Iraqi Women: Hearing From a Forgotten Voice

Nisreeen Yaseen, a candidate for provincial council, speaks to Iraqi women about the importance of voting as she campaigns in the Shiite city of Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009. AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani

Manal Omar has worked with Women for Women International, a nonprofit NGO, as regional coordinator for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. She now resides in Washington, DC, where she is the director of Iraq Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. She is author of the memoir: Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity-My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos.

When leading prominent Iraqi women leaders from all across the country gathered in Baghdad in June 28, 2010 they had only one question on their mind: Ela Mata? Until when? The question was directed at leading political parties engaged in negotiations over government formation after the recent elections.

The group of over ninety Iraqi women from across Iraq had first met in April to highlight several challenges facing women in Iraq and produced a declaration highlighting Iraqi women's priorities that were signed on to by over three thousand Iraqi women all across the nation.

However, only a few months later, women leaders from different political, ethnic, and religious backgrounds felt that discussions to address challenges facing women were futile if an Iraqi government was not in place. The growing fear that the dire security situation of 2006 and 2007 could reemerge overshadowed all other concerns and prompted the challenge to the leading parties: Until when?

The statement issued by the women called on Iraqi political parties and decision makers to fulfill their role as duty bearers and place the national interest of Iraqi society at the forefront of all negotiations. Liza Hido, President of the Baghdad Women's Association, explained that "the delay of forming an Iraqi government continues to be among the most difficult [situation] facing our people."

Like many other female leaders, Hido describes an emerging sense of despair among Iraqi citizens about Iraq's future. Many women point out that as confidence in the government erodes so does the security situation in Iraq.

Sundus Hasan, an Iraqi lawyer and the Director of the Iraqi Women's Leadership Institute emphasizes that this delay has stronger impacts on women. Hasan explains that women face a "double hardship" in their daily lives. Women are among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in Iraq, and with a large number of female breadwinners, the deterioration of the security situation due to the delay in government is leaving women even more disadvantaged. Other women's groups stress that the absence of government leads to less compliance with the rule of law and a greater reliance on tribal customs such as multiple wives, forced marriage, and other forms of discrimination against women.

Hala Al Sarraf agrees. As the Director of an Iraqi organization focused on public health and a lead facilitator for a program bridging grassroots women with leading female policy makers, Al Sarraf explains that her programs are impacted by the delay.

"I can't plan unless I see who will be my counterpart in government," explains Al Sarraf. She also describes a decrease in government functions related to social services payments for women since the elections.

"The lives of many women in grassroots is bound to the office of social services for women which is swinging between local government, Ministry of Labor and the Cabinet of the Prime Minister. I understand that now it is back to the Prime Minister's office. This is dangerous to link the destiny of hundreds of thousands of women to a position that is subject to change..."
Women in Baghdad are not the only ones concerned.

Buthayna Mohammad Abbas, President of the Hawa Organization for Aid and Development in the governorate of Diyala and one of the steering committee members for Silm, a network working on conflict mitigation and transformation shares the same concerns. Abbas explains that the delay has impacted the new government negatively, saying that the "new government has lost its credibility even before its formation. The citizens have come to view the government and its winning coalitions as if they have come into their positions not to enact solutions or build the nation."

There is a recognition that women in Iraq have suffered under the Iran-Iraq war, sanctions, and the two Gulf Wars. The situation post 2003 has pushed many women over the edge.

Al Sarraf describes the large number of wives and mothers who have lost their loved ones. She explains that they lose "their hearts, source of income, social protection and for some of the vulnerable ones, this has led to the woman selling her own body for terrorists. Prior to 2003, Iraq never knew of female suicide bombers, after 2003, Iraq is the lead country in registered female suicide bombers. Whatever her reasons are, a psychologically disturbed woman has become a target for terrorists' plans in a fragile security context."

Despite the negative impact the delay has had on women's lives, Iraqi women still expressed hope for the future. Women leaders outlined that despite the challenges, the silver lining has been women across the nation are beginning to work together to initiate change.

The director of a grassroots woman's organization that works throughout the southern governorates explained that her optimism was rooted in the protection provided under the Iraqi constitution that all Iraqis were equal under the law. She described the emergence of several campaigns demanding attention to women's issues in Iraq and the presence of numerous media channels that advocate and defend women's issues.

Despite Al Sarraf's concerns, she too shares this optimism. She describes the 2010 elections as more mature than the last national elections, with stronger candidates nominated by the political parties. "They now understand better what Iraqi women expect and maybe in the coming election, they [government] will be more capable of meeting the needs of Iraq's women's movement."

The consensus among the women leaders is that once government is formed, women's rights defenders will need to make demands for change that will have a visible impact on women's lives. The central question remains when will they have the opportunity to step forward?

One month after issuing their statement, and five months after the elections, the only answer from political parties is silence.

By Manal Omar:
Special to CBSNews.com
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