20 November 2003, Volume 4, Number 33
IN FOCUSWOMEN DEMAND GREATER ROLE IN IRAQ RECONSTRUCTION... Women's groups in Iraq and their supporters in the United States and Europe are becoming increasingly vocal about their role in postwar Iraq. Through conferences in Iraq and speaking tours in the United States, Iraqi women leaders, some of them from the diaspora who have returned to help their homeland, are concerned that issues such as equality and women's political participation are being left out of reconstruction efforts -- as women themselves are not included in decision-making bodies. The assassination in October of Iraqi Governing Council member Aqilah al-Hashimi, a former diplomat who was one of three women on the council, has highlighted the problem of violence against women, particularly those who take visible public positions.
Another female Iraqi Governing Council member, Sungul Chabuk, survived an assassination attempt on 9 November. Chabuk, an engineer and teacher from Kirkuk, who holds a Turkoman seat on the council, said that armed Kurds opened fire on a car that she and her husband and children were traveling in near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. She has said that Kurds have threatened her a number of times, but vows to keep her seat on the council. Raja Habib al-Khaza'i, obstetrician and mother of seven, the third woman appointed to the council, was quoted in "The Guardian" on 17 October as saying that she had 12 bodyguards and was determined to carry on even after her colleague's murder.
With the devastating attacks on the United Nations compound in August, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other providers of foreign aid, Iraqi NGOs, and some U.S. groups have had to pull out part or all of their staffs. Such organizations believe more attention will have to be paid to empowering local women and providing them with resources to cope on their own.
The U.S. government has said that the inclusion of women is a priority for Iraq. Yet of the 30 people involved in the original Iraqi Reconstruction Group, only five women were included, "The Christian Science Monitor" reported on 15 May. No women are counted among the legal experts hired to rebuild the justice system. The Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) has been credited with pushing Iraqi leaders to include more women, often facing considerable resistance from conservatives and clerics. Of the 25 members originally appointed to the interim Iraqi Governing Council, only three were women, although women make up 55 percent of the population. Now only two remain. U.S. State Department officials have indicated that women's programs for Iraq are a priority, yet it is not certain how much of the approximately $21 billion of the $87 billion aid package earmarked for democracy building and civil society will be targeted specifically for women's issues.
Younger activists complain that these officially designated women in the Iraqi Governing Council do not really represent their concerns, as they have no history of struggling for women's rights and they also don the veil. The activists are pushing for more channels to represent women. Britain recently announced it will help fund an Iraqi women's council to promote the participation of women in public life, improve health services and education, and help women set up businesses. These are welcomed by the nongovernmental organizations of Iraq and partners abroad, yet some of them point to the need for more focus on very critical yet controversial issues for Iraqi society such as the failure to prosecute "honor killings" -- murders by males of spouses or female relatives for "dishonoring" the family.
Women activists feel that in Iraq, like Afghanistan, the real story of their situation is not being told, under cover of a barrage of claims that women's status has improved. To be sure, women are going to schools in both countries, and yet there are also significant levels of fear driving women back indoors and under the veil. Those women who take leadership positions are particularly at risk, whether or not they are associated with the women's rights cause per se.
Women are also encountering difficulties in making their voices heard in the councils of power. Activists have pointed out that not a single woman sits on the drafting commission for a new constitution in Iraq. In the quest for more democracy and freedom, the CPA has also unleashed the forces who support the imposition of Shari'a law. Although they do not oppose Islamic religious practice, secular leaders like Yanar Muhammad, leader of the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), have advocated that religion should not be "pushed into the political arena," as has already happened with tragic consequences in Iran and Algeria. They fear the constitution will be built on Shari'a, not secular separation of church and state, despite reports to the contrary.
In discussions in coffee houses, on Internet chat sites for Iraqis, many have asked feminists how they can claim to promote democracy and yet defy the will of the democratic majority, which is likely to opt for traditional Islamic values. According to a September Gallup Poll, 70 percent of Baghdad residents say, in the future, women should follow more traditional/conservative roles than they did before the invasion. The remainder is split between more freedom (15 percent) and the same degree of freedom as before the invasion (14 percent).
The conventional wisdom about Iraq's women is that they have been far better off than their sisters in other Arabic countries, and therefore the kind of massive effort mounted in Afghanistan will not be required. That notion overlooks the damage done in the Hussein era and also underestimates the potential backlash from the conservative majority in post-Hussein Iraq. Women held 20 percent of seats in parliament under Hussein's regime and were educated and employed in higher numbers than other countries in the Middle East -- especially as women were needed in jobs due to the great numbers of males lost in the country's wars. But the parliament had no real powers and, when sanctions began, women's literacy levels plummeted. According to the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), female youth literacy fell to about 27 percent in 2002; UNESCO says only a quarter of all Iraqi women can read and write. The World Bank's assessment is less dire, but still estimates under 50 percent of women are literate.
Western advisers have pointed out that Iraq's existing constitution under Hussein could form a basis for the draft of a new constitution -- and avoid the kind of prolonged debates that have occurred in Afghanistan -- because it already contains equal rights for women. Laws were on the books ensuring education for girls, the right of women to divorce and own property, and women were allowed to serve in the government and in security forces. A mantra often repeated by gender analysts is that while women are not allowed to drive in other Arabic countries, in Iraq, women were driving the buses. Yanar Muhammad and her secular colleagues are resigned to the reality now, however, that "some women do not want equality" -- yet she ascribes their opinions to vigorous agitation by fundamentalist Islamic parties who "use women's groups as a political weapon."
Although under Hussein, women's lives were devastated, says Muhammad, when she left in 1993 it was still the case that women could walk in the streets and had access to public life and services. Now, while the hated regime is gone, women are wrapped up in more clothing and often feel they must don headscarves if they go out, she says. Many tend to stay indoors and many don't go out without male chaperones. As in the Balkan wars at the beginning of the 1990s, trafficking of women as prostitutes has come along with the dislocations and violence of war. After two of the most fearsome wars in Iraq's history, now Iraqis are facing "the most powerful military machine in the world," says Muhammad, yet one that has not yet brought about day-to-day security for women in the streets.
Before and after the invasion, Hussein's government let criminals out of jails, and convicted rapists and murderers have been free to roam the streets. An atmosphere of opportunism with impunity has also reigned, as the Iraqi police get up to speed with a new mandate to protect the population, rather than to enforce the regime's rule.
Some women, dismayed by the focus of Western feminist groups on issues alien to their experience, are lashing out, saying "don't speak about the veil, we need to eat." Their main plea to the CPA is to provide some kind of relief for widows, single mothers, and children, but they are being told that welfare is being established just for the disabled. The hardships of daily life, such as shortages of electricity and food, often hit women the hardest as they struggle to maintain households or simply make a living.
...AS U.S. ACTIVISTS SEEK WAYS TO HELP COUNTERPARTS IN IRAQ. At a meeting this week in New York at the Open Society Institute (OSI) funded by philanthropist George Soros, approximately 60 women from the OSI, grantee organizations, and other nongovernmental groups met to discuss ways of helping women in Iraq. Lending their prominence to the cause were actress Jane Fonda, known for her antiwar activism, and playwright Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," whose numerous performances around the world have stirred praise as well as condemnation. These supporters of women's rights in Iraq fear that the enormous attention paid to the liberation of women in Afghanistan has overshadowed Iraq. "I have not seen one Iraqi woman in the news," Ensler commented in a panel discussion. "Many people feel that doing Afghan women was enough, and they ask, aren't we 'done' with women for now? And yet bright women with Ph.D.s are staying indoors," in Baghdad, she said.
The U.S. feminists appeared on the OSI panel with Yanar Muhammad, head of the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). Muhammad, 42, an architect who fled from Baghdad in 1993 and eventually moved to Canada with her family, returned this year to her homeland to help in the reconstruction. Along with OWFI, Muhammad has started a newspaper, "Al-Mousawat" ("Equality"), with a print run of several thousand copies.
Aryeh Neier, president of OSI, commented that when the Soros foundations began work in Eastern Europe, they "encountered particular problems where there has been an official women's movement that functions as an arm of the regime, yet degrades women's rights." Iraq faced a similar paradigm as the Ba'ath Party had nominally proclaimed women's equality and placed women in positions in public life. "Women's rights activists have to try to make clear that they having nothing in common with Saddam's [Hussein] regime, which was such a travesty," says Neier. OSI has not yet been directly involved in aid programs in Iraq, but is monitoring reconstruction contracts in an effort to hold donors accountable.
Muhammad now counts 300 members of her group since its founding in June. She explains that it is difficult to gather more because of communication difficulties and a reluctance of women to take highly visible positions, at a time when even the UN and other agencies traditionally perceived as neutral have been attacked by terrorists. Muhammad said that when she went knocking on doors to seek supporters for a women's demonstration in the square where Hussein's statue was toppled, she found many were afraid to get involved. She herself travels with bodyguards supplied by the Worker- Communist Party of Iraq (IWCP), and speaks of the need to train women to defend themselves.
Somehow, says Muhammad, in the effort to reform Iraqi law and restart the judicial system on more democratic grounds, provisions against "honor killings" have been left out -- except for Iraqi Kurdistan, where a law banning them was passed some years ago. Violence against women is pervasive and has increased with war and its dislocations, she says. Muhammad's organization maintains one shelter in Baghdad, and is seeking funds to start more, hoping that donors won't overlook such basic necessities.
Asked about the details of cases of some 400 women her organization says have been abducted this year, Muhammad acknowledges that her group and other women's support groups lack the resources and capacity to document cases thoroughly. She described some anecdotal accounts of virgins being sold into sexual slavery for $200 and married women sold for $100. She believes not many have survived the abductions, but it is difficult to say because the issue is not being monitored systematically. Based on accounts of women who have come to NGO offices, she believes as many as a quarter of the abductions are carried out by professional gangs. Reporters in Baghdad have also said that a prevalent form of crime is carjacking, where drivers are shot or pushed out of cars, and women abducted as the car is driven away.
In July, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report based on interviews with women who had survived abductions as well as their relatives. They also gathered evidence of rape of minors and other women whose cases were ignored by authorities who tend to blame the victim. "Women and girls today in Baghdad are scared, and many are not going to schools or jobs or looking for work," the report said. The U.S. military has described cases where it has tried to intervene with Iraqi judicial authorities to release women and small children languishing in jail without clear evidence, and to help girls who have been raped and denied medical care in hospitals, but with mixed results.
Muhammad, who has obtained office space from the IWCP, says that her newspaper's circulation remains small because women are afraid to be seen reading it. The IWCP, a smaller, grassroots organization, is separate from the older Iraq Communist Party, which has representatives on the Iraqi Governing Council, a body in which the IWCP does not wish to participate because it opposes the occupation. Communists were persecuted under the Hussein regime. Today, they represent one of the few secular parties in a climate where most political groups favor affiliation with Islam. As in Pakistan and Afghanistan and other countries where human rights advocates have battled Islamists, the Communist Party has been perceived as a partner in the struggle against fundamentalism. Muhammad, a member of the WCP, says she plays down the affiliation, no doubt because of the connotations many have with repressive communist ruling parties in Eastern Europe, and also because the IWCP articulates a message that differs from some radical Communist Parties in the West.
In a 28 March interview with "Communist Youth," Muhammad said, "We do not encourage the masses to revolt against the American military attack, which will cause tremendous life loss and may preserve the Fascist Ba'ath regime. Our true challenge begins the moment the dust settles down, in dispersing, organizing, and steering the protests and rebellions towards the formation of workers councils, of women's groups who will be the giant that awakens to take over." What would likely swell the ranks of this movement is if a pro-American government of conservatives takes power, she says. "I find it very hard for 10 million women in Iraq to live in a status of inferiority under a potential pro-American rule that is planning to give way to political Islam to crush all women's aspirations in a decent future," she said in the interview.
While fear of attack for becoming visible on women's issues, as well as reluctance to associate with a more radical party, may be factors limiting the number of adherents to Muhammad's group, another factor is simply competition from other groups of all sorts. Some groups have wealthy and influential foreign sponsors, either from the Iraqi diaspora or Western government programs. Such groups tend to focus less on "high-impact" human rights campaigns, for example issues like honor killings, and more on "low-impact" negotiations for economic and health benefits. Several observers have raised the concern that the women's movement is being divided among those who oppose the occupation from the perspective of more radical politics and focus on issues like honor killings; moderates who feel an emphasis on such dramatic issues is misplaced and who prefer to work for change in cooperation with the CPA; and conservatives who are trying to mobilize women to support an agenda that essentially suppresses women's rights. All of these groups are vying to build a broad, grassroots, and ethnically diverse base.
In an effort to find common ground, in October, some 200 women from around Iraq gathered at a conference at the University of Babylon in Hilla, about 100 kilometers from Baghdad. The conference was sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Transition Initiatives and the American Islamic Congress in order to discuss how women could improve their situation. Participants included leaders such as Lina Abood, a doctor of gynecology and obstetrics and founder of Awakening Iraqi Women, and Hind Mikya, an educator who recently visited the United States. They, too, are concerned that women have been left out of the process of drafting the constitution, "The Boston Globe" reported on 9 November after interviewing the women on a speaking tour in the United States. While women have the right to vote, the practice of "family voting," where men vote for their female relatives, is widespread and the lack of education also impedes informed voting. These Iraqi women leaders have also expressed concerns about too much haste in drafting the constitution, as well as U.S. troops pulling out too early.
Speaking at the University of Babylon conference, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, called for an "effective role and voice for women" in drafting the constitution, AP reported on 7 October. The meeting, held over four days, had many tense debates, as some conservative women advocated a majoritarian rule and an emphasis on an Islamic state and others, such as Zainab al-Suwaij, described as a devout Muslim and granddaughter of a prominent religious scholar in Al-Basrah, urged the separation of religion and state, defenddemocracy.org reported on 13 October. Protest banners against the conference and threats against some of the speakers were made. Two women were nominated by participants to replace the late al-Hashimi on the Iraqi Governing Council.
Recently, 30 women also convened at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, including the first woman judge in Iraq, the female minister of reconstruction and development in Kurdistan, and the president of the Assyrian Women's Union. The women called for including at least 30 percent of women in governing bodies and the establishment of a national women's collective council. The women leaders also asked for a full-time gender expert to be assigned to the U.S. reconstruction program and promote contracts for women-owned businesses. For these women, many with exposure to democratic societies, not only equal rights, but a separation of powers and freedom of religion and human rights were also essential. Now it remains to be seen whether they will convince their fellow citizens who believe otherwise.
BELARUSLYCEUM BATTLES IN COURT, INTELLECTUALS PLAN CONGRESS. An independent Belarusian academy, closed by authorities before the start of the school year, is still refusing to bow to pressure from the government to disperse children to state schools (see "Belarusian Parents Struggle for Independent School," "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies," 7 August 2003). Parents and teachers of 120 pupils at the National Humanities Lyceum, named after Jakub Kolas, a 20th century Belarusian poet, are meeting in private homes now that a Catholic church and the Union of Writers, which had initially promised meeting space, were harassed by officials into reneging on their offers. Uladzimir Kolas, principal of the school, told "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies" in an interview this week that several parents who are lawyers are continuing efforts to sue the government for its unjustified closure of the school, citing laws guaranteeing the right to education in one's native language, and stressing that Belarusian is an official language of Belarus, alongside the Russian language. The Kolas Lyceum was the only high school remaining in Belarus where classes were taught in Belarusian
The school's lawyers first approached a regional court with the suit, but the judge refused to accept it. Next, they tried a district court and were also rebuffed; now they are trying to get the case reviewed at the Supreme Court. Parents say that the government's claim that the school's building needs urgent repairs -- along with replacing the school's director -- were motivated by purely ideological considerations. The lyceum, once accredited by the Education Ministry as a school within the state system, began to fall into disfavor with the government earlier this year, as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka launched a new ideology training program in the schools and began to bring previously independent-minded schools into line, firing Education Ministry officials in the process and installing more loyal enforcers. "Before, there were professionals in the ministry, people who had moral principles, but now, there are people who are simply prepared to do what they are told," laments Kolas.
"Officially, the school is nowhere," says Kolas about his life's work, because authorities have closed the building for construction and dismissed him from his post, after first attempting to impose another educator who did not speak Belarusian. Yet the students are not giving up. Each one had passed a stiff entrance examination for the privilege of studying in an institution with higher educational standards than most state schools, and their families do not want to back down on their bid for a higher education of their choice. The school's reputation for excellence attracted even the children of government officials, says Kolas, noting that for him, the ultimate irony came when the press secretary of the prime minister who signed the decree to close the school also wished to continue to send his child to the independent school. The prime minister himself lost his post in one of the purges of government leadership, which has been the hallmark of the Lukashenka regime.
The children at the school, ranging from 13-17 years of age, come from various walks of life. Some are the offspring of prominent opposition leaders from groups such as the Belarusian Popular Front or Charter 97, but others are from ordinary working-class parents or even officials. All had come to appreciate not only the instruction in the Belarusian language, but courses in history, culture, and philosophy that stressed national and European traditions rather than the Soviet-style methods of education. The school has functioned for 14 years and has repaired the building as needed, often at the expense and time of parents at the school. The sudden claim that urgent reconstruction was needed was a specious one, says Kolas, and added that other schools have also faced difficulties, including the International Humanities School, whose courses in Jewish studies were disliked by the Orthodox Church.
President Lukashenka's vision of a state ideology that will permeate schools and other aspects of public life is rooted in what he terms the "values of Eastern Slavonic civilization." These appear to be an amalgam of old communist nostrums and nationalistic themes that actually are a hollow form of the kind of genuine Belarusian identity sought by the lyceum and other cultural preservation efforts. In this belief system, Belarus can even cast itself as the keeper of values that Russia ostensibly is no longer capable of maintaining, says Kolas. Naturally, Russians aren't happy to hear this characterization, and it adds to the strain in Belarusian-Russian relations.
This new "Belarusification" is a mutated form of nationalism, a state ideology that is mainly designed to keep the existing leadership in power, not strengthen the true sovereignty and culture of Belarus. "The 'Eastern Slavonic values' concept mainly appeals to those on the margins of society without a national consciousness," says Kolas, such as Russian speakers in the former Soviet republics whose standard of living has fallen and who now find themselves a minority in Russia's "near abroad." Kolas says he believes that Lukashenka has ambitions, with the help of the Belarusian secret service (KGB), to spread this ideology through the former republics of the USSR by linking up with their old soulmates in other security services in the region.
While Kolas, a filmmaker by profession, intends to keep pressing for his school to remain functioning, he has also become active in broader causes to try to save his country from Lukashenka's major assault on civil society. Nongovernmental groups, parties, trade unions, independent newspapers, and religious bodies have all been hounded or closed in recent years. Kolas has been a force behind the creation of the All-Belarusian Intelligentsia Congress, an organization of 700 intellectuals formed to try to address the major issues for the nation and the parliamentary elections in 2004, and has been chosen as the chair of its council of 50 members. Among those who strive to keep alive the cause of the late Vasil Bykau, the celebrated national writer of Belarus, are Ales Pashkevich, a writer, Ales Marachkin, a painter, Radzim Haretsky, a geologist, and Ryhor Baradulin, a poet. Kolas notes that in Minsk, pollsters say some 70 percent of respondents oppose Lukashenka, yet only 15 percent of them support existing opposition parties. He says he believes that other forms of organization are needed outside the parties in order to capture the 55 percent who are looking for alternatives. "The idea is not to lose this very important chance" represented by the elections, says Kolas, and to keep the focus not so much on opposition duels over party lists but on across-the-board issues like changes in the electoral law to make it possible for representatives of the opposition parties to obtain seats on the Electoral Commission.
Asked about the popularity of Lukashenka and the conventional wisdom that even in a fair election, rural residents would vote for the former collective farm chairman, Kolas commented, "In fact, nobody really knows how they vote, because the opposition does not sit on the election commissions." Results are falsified, monitors are not given access to polling stations, and journalists are not allowed to run exit polls, Kolas says. There is also the difficulty of the lack of a viable free media to learn of alternative candidates and their platforms, he noted, saying that local cable stations who wanted to keep their licenses would not stray into coverage of opposition leaders.
At first, some members of the parliament controlled by Lukashenka, the National Assembly, attempted to help the lyceum and also appeared willing to mount some kind of credible opposition to the president as he passed one after another restrictive law or decree. But now that effort appears to have collapsed, says Kolas, and patriots were not going to wait for it to regroup, given the very real threat that Lukashenka is increasingly rumored to be planning another referendum or parliamentary maneuver to grant himself a third term. Kolas and his colleagues plan to convene their congress in March and believe the authorities will not attempt to stop them.
Kolas says he does not believe that Russia will move to get rid of Lukashenka any time soon, regardless of the Kremlin's professed unhappiness with his policies. Still, much in the balance hangs on Russia's behavior toward Belarus, especially if, under the guise of conceding Western concerns about Lukashenka, Moscow were to attempt to install a "Chekist," or figure with the kind of KGB background for which President Vladimir Putin is known. It seems a dangerous moment for Belarus, because neighboring countries, who have provided some modicum of support for Belarusian opposition and cultural initiatives, are preoccupied with joining Europe and also are not eager to annoy Russia, especially when West European leaders are reaching a understanding with Moscow.
RECOMMENDED NEWS LINKSBELARUS National Humanitarian Lyceum (in Belarusian). http://www.licej.org
GEORGIA "Opposition Prepares To March On Capital As Government Allies Occupy City Center." http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2003/11/19112003182220.asp
IRAQ Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). Formerly the Committee for the Defense of Iraqi Women's Rights and based in Canada, OWFI recently changed its name and opened offices in Baghdad to campaign for improvement in legislation and protection of women from violence. http://www.equalityiniraq.com
Women Waging Peace. Profiles of women "peace-builders" in Iraq and various activities in support of women's NGOs in Iraq. http://www.womenwagingpeace.net/content/conflict_areas/iraq.asp
"Climate of Fear: Sexual Violence and Abduction of Women and Girls in Baghdad," a report from Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/07/iraq071603.htm
RUSSIA "Russia's Ethnic Groups By The Numbers." The population of the Russian Federation is not only dwindling as a whole, but ethnic Russians now account for a slightly smaller percentage of the country's overall population than they did at the time of the last Soviet census in 1989 -- 79.82 percent in 2002 compared with 81.54 percent in 1989. The total number of Russians fell over that period from 119.86 million to 115.86 million. http://www.regionalanalysis.org/homepages/en/2003/11/20031119.asp