Anita Sharma is the director of the conflict prevention project at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. She spent much of the past year in Iraq and Jordan, meeting with women from different backgrounds.
"Their first problem is security. The majority of Iraqis -- men and women alike -- don't have freedom of movement. And they're constantly afraid of bombings and other insecure facts of life," Sharma said.
Experts say basic safety concerns have left many previously active Iraqi women isolated from public life. Manal Omar is the Iraq director of Women for Women International, an organization that helps women living in postconflict zones.
"Of course, security is translating into other sectors -- for example, education. A lot of parents have pulled their girls out of school because they feel schools aren't safe," Omar said.
The U.S.-led war and occupation is just the latest in a series of hardships that have often left women as the heads of the households. Many Iraqi women lost their husbands and other male relatives to the repressions of the Ba'athist regime or during the Iran-Iraq war.
Omar says for such women, supporting their family has always been a struggle -- and it is only getting worse.
"Most of the job opportunities which were offered by the [Ba'athist] government before are [now] the coalition's or the [Iraqi] Governing Council's or the ministries'. And again, going back to security, there is the threat against people who cooperate [with the U.S.-led coalition]. So even highly educated women are not finding many [prospects] for work. Those who worked under the previous government can't work in the public sector now, mainly because of the association with the [Coalition Provisional Authority]," Omar said.
Human rights violations were rampant under the regime of Hussein. But at the same time, Iraqi women enjoyed more personal freedom than women in neighboring countries where Islamic laws are strictly applied.
Now, postwar Iraq has not only stripped many women of their sense of security, it has also given rise to Islamic fundamentalism. Anita Sharma says in some ways, Iraqi women are facing more restrictions than they did under Hussein.
"Although all of the people in Iraq are now freed from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, the unfortunate fact is that women -- in southern Iraq as well as Baghdad -- actually had more personal freedom in the sense of personal security and dressing as they wanted. And now, in the south, with the imposition of more fundamentalist, Shari'a-type law, the women are being encouraged to, say, not wear make-up; women wear the hijab because of security reasons. And also in Baghdad it's easier to blend in and wear the hijab, wear the abaya [body-covering black garments] because of the fear of kidnapping which is rampant in many places throughout the country," Sharma said.
Despite such setbacks, Iraqi women -- who make up more than 55 percent of the population -- are mobilizing and fighting for their rights. New nongovernmental organizations are being formed to focus on women's rights and several conferences on women's issues have been organized.
Women activists recently strongly protested a proposed Iraqi Governing Council resolution that would have overturned Iraq's civil family law, which is considered one of the most progressive in the Muslim world, allowing women the right to divorce, protecting child-custody privileges, and outlawing polygamy.
Women denounced the proposed resolution as a serious setback to their legal rights, with some observers saying the provision would "send Iraqi families back to the Middle Ages."
The resolution, which was reportedly sponsored by conservative Shi'a council members, was later repealed. But activists say they still fear conservative groups will continue to push for such laws once the U.S. transfers political power to the Iraqis on 30 June.
Rights activists also lobbied heavily for a quota system for Iraq's future interim government. The country's new draft constitution includes a provision calling for 25-percent representation for women in the future government.
Omar from Women for Women International says the provision is a major achievement for Iraqi women.
"Initially, just four or five months ago -- when we were discussing, trying to put some kind of a form of a quota and encouraging women to be in the government -- there was a complete shut-down. Everybody was refusing. So now, when the law was signed and they got 25 percent -- that really was a big accomplishment. It shows that the women were able to organize and advocate for their own representation," Omar said.
But Sharma says the real fight is just beginning.
"It's just not clear how the 25 percent will be mandated and whether the provision will remain after the power is transferred. So there is a lot of uncertainty. I think [women] are satisfied that they were able to get the provision put into place, but now the fight is really just beginning to make sure that it remains. So what they're trying to do now in this short period of time leading to up to 1 July, is to get their foot in to the door in terms of the political representation, so that if in the future this particular constitution does not hold women will have achieved kind of a place-marker so it will be very difficult to go backward. So they see this time period leading up both to the handover and to the election as very crucial," Sharma said.
Since July 2003, the Iraqi office of Women for Women International has provided direct aid and leadership education programs to some 600 women in Baghdad, Karbalah, and Hillah. Omar says women throughout Iraq consistently voice the same concerns.
"Whether you talk to our primary beneficiaries -- who are the uneducated women, the extremely poor and vulnerable -- or to the rich elite, it is a consistent [call]: 'We want a secure Iraq, we've earned the right to build our country, we want to be able to have full representation in the reconstruction and we want our voices to be heard.' They want jobs, they want security. It's a mixture of a lot of hope with a lot of frustration because it's taking so long, but it's a very consistent call for security and growth in the country," Omar said.