A cautionary tale from Kosovar women, to women in post-war Iraq
Kosova Womens Network, Kosova
April 30, 2003
This newsletter is being released as another war comes to an end, the war in Iraq. It is clear by now that the dictatorship of Sadam Hussein has vanished under the heavy bombing of American and British forces. Many rejoiced the day when a government that persecuted and discriminated against its own people disappeared. The big question is what comes next. To us as women's rights activists, the big concern is what will happen to women in a post-war Iraq. And, as women's groups that work in a post-conflict area, run mainly by a UN administration, we have a very complex story to tell to the women of Iraq.
Kosovar women started to organize in early 1990, working closely with the local parallel government that resisted the persecution of the Kosovar Albanian population by the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. When war started in ex-Yugoslavia, we became part of the regional women's networks that raised their voices against the war and provided help to women and refugees. When the war came to Kosova, women's rights activists became refugees themselves, but we never stopped working with women and for women, this time in refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania.
We greeted joyfully the decision that put Kosova under a UN administration. The UN was to us the revered international organization that had developed and passed key documents that stipulated women's rights and promoted their integration in all levels of decision-making. But, when we returned home, we were, unfortunately, disappointed by the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK). We were eager to work with the international agencies to develop effective strategies for responding to the pressing needs of Kosovar women. Most of those agencies, however, did not recognize our existence, and they often refused to hear what we had to say on decisions that affected our lives and our future. Some of the international staff came to Kosova believing that we have an extremely patriarchal society where no women's movement can flourish. Others wanted us to do all the groundwork for them—find staff and offices, set up meetings and provide translations—but were not interested in listening to us and acknowledging our expertise. They had their own plans and readymade programs that they had tried in other countries, and they did not want to change their plans to respond to the reality of our lives.
Instead of dedicating all our energy to helping women and their families put together lives shattered by war, we had to fight to be heard and to prove to the UNMIK that Kosovar women were not just victims waiting to be helped—they could help themselves, as they had in the past, and they could be key and effective actors in building their own future.
But we did not give up. We raised our voices. We met with UN officials, wrote letters, went to meetings to present our ideas, knowledge and expertise. We talked to donors and built alliances with those international organizations in Kosova and abroad that genuinely saw and related to us as partners in a common effort. This is part of an ongoing multi-layered struggle that women's groups in Kosova have been engaged in over the last four years, a struggle to be part of the decision-making process from day one, a struggle to get better organized and become more effective, a struggle to take the place we deserve in shaping our lives and the future of our society.
We encourage women in Iraq to organize, raise their voice and be part of the rebuilding of their country.
We saw how the international media portrayed the women of Iraq. They showed only women in black scarves. They had no voice in the media, as if they were not part of Iraq.
The same thing happened with the image of Kosovar women during the war. The international media didn't show intellectual women on TV, as if they did not exist.
We know there are strong, organized, intellectual women in Iraq as there are strong, organized, intellectual women in Kosova and in any other country in the world.
We, Kosovar women, don't support a US military administration in postwar Iraq. But if the UN undertakes Iraq’s civic administration, it is time for them to change the principle of their work and concentrate on cooperating with local experts, giving space and recognition to women’s local NGOs
The above text was prepared in April 2003, by Igballe Rogova, Board Chair of the Kosova Womens Network.