Crisis - Open Forum > Next Story

 No place for a woman
 Lesley Abdela, United Kingdom
 April 29, 2003
Just after the liberation of Basra, as I stared at my TV watching the British military commander appoint clerics to help to run Iraq’s second-largest city, I realised that there was something familiar about it all—echoes of Bosnia, Kosovo, Timor, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. I was witnessing the latest rebirth of a nation in which women are being almost completely left out of the new power structures and discussions over the future of their society.

In 1958 Iraq had one of the first female government ministers in the region. It was one of the first countries in the Middle East to have a woman judge. There are many educated Iraqi women. They have a great deal to contribute to the peace-building and governance process. Women may seem invisible because they are not looting and fighting, but that is no reason to exclude them. Fifty-five per cent of Iraqis are women. There are resourceful leaders among them who deserve to be recognised as such.

And it’s not just the military who need to swap their night-vision goggles for gender spectacles; diplomats and politicians lack vision too. Yesterday Jay Garner, the retired US Army general who heads the Pentagon’s civil administration in Iraq, held the second meeting of what has been officially described as "representative groups from across Iraqi society". Garner says he wants to include fair representation of all ethnic and religious groups, but so far has made no mention of the largest group in Iraq—women.

He says the aim is for Iraqi people to decide procedures and structures for choosing an interim government to begin the rebirth of their nation. I do not know how many women took part in yesterday’s meeting, but it is unlikely to be "broadly representative of the population". At the first post-Baathist meeting in Ur there were 76 men and four women.

Why is it that in the aftermath of dictatorship and conflict everyone talks about human rights and democracy, yet women find themselves having to fight hard for any voice at all? Hardly days after liberation from Saddam, Iraqi women fear they will end up living under a distorted legal system with a constitution denying them almost all their basic human rights.

On Saturday I was at a conference in Geneva hosted by the Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces, a Porsche-end of the market think tank funded by the Swiss Government. Twenty of us with international conflict experience were acting as an advisory board on women and war. Among us we had experience of conflicts in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Asia.

Dr Krishna Ahooja-Patel, president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, has spent 25 years working inside the UN system. She spoke of her frustration: "UN Resolution 1325 was passed in 2000, stating clearly that women must be included in all aspects of peacemaking and peace-building discussions. It didn’t happen in Afghanistan and so far it doesn’t look as though it is being implemented in Iraq. The question we should ask is ‘Why?’"

I have been asking that question almost every waking minute of the past three weeks. With colleagues, I have been engaged in intensive lobbying alongside Iraqi women fighting for the right to have an equal place with men in discussions on the future of their country.

In 2000, Britain’s UN Ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, championed and piloted Resolution 1325 through the Security Council. Its implementation has clearly not yet become embedded in the workings, nor the psyche, of post-conflict reconstruction in a way in which equal inclusion of women as peace builders automatically clicks into place. In post-conflict interim administrations, the US, UK and UN have a history of latching on to the first local people to come across their radar screens and entrenching them in power. These are almost without exception men, and usually the noisy ones more interested in swag and political muscle than in such effeminate and tedious concepts as universal human rights and democracy, though some swiftly learn to use Western-speak in their siren calls to coalition ears.

Last week, sitting in the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour studio, I took part in a discussion with Iraqi women. The presenter, Jenni Murray, stared at me. "Lesley, haven’t we had this same conversation before, at the time of Kosovo, and the time of Sierra Leone, and the time of Timor, and the time of Afghanistan?" Yes, I agreed. I’m beginning to feel like a metronome.

In Kosovo (where I worked for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe as deputy director for democratisation), Igbal Rugova, leader of Motrat Qiriazi, an umbrella group of rural women’s networks, told me: "The international community has marginalised us women in a way we never experienced before. We have never felt so marginalised as we feel now."

During the Kosovo crisis, Tony Blair said repeatedly that the Nato bombing of Serbia and Kosovo was for democracy and human rights. Apparently not for women. Within weeks of the Prime Minister’s statement, the UN mission in Kosovo appointed a 17-member interim government and enabled the appointment of interim municipal governments. All 17 in the interim government and most of the members of the interim municipalities were men—some of them known local "mafia" godfathers.

The senior male diplomats heading the UN and OSCE mission set a target for proportionality across ethnic groups when deciding on interim government appointments. They justified ignoring proportionality for women by saying it would be "alien to local culture and tradition". Didn’t they know that women had been judges, lawyers, magistrates, academics, trade unionists, doctors, activists in civil society?

I had hoped that out of the manifest failures of Kosovo, a template would spring to ensure that in the aftermath of conflict and war a nation’s women were never again so excluded, derided, patronised and sidelined. But the following year in Sierrra Leone the British authorities installed 150 "paramount chiefs", of whom 147 were men. Then in Afghanistan the international community entrenched warlords. It took a massive international lobby campaign, led in the UK by Joan Ruddock MP, to get even two Afghan women included at the post-Taliban Bonn conference. And so far Iraq looks like being just another cut and paste from the same old outworn, shabby text.

Aided by US and UK officials, the Iraqi opposition met in London in mid-December. The Follow-up Co-ordinating Committee (FCC) formed at the end of the conference contained just three women out of the 65 members. Women have continued to be significantly marginalised in follow-up opposition gatherings. In Salahaddin in February, the conference’s final statement made not a single reference to the future of women in Iraq, nor any reference to their rights or to gender equality.

Alarm bells are also ringing among those concerned for women’s inheritance, property, land and shelter rights. Garner has said he will set up a Bosnia-Dayton style commission to arbitrate what is just and fair. He promises inclusivity for all ethnic groups, religions, cultures—but with no mention of women.

The human rights lawyer Margaret Owen, the founder of Widows for Peace and Reconstruction, has observed the failures of a similar process in the Balkans. She says: "The issue of land and property reclamation has particular implications for women, especially widows and the wives of the disappeared. Since the Dayton accords in Bosnia they have been unable to return to their villages because of violence and the threatening presence of those who supported their abusers."

In March, a Kurdish women’s group founded by Dr Nazand Begikhani, an expert reporter to several British legal bodies on women’s human rights in the Middle East, sent an open letter to the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, President George Bush and the European Union. It stated: "If there is to be any hope of securing for Iraq in the post-Saddam era a democratic federal system based on pluralism, justice and gender equality, women must be full participants in the process, not mere spectators."

Last week six activists travelled from Iraq to Washington to speak for Iraqi women. Two of them, Rend Rahim Francke and Zainab al-Suwaij, had gone to the April 15 meeting in Ur to take part in the first gathering of the FCC after the fall of the Baath regime. They and Iraqi women inside and outside Iraq were dismayed to discover that only four of the 80 delegates were women.

In April 23 meetings at the State Department with the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the under-secretary of state for global affairs, Paula Dobriansky, Rend Rahim Francke, executive director of the Iraq Foundation, spoke of the challenge Iraqi women face in trying to gain political participation. Their message: Iraqi women constitute at least 55 per cent of their country’s population and they want a voice in its rebirth.

Above all, they want a secular constitution that does not discriminate against women. Dr Shatha Beserani, an Iraqi doctor living in London, founded the Iraqi Women for Peace and Democracy Campaign in 2000. She estimates that despite the noisy Iran-funded religious movement, out of a population of 25 million as many as 75 per cent would support a secular constitution. She says any new legal code should repeal Sharia and introduce a secular legal system that does not discriminate against women.

Dr Beserani and other Iraqi women say that any new constitution for Iraq should be constructed from a gender-balanced team.

There is a precedent. The negotiating team which drew up the South African Constitution was 50 per cent female. The former South African High Commissioner in London, Cheryl Carolus, believes this remarkable gender balance was fundamental to an outcome acceptable to 26 different political parties.

One thing must be made clear in any new world order: if universal human rights do not obtain precedence over so-called "custom and tradition", several billion women will be treated for ever as pack animals. It is amazing how men do not view the introduction of computers and mobile phones as a break with custom and tradition, but the minute there is discussion of women’s advance, men bond across cultures in defence of "local culture and tradition".

We should remind Iraqi men that Iraqi women shared the horrors of Saddam and the terrors of bombing and should be taking an equal place in shaping a peaceful, prosperous future.

And all should take inspiration from the clarion call enshrined in the magnificent South African Constitution: "United in diversity, based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; and every citizen equally protected by law."

Lesley Abdela is senior partner in the gender parity and democracy consultants Shevolution and Eyecatcher Associates

From the Times (London), April 29, 2003.