Iraq’s Excluded Women

Building democracy in Iraq will prove impossible without immediate leadership from the country's forsaken majority: its women. But while the Bush administration trumpets women's rights in the Middle East, it neglects to back words with action. The failure to empower women would condemn Iraq to the fate of its Arab neighbors -- autocracy, economic stagnation, and social malaise.

It was August 2003 in the Iraqi city of Najaf — long before the holy city’s takeover by Muslim cleric Moktada al-Sadr — and U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin faced a dilemma. Arriving at a swearing-in ceremony for Nidal Nasser Hussein, Najaf’s first female lawyer and Conlin’s selection for a judgeship on the local court, he encountered a gaggle of demonstrators protesting her appointment. Despite their relatively small number (about 30 in a city of more than half a million), Conlin relented and delayed Hussein’s appointment indefinitely.

Sadly, this episode of sacrificing Iraqi women’s political participation to pacify vocal minorities is hardly anomalous. Although the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush extols women’s advancement as a centerpiece of its Iraq strategy, good intentions have seemingly substituted coherent policy. The administration devoted millions of dollars to women’s professional training via the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the U.S. entity created to run Iraq until the sovereignty transfer on June 30, 2004. But after Bush ended major combat operations in May 2003, the CPA undermined its own good work by allowing Iraqi women to become a bargaining chip in political negotiations with powerful religious parties.

The United States thus made the classic mistake of sacrificing long-term stability for political expediency. Failing to include women in Iraq’s government notifies other countries in the region that women’s political engagement is not, in fact, the pillar of democracy the West portrays. Ultimately, such failure could undermine support for the U.S. mission in Iraq by reinforcing the notion that Washington used human rights as a pretext for war rather than committing to it out of principle. Moreover, it condemns Iraq to the fate suffered by its Arab neighbors: autocracy, economic stagnation, and social malaise caused by sidelining half — or 60 percent, in Iraq’s case — of the population.

The political and religious climate in Iraq practically guarantees that if women are frozen out of a nascent Iraqi government, their chances of breaking through later are slim to none. For Iraqi women, it’s now or never.


Both supporters and critics of the war in Iraq politicize the history and status of Iraqi women. In the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration deployed the rhetoric of "rape rooms" to justify the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, critics of the invasion note that women in Iraq had considerably better educational and professional opportunities under Hussein than did many women in the region.

Conditions for Iraqi women have certainly deteriorated since the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Today, mothers who can read have daughters who cannot, and the older generation often displays more modern views than the younger. Those who recall pre-Hussein Iraq remember women’s political activism. The Iraqi Women’s League was founded in 1952 but forced underground by Hussein soon after the Baath Party took over in 1968.

Members kept in touch as exiles and recently reconstituted the league in Baghdad with the aim of maintaining women’s involvement in the new government. Although the Baathists usurped Iraqis’ political freedom, women’s advancement fit the party’s secular, nationalist agenda, and it established a Soviet-style General Federation of Iraqi Women in 1969 with branches throughout the country. Women’s educational and professional prospects improved, particularly in the fields of education, medicine, and engineering, and women became breadwinners when their husbands left for the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Many of these gains were lost during the economic depression that followed international sanctions in the 1990s. Men took priority in the shrinking job market. Families pulled girls out of school to work at home, and female literacy plummeted. Iraqis increasingly turned to religion for solace, sharpening the divide between the country’s Shiite Muslims (who constitute roughly 60 percent of the population), and Sunni Muslims (who account for about 35 percent). Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, launched a "Faith Campaign" in the early 1990s that attempted to co-opt the support of conservative religious leaders while eradicating Shiite leadership, rolling back women’s legal protections in the process. Nevertheless, Shiite Islam’s influence grew steadily throughout the 1990s, chiefly because its focus on social justice attracted the poor and oppressed and also because Hussein’s crackdowns strengthened Shiite solidarity. This growing religious divide mirrored an increasing gap between rich and poor Iraqis that radical Shiite leaders such as Sadr would later successfully exploit. 


Following the U.S. invasion in March 2003, the CPA attempted to elevate Iraqi women’s status through educational programs, job-skills training, rights awareness, and networking — no easy feat in a country isolated for more than a decade. But women in Iraq today need immediate political representation to secure those long-term efforts.

Unlike other post-conflict situations — wherein international bodies such as the United Nations dispatch civilian experts to handle political negotiations — Iraq has seen coalition forces take the lead in establishing local governing councils and appointing local administrators, particularly in rural areas. Nongovernmental organizations have helped Iraqis build political coalitions and take other steps toward democracy. But when it came to political appointments, the military was usually the only game in town.

In Iraq’s volatile security climate, women’s empowerment did not concern military personnel on the front lines of nation building. "We didn’t give special considerations to engaging the women," recalls Lt. Col. Carl E. Mundy III, now a federal executive fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Mundy commanded a Marine battalion during the invasion of Iraq and handled post-conflict operations in the Al Qadisiya province. "My concern was not stepping where I shouldn’t step, or dragging a woman in there that would anger the local men," he explains. "Maybe once security has been established to a certain degree and most people are back to work, then you can start working around the edges at fair representation of both sexes."

The problem with this approach is that involving women becomes considerably more difficult after U.S. forces entrench conservative religious clerics and tribal leaders in positions of power. "Women may have greater voices in urban areas, but they remain under the hold of tribal leaders and religious clerics in rural areas," observes Hind Makiya, founding director of the U.K.-based Iraqi Women’s Foundation.

The United States set a disastrous precedent even before the invasion of Iraq by creating a government-in-waiting led by an exile group almost entirely bereft of women. The CPA appointed only three women to the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, and Minister of Public Works Nesreen Berwari is the only female in the Cabinet of Ministers. Although more than 80 women serve on city, district, and neighborhood councils in Baghdad, far fewer serve in the 18 Iraqi provinces, and none has been appointed a provincial governor. Worse, no women were appointed to the 24-member constitutional drafting committee, which produced the document currently serving as the interim constitution.

The drafting process guaranteed women’s underrepresentation. The CPA declined to demand a mandatory number of female-held seats in the future National Assembly, despite support by Iraqi women’s groups and Sunni statesman Adnan Pachachi (an influential member of the Governing Council), because the Bush administration didn’t want to contradict its anti-affirmative action policy back home. Safia al-Souhail, a leader of the Bani Tamim tribe in central Iraq, scoffs at such squeamishness and dismisses non-Iraqis’ concerns that enforcing women’s representation violates indigenous culture. "They’re forcing a lot of changes on this society. Why not force this as well?" she said. "Suddenly, women’s rights are the red line?" 


In February 2004, then council president and Shiite cleric Abdelaziz al-Hakim introduced Resolution 137, which would have abrogated Iraq’s 1959 Uniform Civil Code for family law, giving religious courts jurisdiction over matters such as inheritance, marriage, and divorce. Women organized protests in Baghdad and urged American CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer to pressure the Governing Council to repeal the resolution. Council member Dr. Raja Habib Khuzai, a former hospital director and founder of the Women’s Health Center in Baghdad, led the fight. Although she won support from moderate Islamic leaders and convinced the majority of the council to overturn the resolution, a CPA staffer later told her that she had "chosen the wrong time" to pick a fight with the council’s Islamists.

Bremer tried to reassure concerned members of the U.S. Congress. "Women’s rights in Iraq will be protected by Iraqis, men and women," he wrote in a March 2004 letter to Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York. "Some elements here wish to make Islamic law the law of the land, but they are neither a majority nor close to constituting one." He cited a poll finding that two thirds of Iraqis support equal legal rights for women.

Yet the will of the majority is hardly reassuring in a country traditionally tyrannized by the minority. According to Makiya, self-declared moderates and conservative council members alike have skipped council meetings to prevent the necessary quorum from voting on issues affecting women’s lives and political participation. "Meetings behind closed doors and unholy affiliations are examples of men desperate for power as an end in itself, rather than as a means for social and economic reconstruction," Makiya says.

These maneuvers have compelled many women to turn to clerics for protection, Makiya adds. "We have to rely on a moderate religious leader such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to fight for our rights, as so-called Iraqi liberals barter away our rights amongst themselves," she says. Some Iraqi women have sought and received pronouncements from Sistani (Iraq’s most respected Shiite cleric) supporting their participation in government.

By cultivating the support of true moderates such as Sistani, U.S. and Iraqi leaders will be able to preempt a backlash against women’s reforms. But if they take the shortsighted approach of delaying women’s progress and participation to avoid provoking extremists such as Sadr, they’ll set a precedent that will be hard to overcome. Warns American Islamic Congress Executive Director Zainab Al-Suwaij, "If we don’t push for women’s rights and representation right now, then forget about it later on." 


Iraqi women are reconciling the principles of their faith with the chance for new political, economic, and professional identities. Even women from the most conservative regions of the country are enthusiastic about becoming involved in public life, says Zainab Salbi, who runs women’s centers across Iraq through her U.S.-based nonprofit organization Women for Women International. A group of Shiite women seeking funding for a women’s center in their hometown of Karbala recently told potential donors that they wanted room for a prayer space alongside that for computer terminals and English lessons.

Ultimately, greater political participation by women could provide Iraq with a stabilizing force needed to stave off the potentially disastrous division of the country into ethnic states. Despite Iraq’s diversity, "women are not a monolith, and neither are Sunni women or Shiite women or Kurdish women," says Susan Kupperstein, senior program officer for the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute’s Iraq program. However, women have a shared stake in their economic and social development that impels them to transcend regional, ethnic, and religious divides. "I detect a great spirit of unity among Iraqi women," observes Charlotte Ponticelli, senior coordinator of the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Women’s Issues.

It is not too late to secure meaningful political representation for Iraqi women. U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s plan to install a technocratic caretaker government until democractic elections are held could bypass the dangers of a rushed vote that might solidify the base of extremists most likely to limit women’s rights. Although the situation in Iraq is constantly changing, Brahimi’s plan currently places governance in the hands of a president, two vice presidents, and a prime minister. Khuzai is pushing for the appointment of at least one woman to this quartet to ensure that the executive branch has the same 25 percent representation prescribed by the constitution. "This is the only way we can encourage women to participate. Otherwise they’ll think it’s only promises," Khuzai says. "The time is now." 

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