The Promise of Iraq

Maysoon al-Damluji
14 November 2005

Maysoon al-Damluji returned to her homeland for a week in May 2003, and stayed for two and a half years. She tells Rosemary Bechler about why she stayed, and her work with Iraq’s women’s movement.

Maysoon al-Damluji was sitting in a Bayswater coffee-shop, being hailed and hugged by a succession of friends, when Rosemary Bechler met her for this interview. Their greetings had the air of a conversation satisfactorily regained after a short, frustrating interruption. But there was nothing brief about it. The Iraqi exile had returned to her homeland for a week in 2003, and stayed for two and a half years. She has served as Deputy Minister of Culture under two administrations, in perhaps the stormiest period in Iraq’s history. She kindly kept her friends waiting a little longer…

openDemocracy: How did this happen, that you stayed on, and what has it done to your life?

Maysoon al-Damluji: Oh God – you should ask my accountant! I returned on 1 May 2003, shortly after the invasion. I was only supposed to stay one week or ten days at most. But I decided to stay when I found there was so much work to be done. At first, it was always an immediate goal. Then: I will stay for one month until the elections, or two months until the referendum. Somehow it never let up. In the last two and a half years, I feel I have achieved much more than I did in many years before that.

Six months after my return, I was asked to become the Deputy Minister for Culture. I have always been interested in my native culture. When I lived in the UK, I spent a lot of time promoting it – ancient Iraqi culture, Islamic and modern. So it was natural terrain for me in helping to rebuild the country. The other development that has kept me going is my work mobilizing Iraqi women’s voices.

openDemocracy: You are a founder-member of the Iraqi Women’s Movement?

MD: That’s right. I was politically active as an exile in the UK – never on women’s issues. But at that early stage, well before Iraq’s Governing Council was formed, there were very few people who came from abroad and who had the connections to make things happen. There was a dearth of people to work with, especially women on women’s issues.

Against a background of rapidly spreading extremism, which was having a particularly regressive impact on the lives of Iraqi women, on 9 May we invited a few women to what was meant to be a small meeting in the home of Dr Adnan Pachachi, Chairman of the Iraqi Independent Democratic Party. Dr Mahdi Al Hafedh, the party’s Vice Chairman, was present, and later became the Minister for Planning for Iraq. But each of the women we asked invited a few more and no less than fifty women came, all very clear and specific about what their vision was, what they wanted for the new Iraq.

We held a larger meeting a fortnight later at the Alwiya Club in Baghdad, and five hundred women attended. We worked out a statement of nineteen general principles that we could all agree with, voted on democratically, in a series of meetings. We are now called the Iraqi Independent Women’s Group. I was elected President in our first elections, and since then we have been learning by trial and error. We had no model to follow, but have learnt from our mistakes. We now have a monthly magazine that disseminates five thousand copies.

Then as now, the issue these women were most concerned about was security. There is an unalleviated concern about the future, especially for their families and children. This hasn’t changed, as you can imagine. Next, individual rights – especially the right to dress as you wish, without the hijab. Then as now, we looked to the international community for support – the international community, the media, and international organizations such as the UN.

On its fifth anniversary, openDemocracy asks, “what has UN Resolution 1325 achieved?” Other articles in the debate include:

Srilatha Batliwala, “Women transforming power?”

Lesley Abdela, “1325: deeds not words”

Jeremy Greenstock, “Illuminating gender – 1325 and the UN”

Elisabeth Porter, “Women and security: ‘You cannot dance if you cannot stand’”

Maj Britt Theorin, “Women among paper tigers”

Nicola Johnston-Coeterier, “When women and power meet”

Nicola Dahrendorf, “Mirror images in the Congo: sexual violence and conflict”

Maria Livanos Cattaui, “The Women Vector”

Susanne Zwingel, "CEDAW: the women formula"

Mobina Jaffer is interviewed by Rosemary Bechler

openDemocracy: Since that time, how has your movement progressed?

MD: So much has happened. Two of our members were murdered. The first was in the early days of the Governing Council. Dr Akila Al-Hashimi, who had just become a member of the Council, was murdered in August 2003. In November 2004, another founding member – Dr Amel Mamalchi, who was an advisor at the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works – was murdered in cold blood. Two other members had their husbands murdered. From the beginning we made it clear to every single member that this might happen to them. They were all aware of the dangers of being visible, active women, and they still are.

Nobody in Iraq feels safe today. The security situation is terrible and it can be profoundly demoralizing. But it hasn’t scared the women off. Even in the worst circumstances they still show up for meetings. We’ve had car bombs go off a few hundred yards away more than once. It becomes very humbling when around the corner fighting breaks out, or a bomb goes off, and you see these women picking their way through broken glass and the scattered limbs of the victims. They insist on carrying on. This determination places you under an obligation. I sincerely believe, from my experience, that women in general are far braver than men. I cannot explain it. Others might call them reckless. But they are very brave.

openDemocracy: On 29 August this year, at the Iraqi Women’s Movement press conference on the first draft of the constitution, you expressed fears that the draft, if passed, will not do enough to protect the rights of Iraqi women, giving too much power to religious authorities at the expense of civil rights. Did you get any response?

MD: We didn’t get much response to those press conferences, but we are now more hopeful about the constitution process as a result of a recent ruling that the constitution can still be amended in the first four months of a new parliament. Some of us have been working on the new legislation relating to Article 39, which states that “people are free to choose their personal status according to their own religion, sect, belief and choice, and that this will be organised by law.” We are trying to give this legislation some shape. Another Article states that the Supreme Court will consist of experts in sharia as well as judges – we are calling for a further ruling that the experts would have to have at least a law degree, and that the judges should have had at least ten years’ experience. This lobbying group calls itself the Promise of Iraq.

openDemocracy: Yanar Mohammad of the Organisation for Women’s Freedom has been the sole Iraqi voice in openDemocracy’s Women Making a Difference blog. On the eve of October’s referendum on the constitution she wrote to say that she had been lobbying fiercely for women to boycott the referendum.

MD: I know her well: I went to school with her. I love her dearly. She is a wonderful person, but I don’t agree with everything she says. This would have been absolutely stupid, because we would have had no voice. Either vote no – fair enough – or vote yes! To boycott would do nothing for the constitution. We would simply have done the extremists a great favour.

openDemocracy: Her arguments were twofold: that the constitution doomed the women of Iraq to live under laws invented fifteen hundred years ago: and that it destroys Iraq’s unity by basing everything on national, ethnic and sectarian divisions. She concludes that the majority of Iraqis – women – are being asked at the point of a gun to vote for a so-called democracy that spells out enslavement and degradation for them…

MD: Her first two points are absolutely true. But her conclusion is not based in fact. I met with leaders of women’s organizations as well as my own organization to discuss this, and it was not easy to arrive at a decision about how to vote. We felt that saying ‘yes’ would be bad for women, nationally, in so far as it sent a message to Iraq and the world of endorsement of the constitution. But voting ‘no’ would set the political process back by six months, and the Iraqi people are sick and tired of governments that last no longer than that. People need more stability: we have to keep the process going forward. When, on the eve of the referendum they agreed that we would be able to amend the constitution in the first four months of a new parliament, this changed my mind. I decided to vote ‘yes’. When people asked what I thought, I refused to urge them one way or the other, but I told them my decision. Before, I had been convinced it was a betrayal of my cause to vote ‘yes’, but that to say ‘no’ would be disastrous.

But on another of Yanar’s points. I live and work in the Red Zone. I try to avoid the Green Zone because it is hazardous moving in or out of it. I was against military intervention in Iraq. I went on the marches against it, because I hoped for a political, not military, solution to bring an end to Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, I have to say that the Americans have not ‘interfered’ enough in the constitution process.

They invaded in 2003. They made the change, made a number of good and bad decisions, and a few months later, they appointed an ambassador, John Negroponte, who wasn’t interested in Iraq and decided to adopt a ‘hands-off’ approach. The new ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad is a little more involved. So when we talk about an ‘invasion’: true there is an American army there. Everybody, including myself hates it, because young soldiers can be rude and arrogant. They have detained me on many occasions. Once I got one American officer sent home in disgrace. I couldn’t prove conclusively that he was involved in corruption, but it was enough to have him recalled. I simply don’t like young men with guns. An army is an army whether it is Gengis Khan or, as they claim, the most modern army in the world. But this one – believe me – is not interfering in politics. American civilians are different. They are truly interested in the advancement of civil life in Iraq. I have become good friends with a number of American civil servants.

I have to be true to the people of Iraq, rather than to some ideology. Being sincere on their behalf, I feel the American army has to stay, unfortunately. It is not a benign presence. I would like them to organize themselves outside the cities’ precincts somehow, in their own camps. They should be called upon if needed and otherwise stay put. Meanwhile, Iraq must prepare to defend itself and run its own affairs. That is what I want to see. I don’t like to see tanks in the streets: it is scary and horrible. But this doesn’t alter my belief that their withdrawal would have grave consequences: we could end up in a civil war. At the moment in Iraq it is very unpopular to say this.

openDemocracy: Given the threat of a civil war, how divided are the women’s movements?

MD: The range of groups represented in the Iraqi Women’s Movement, though quite wide, does not stretch as far as the main Islamic political parties, especially the Shia. Even those who agree with us in private would not say so in public because they would lose their parties’ support. They have their own women’s groups, but I believe they are not very active.

It is a point of pride with me that the Iraqi Independent Women’s Group has always influenced the party I belong to – the Iraqi Independent Democrats – on issues concerning women, not the other way around. Most if not all of the other political parties, by contrast, dictate to the women’s groups that are affiliated to them. The first time it was put to the vote, my party voted for Resolution 137 of the constitution, which called for a return to sharia law on the family. But we intervened and made them lead the fight against 137. The second time, it was our leader Dr Pachachi, who, as Leader of the House for that period, allowed a new vote, and we voted against.

openDemocracy: You have worked under two different Ministers of Culture, haven’t you?

MD: Yes, the first was a Communist minister – we have quite a few communist parties in our system. He was from the mainstream Communist Party and we got on well. The current minister is an Arab nationalist. That is more problematic, but not because of ideology. This was a politically opportune appointment and he is not well acquainted with the cultural brief. But he has come a long way in the last six months. We are closer now than we were.

openDemocracy: There is room for progress in ‘politics as usual’ – room for you to get something done?

MD: Absolutely.

openDemocracy: In the western media, we have heard little about how Iraqi women have responded to this political process. There have been, as Inge Relph put it in our blog, ‘lots of pictures of women voting but not a word about what the constitution might mean for them.’ If we gained any impression, it was that women in Iraq are not really interested in politics. They are more interested in their day-to-day conditions.

MD: This is certainly not true. Of course they are interested in electricity, water, and security! But there is nothing a-political about these things. If a woman sends her child to school every day and can never be certain if the child will return safely, this is a major concern. It is hard to live without electricity and water – these are the basic rights of modernity! We cannot go back to the nineteenth century. It is impossible. But listen – Iraqi women might not be interested in party politics. This is a different matter.

Security is their main concern. A woman should be able to walk in the streets without fear of a car bomb or a suicide bomber, or being shot at by Iraqis or insurgents or Americans. If it is not murder, it is kidnap, and if not that, then something else horrific! We have a complete lack of security, and security means everything.

I lived in Iraq until 1981. There is no doubt that conditions for women were better then than they are now. Having said that, for the first time women now have the right – not just the privilege – to become decision-makers. For the first time we have a number of ministers, deputy ministers and under-secretaries – women in all walks of life. No less than 25% of any future Iraqi parliament must consist of women. This is only a beginning. But it is a good beginning. Eventually it will become a culture. And the right women will emerge. At the moment it is only numbers, not necessarily quality. But it will become quality. This matters enormously to women throughout Iraq.

I don’t know who told you otherwise: but it is wrong. We women are screaming as loud as we can to communicate with the international community – so I think this must be some fault within the media. Let me tell you something – I am proud to have played my part in this 25% gender requirement for the Iraqi parliament. Shall I tell you how it happened?

“Fighting violent conflict – an online conversation.”

For further insight into the discussion on issues surrounding resolution 1325, see OpenDemocracy’s “women making a difference” blog

openDemocracy: We’d love to hear about it.

MD: It’s funny, but life is full of odd coincidences. Several people in the Governing Council came up with a draft constitution. I was living in the same neighbourhood as Dr Pachachi when he was assigned the task of pulling various documents together into what later became the Transitional Administrative Law. Dr Pachachi appointed two lawyers specializing in constitutions to work on it. One of them happened to be a cousin with whom I am close, Feisal Amin Istrabadi.

At this time, women had been demanding 40% representation in the Iraqi parliament but no political party would look at it. So I said to Dr Pachachi, ‘why don’t you take the opportunity to introduce a clause giving women 40% representation?’ He brushed me off with a laugh, saying, ‘What are you thinking of?’ So I took the suggestion to my cousin, who said, ‘Well, it’s an idea…’. I told him this was one of the recommendations in the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and he began to warm to the idea. He said, ‘Dr Pachachi used to work for the UN and he remains very interested. Why don’t we look up that clause and show it to him?’ So we looked it up on the internet and took a copy to Dr Pachachi who said, ‘that’s interesting!’ He wasn’t convinced, but he had a soft spot for anything to do with the UN, so he took it into the debating chamber. They all laughed it off – including the women on the Council. And it was then that it suddenly became Dr Pachachi’s personal mission to secure a 25% clause in the Iraqi Constitution!

All the Islamists were completely against it. But they were voted down. When it came to the current constitution in draft, the Islamists again tried to erase any clause guaranteeing the representation of women in parliament. This time, Islamist women who only arrived in the parliament thanks to the 25% clause we had introduced into the Transitional Administration, became advocates of the 25%. They refused to have anything less than the 25%. They had been totally against it: they now did a U-turn – which is good! I don’t mind that – all I care about is that they realize the value of this opportunity for themselves! Of course, I had been on the streets with other women demonstrating on this issue for months, lobbying people in parliament. But by accident, just this once, I was in the right place at the right time to push it into place.

Of course there are reactionary women on the Governing Council, but this is not a static situation. Take someone like Dr Raja Khazai: she started off extremely conservative. Now she has become a liberal. Even Dr Salama Al-Khafaji who was very conservative is not any more. You can win them. They see the point. The more you discuss issues with them the better, because it is more natural for them in a way, more normal for women to take their rightful place. Once they get into this position – they don’t want to let go. I am sure most of these women are less hardline than they were when they were appointed nine months ago.

I do believe that women approach issues differently. As an architect in the UK I worked in the construction business rather a-typically as a woman, and I found I could get more done leading a team than most men. One had more patience, a different approach to problems. But what these women have not yet developed is a distinctive approach to the political process as such. You need more self-confidence to get to that stage. Eventually they will. It is also true that so far, we have not seen a movement within Islam to investigate the Qu’ran anew for democratic principles. However, I have one thesis that I often repeat: that achieving justice is achieving Islam, not the other way around. And people in Iraq readily relate to that.

openDemocracy: How can women from other countries support you?

MD: We found the support from women around the world in our fight against Resolution 137 invaluable. Women are a great power and influence on politics the world over, and on Iraqi politics at this time. Women’s support worldwide, once made really clear, as it was with regard to our Resolution 137, will, I believe, be taken into account. I hope they will keep up the pressure and help Iraqi women to achieve the decent way of life they deserve. It is very important that women outside Iraq should write, speak, lobby – with us, against the regressive forces, and please note that I am not going to call them Islamist forces.

openDemocracy: Why not?

MD: Because some of the Islamists are very open-minded, I find. Some of them are more aware of women’s issues than many secular politicians. But it is important to make Iraqi women aware that they are not on their own, that they have support from around the world. That women outside Iraq can be vocal, and bring these issues to the attention of worldwide opinion, even if women inside Iraq are repressed and not allowed to do so – this is an important assurance for us.

On the 25% quota for women, an Islamist said to me, ‘This doesn’t exist in the west. Why do you insist on this for us?’ Even my current boss said that. So I said, ‘Look, if we emulate the west, you say, why are you imitating them? And if we don’t, you say, why don’t you? Can you please make your minds up!’

openDemocracy: Are women in the Iraqi Women’s Movement interested in what is happening to women in Afghanistan – do they look to that situation at all?

MD: Not at all, but they should. We managed to get five months’ funding from DFID for this magazine of ours, and writers from abroad. In the last issue, we had an article by a Malaysian commentator. I found it so interesting to compare these two Muslim countries. I think they have a very progressive interpretation of Islam. Like anything else, you can interpret it regressively or progressively – as with communism, or nationalism or liberalism.

openDemocracy: In Iraq, do you see your experiment in governance as part of a movement towards democracy in the Middle East, given developments in Egypt and elsewhere?

MD: I have followed events in Egypt: I am not sure if they are taking an ideal route to democracy. But I feel proud that Iraq has influenced women in the Gulf region. We now have women ministers in places like Oman and the United Arab Emirates: women in Kuwait are going to be allowed into the Parliament. For years they had been lobbying without any progress.

Democracy is a process of education, of culture, of economic growth. You cannot have it overnight. It didn’t happen overnight in the west. We are working hard on that. I believe it will happen, but it will take some time and a lot of persuasive power. The women’s movement doesn’t carry guns. We do not have a militia or anything like that. We work on education and culture. Incidentally, a constitution is not the be all and end all. It is just ink on paper. It is the culture that matters.

There is one more message I would like to give your readers and bloggers. It goes back to when we first raised the issue of a 25% quota, when everyone in the Governing Council was against us. Ambassador Paul Bremer was against us as well. The only person who stood by us then was the British Ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, along with the UN. He was widely respected, but his position was not the prevailing one at that time. Nevertheless, we won in the end! And I don’t think Iraqi women will ever allow this to be reversed.

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