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Afghanistan/Iraq: Women Hail Progress But Say More Work Lies Ahead

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush marked International Women's Day yesterday by hosting a group of Afghan and Iraqi women. The delegation met with Bush and his wife, Laura, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and members of Congress. Last week, the women attended the 49th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. At a news conference in Washington yesterday, the leaders of the delegation -- Afghanistan's and Iraq's ministers of women's affairs -- said it is time to celebrate the strides women have made in their countries in only the past few years. At the same time, they stressed that the struggle for equality in both countries is only beginning.

Washington, 9 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Paula Dobriansky, the U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs, said Afghanistan and Iraq offer the best examples of the women's struggle in new democracies.

Dobriansky said that is why the Bush administration sponsored the delegation's visits to New York and Washington -- because it realizes that no country can be truly free and democratic if its women, essentially half their populations, are politically marginalized.

While this has been common in Arab and Muslim countries, Dobriansky said, that practice is beginning to fade.

"There are encouraging signs of change in the Arab world, with growing numbers of women becoming ministers, elected officials, leaders in politics and in civil society. Women have been recently elected to parliaments in Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. Women ministers have been appointed in these countries and in Afghanistan, Yemen, Tunisia, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar, and for the first time in the United Arab Emirates," Dobriansky said.
Not all women in Afghanistan are free...and in some cases they don't even know it because they know nothing but life in a male-dominated society.

The Afghan minister, Mas'uda Jalal, also spoke of progress. She said that she feels comfortable celebrating Women's Day 2005 because it is the third consecutive annual observance since her country was rid of Taliban rule.

Jalal, who herself was a candidate for president in the October election, spoke of Afghan women taking part in all aspects of civil society -- politics, education, and culture -- and that in many cases they can appear in public without male escorts.

But not all women in Afghanistan are free, Jalal said, and in some cases they don't even know it because they know nothing but life in a male-dominated society.

"The problems of Afghan women have been internalized. It has become part of [the] day-to-day [living] of their life, that some of them -- many of them -- may not know as a problem. And still they need to go a long way to reach a real equality in [the] political, social, economic, and cultural life of the country," Jalal said.

Jalal said the best way to free them from these internalized problems is to see that Afghanistan's constitution is "translated into action." She said the constitution guarantees equal rights for women, but that guarantee is not realized in daily life.

Also at the news conference was Narmin Uthman, Iraq's minister for women's affairs. She said she feared that Iraq's constitution -- which soon will be written -- might not even go as far as Afghanistan's in guaranteeing women's rights.

Othman pointed out that the big winners in Iraq's 30 January elections were Shi'ite parties, and that many Shi'ite politicians take a conservatively religious view of women's role in society.

"Maybe they are believing that the Shari'ah is the biggest, or one of the biggest, resource for [the] constitution -- that mean's limiting for women's rights," Uthman said.

Uthman said the women of Iraq need help from the outside world -- governments and nongovernmental organizations alike -- to ensure that the Iraqi constitution represents a more moderate approach to women.

But for the most part, Uthman celebrated not only International Women's Day but also the opportunities of men as well as women in her newly democratized country.

Uthman spoke with evident pride of the elections of only a few weeks ago -- the strong turnout among women and the 80 seats in parliament that are held by women. This, she said, was an event that the Iraq people desperately needed.

Because of the election, and Iraqis' broad participation in it, Uthman said, she feels very optimistic about her country's future.

"I can tell you that we will succeed. All those pictures we could see in [about] the election make our belief be stronger and stronger. And we believe in our people -- that we will succeed. I see a bright future for my country," Uthman said.

Uthman acknowledged that the biggest challenge to democracy in Iraq is the insurgency that has raged since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But she said she believes democracy will prevail because the will for self-determination is more powerful than threats.