Fighting Iraq's new Taliban

About the author
Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy Editor. She chaired the National Peace Council and Peaceworkers UK and edited New Times before joining openDemocracy in 2000. For the British Council, she has edited four volumes of Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined (2003 – 2012) and written Unbounded Freedom – a guide to Creative Commons thinking for cultural organizations (2006). Her compiled volume on the Convention on Modern Liberty was published by Imprint Academic in 2010. Her PhD was on Samuel Richardson: she has reviewed literature for the TLS and politics for Political Quarterly.

Since the first two years following the invasion of Iraq, when many women attained positions of political power and recognition, Iraqi women have seen a dramatic reversal in their fortunes. For a recent high-level international conference at Wilton Park on women's participation in peace-building and decision-making, Iraq is a crucial case where United Nations Resolution 1325 should be making a difference to women's involvement in security and politics. But Hanaa Edwar Busha, one of the founders of the Iraqi Women's Network (IWN), describes a constant struggle on the ground, from obstruction at the highest political levels to violence and intimidation in the streets.

In the last elections, the number of women elected fell to the minimum Iraqi electoral law requires, from thirty-five percent to twenty-five percent. Women have lost sixteen seats in parliament, and have been marginalised in negotiations for government positions. "We have made as big a fuss as possible but are constantly told to go away, 'We are busy forming a government'." Only four women ministers remain in the thirty-seven ministries, not in the key ministries but in Women's Affairs, Human Rights, Environment and Housing and Construction. No women hold senior positions in the Presidential Council or the Military Council. "Only the very strongest personalities have managed to have any impact at all, and they have attracted criticism in the process. They are judged by different standards from the men in power. People say, 'Oh – they are not qualified, these women.' And I reply, 'No more are the men qualified for these posts. Why don't you criticise the men in charge of electricity or oil – they could have made a real difference.'"

Hanaa Edwar is general secretary of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association (IAA), and a founder of the Iraqi Women's Network (IWN). She has been at the forefront of campaigns for women's equality and to enhance women's roles in decision-making and the constitutional process. She was a member of the Secretariat of the Iraqi Women's League, 1981-1998. She sits on the presidency council of Asuda, an NGO working to combat violence against women. She was a member of the Board of the Iraqi Council for Peace and Solidarity for two years from 2003.

The biggest party in parliament is the Shi'ite Coalition, which occupies one hundred and fifty seats. Among them there are forty women members of parliament – but not one of them has been made a minister. "When we asked – what about your women having seats in the cabinet? – one Shi'ite Coalition woman MP took this up very vigorously. As the years go by, and these women gain experience and confidence about engaging in political life, there is hope that they too will want change and will no longer be happy to be used as mere instruments in the hands of their leaders."

Nor has there been sufficient international support. The United Nations has not applied enough pressure on the Iraqi government. While she has found the Wilton Park conference uplifting in its support for women's participation, Hanaa says the question remains as to what action will be taken. She believes the UN and donor countries must put pressure on governments and politicians. "We think they could do this quite effectively if they wanted to."

The conflict between women's human rights and political participation and appeasing the religious and tribal groups in a violent conflict is a familiar excuse. Appeasement continues in the new government and has been institutionalised under the US- and UN-led governance structure. Last year, even the UN Representative in Iraq cited reluctance to interfere in the "internal problems" of tribal and religious communities when the constitution was being drafted. "We had to put him right on this. We said: 'In Iraqi society, women have always played a very active role and this has been recognised and valued. How can we talk about equality in public life, if at home women find their rights subsumed by those of their husbands and fathers, or the children and the brother?' Now we are reviewing the constitution and argue that it should accord with international treaties on human rights and other treaties signed by Iraq. In the most recent draft, they have omitted this." Women's rights are being used as political currency.

The Iraqi Women's Network is trying to preserve family law and personal status legislation of fifty years' standing against calls for personal status to be governed by affiliation to religious sects or other groupings. "We are a society of many ethnicities and religions, so this will have a very negative effect on the unity of the social fabric and weaken the state apparatus and the rule of law. It will enable religious groups to interfere in the everyday lives of families, women as well as men. We need to defend citizens' rights to stand equal before the law. Women should have full citizenship rights. How can a woman aspire to high office if essentially her life is decided by the men in her family? It doesn't add up. Social equality is essential if you want to see women and men sharing political power."

Many women activists prominent in civil society, political parties or academia have been targeted and brutally killed in the conflict. Over the last two months in particular the violent campaign against women has escalated. Religious groups are trying to use the state apparatus to impose the veil on women and prevent them from wearing trousers or driving cars. Some new ministries are already saying that women who are thinking of coming to work for them should adopt the hijab. Activists have begun collecting signatures to challenge these developments, and are documenting them in readiness for potential court action. "Young people, especially young women are terrified. Every day you hear stories about women being terrified. And I can show you nicely produced materials exhorting young women to adopt the hijab and telling them how lovely it is – issued by an Iraqi minister, from the ministry. This is a real barrier to women participating in public life. Drive a few miles to the south of Baghdad, and you will find very few women now walking around without a veil. This is beginning to reach Baghdad itself. If the government starts to call for this – then we are in danger of forming a new Taliban."

There will be a vigil on 23 June for Iraqi Widows on International Widows' Day, at 3pm, at St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London (from Gender Action for Peace and Security).

At the local level, the priority is education. The majority of women now find themselves very isolated. Literacy levels are low, particularly in rural areas. The Iraqi Women's Network is developing a legal and social clinic service to advise women on their legal rights. A media awareness campaign links the question of national unity with the struggle against sectarianism, terrorism, and the need to establish peace and security, targeting TV, newspapers, broadcasters, and meetings with the leadership and political parties. They have organised large meetings in six ministries so far.

Meanwhile, the conflict continues to take its toll on the population. Every day between ninety and a hundred women are widowed – still young and a potential source of energy in rebuilding the nation. International organisations have a role to play in supporting them. "With the World Bank, for example, we say, 'If you really want to see stability in this country you have to think about an economic programme first and foremost. Micro-credit projects are desperately needed to help these people get started in a new, self-sufficient way of life. That is what these young women want more than anything else, otherwise their options are awful. Their fate is often in the hands of the male members of the family who confiscate their share of the inheritance. They don't want to sit and beg from the state or from their families. There is a lot of energy in these women – they can do a lot for themselves and for the economy." This avenue is vital for socially excluded women who have lost husbands and other male relatives and are newly responsible for a household.

Last week's conference on UN Resolution 1325 was the 816th Wilton Park Conference, organised in co-operation with the UK Government's Global Conflict Prevention Pool, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Canadian International Development Agency, and in partnership with Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS).

The success of such projects has been demonstrated by non-governmental organisations. In the 1990s, Hanaa's networks and the UN worked with three thousand women in Erbil on a two-and-a-half year rehabilitation project using micro-credits, which allowed them to set up education centres and health awareness clinics. "When we hear that billions of dollars have been earmarked for reconstruction in Iraq – we must ask: where is it? Is it all going into Jordan, to pay for the endless conferences and training workshops about Iraq held by the international agencies congregated there? This money could be used in Iraq. There are many safe places in the north, where I come from, and the economy would benefit enormously. For every ten people you can send to Jordan, you could send forty to the north of Iraq."

Hanaa sees women's political involvement as crucial to the reintegration of the men who have been fighting. "We want to emphasise how important it is that women sit there in the political leadership in these reconciliation initiatives. Otherwise all the talk about 1325 is just empty words. Women make up more than fifty percent of the population, more than fifty percent of public servants in Iraq. We have a long list of qualified women who are far better at resisting corruption than their male counterparts. But where are they at this critical point?" She hopes that the participants in the Wilton Park conference will put pressure on leaders to act, with concrete projects and programmes, so that their "fine words of sympathy" don't melt into thin air.