. Recalling her compatriots as having enjoyed close family relations, she found that people had become distant from one another. "Family ties had become very weak — if they exist in the first place. I don't know whether everyone learned to fear each other or whether they were absorbed in their own problems. Perhaps both," she said. "People are still afraid, despite the fall of the regime. I never expected that."

Those feelings add up to a pervasive sense of helplessness that is palpable to any visitor to the city after a few days. Rather than blaming her people for their predicament, Edward sought to explain it. "The Iraqis have been living in total blackout. They were cut off from the rest of the world," she said. Under Saddam, satellite TV was forbidden, and as one Iraqi put it, "Iraqi [state] television broadcast nothing but Saddam's speeches and national songs. It was better for us to turn off the TV." The few newspapers published in Iraq were, according to some Iraqis, too expensive, and at the same time not very informative, reflecting as they did only the regime's views.

"An Iraqi child raised under the Ba'ath dictatorship knows nothing about other political forces or how to live in a multi-party system as he grows up. He feels completely alienated from his own society, so he shuts himself off from the rest of the world."

Edward sees a huge gap between Iraqi children living in Kurdistan — whom she had worked with — and those living in other parts of the country. She said that a child in Kurdistan — where Internet connectivity and satellite television are widespread and there is a free press — is more open to the world, more interested in playing a role in his community and quicker intellectually. "The child in other parts of Iraq lacks personality, acts brainwashed and is accustomed to being told what to say and how to feel." Even parents were constrained from contradicting any messages conveyed by the media and at schools depicting Saddam as an idol or even a god for fear of punishment.

"I would often meet Iraqi youths in their 20s and 30s who would ask me 'what did we see of our life? We did not experience but wars, killings, and terrorism from our leadership. We did not experience the normal life of youth who have the right to aspire to prosperity and a secure future.' Their ideas of a future are extremely vague." Many young people's sole aspiration, Edward said, is to leave the country.

Edward attributes such state of depression to the lawlessness sweeping the country. "People are happy that Saddam's regime was toppled, but they cannot live without security," she said.

On that point, Edward blames the United States which, she says, failed re-establish security in Iraq. "They have no clear plan of how to run the country," she said pointing to the constant shuffling of officials by the US. "All this confusion contributes to a state of insecurity. Violence has increased. The murder rate is now on the rise — months after the end of war, not right after the war as we all expected. It should not take so much time to impose security."

Edward is open about her views on the US administration of her country and is eager to attend the meetings of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid (ORHA), "to remind the US of its commitments as an occupying power and to exchange information that would enable us to operate in these circumstances." And while she is willing to meet people at the ORHA, that in no way decreases Edward's demands for the formation of an Iraqi government.

Beyond her hopes for a government, Edward's interest in providing medical services is also national in scope. While travelling throughout the country to assess where to set up clinics, Edward was stunned by the humanitarian situation in rural areas. Many clinics and hospitals were destroyed, leaving a huge swath of the population without access to medical services. "They cannot even obtain treatment in medical centres in the cities, because the trip is too long and costly. Even if people were able to make the trip, treatment, too, is extremely expensive."

Edward contrasts the conditions people face in rural areas to those found in the 1950s and 1960s. "I found people living in houses made from woven reeds. This is a phenomenon that disappeared in the 1960s, but has been making a comeback." She mentioned the prevalence of barefoot children. "In Kurdistan, I never saw children with bare feet, but in the rural areas of other parts of Iraq, it's a normal thing." That wasn't the only sight she saw that alarmed her, though. "We have pictures of Iraqis bathing their buffalo in the same part of the river from which they are pumping drinking water."

These days Edward's concerns are shared by people from around the world. "I received letters from volunteers from North Korea and Germany asking us to help them come to Iraq. We are also working with international organisations to help other volunteers to come here and help our people." Parallel to these efforts, she is encouraging Iraqis who live abroad to come to their homeland. She said she knows many Iraqis, physicians in particular, living abroad who want to come and help, but cannot do so for fear of losing their jobs and because of the expense. "We are trying to coordinate with them so they can make short-term visits during which we would accommodate them."

Despite the many challenges she faces, Edward is generally optimistic that a better future lies ahead for Iraqis. "I know that the road is unpaved, but I'm optimistic that with some perseverance we will ultimately achieve our goals."

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Created: January 8, 2004
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