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Iraq: What Does The Future Hold For Women?

Very few women are seen on the streets of Iraq these days. Many believe this is due to the pervasive lack of security, and that once order is restored to the country, women will return to regular life. But the future role of women in a new, democratic Iraq remains unclear. RFE/RL talked to members of the country's leading political and religious groups about the future of Iraq's women.

Baghdad, 16 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With a transitional Iraqi administration soon to be established, the country's women are adopting a wait-and-see stance about how their lives may change under a new government.

With no women visible among the political and religious groups currently jockeying for power, most of their questions remain -- for the time being -- unanswered.

Many Iraqi women already consider themselves different from most Arab women. They are often better educated and more socially integrated. Now they are looking to the new Iraqi government to cement once and for all the rights and freedoms of the country's women.

But will that happen? Some have doubts. Dalal Aboud is a 55-year-old teacher at the Baghdad Preparatory School for Girls. She said she is worried by current political developments in Iraq and skeptical that a transitional government comprising mainly exile groups can truly understand the pains and dreams of the country's women.

"What a 35 years [this has been]! And now, in the last stage of my [life], I want to breathe the air of democracy, real democracy. We need [government officials] who represent the Iraqi people, who [have experienced] Iraqi disasters, who [have experienced the] Iraqi embargo, who [understand] those poor families who couldn't [make a] living [for themselves]," Aboud told RFE/RL.

Representatives of exiled Iraqi groups -- such as the London-based Iraqi National Accord (INA) -- that are destined for a role in the interim government believe their Western experience means they can offer Iraqi women more freedom than ever before.

But according to Imad al-Shibib, a member of the central leadership of the INA, most of the questions regarding the future of women in a new, democratic Iraq should be addressed by society at large. Political parties, he said, can only encourage and support this process.

"Democracy should start in the family and then go further and further in our relations in order to accept any open idea and respect it. In our party we make a special council on how to change to democracy. And this will emphasize [women's] roles everywhere," al-Shibib said.

Many Iraqi women are concerned that religious groups long-suppressed by the former regime may plan to turn Iraq into an Islamic country and impose harsh rules on women, like in neighboring countries such as Iran.

But Shaykh Abd-Jabbur Manhell, a spokesperson for Hawza, the Society of Honorable Scholars of Al-Najaf, a Shi'ite group, said that their interpretation of Islam differs from others. He says the Shi'ite interpretation of Islam urges open-mindedness and full respect toward women.

"According to Islam, we refuse for women to be a head of the power, as a president, or to be a judge. Women in Iraq are intelligent and could participate [in the political life of the country] -- why not? With these two exceptions. But [for a woman] to be, for example, a minister or a member of parliament is ordinary, we accept it," Manhell said.

Sameera Abdulwahab is a well-known Iraqi painter and the owner of a gallery in Baghdad. She believes that as political and religious groups struggle to determine who will rule the country, Iraqi women should dedicate themselves to reclaiming what she called the "lost dreams" of the nation. For that, she believes women, especially those in the arts, should face the future with optimism.

"Now we are destroyed -- our spirit and our country, you see. Nobody can rebuild my spirit, [but] we can, everybody, rebuild by improvising to be stronger so we can face all difficulties. So we are now at zero -- inside and outside," Abdulwahab said. She said the Americans, and the new Iraqi government, "will start with the outside, with the surface. And [women] hope that we can rebuild ourselves [from the inside].

She said that if Iraqi women can achieve this task -- with their past experiences and active involvement in the all fields of life -- they can create a new model for women throughout the region.