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September|October 2003
The Practitioner By Benjamin Smith
The Real Harm By Gabrielle S. Friedman
Standard bearer By Fred Strebeigh
A Bigger Tent By Katharine Mieszkowski
Profiling's Gender Gap By Daniel Brook
Coming Out to America By Tyler Maroney
The Love Charm A Story By Eugene Volokh
Ex Offender By Robert J.
In Defense Of Prostitution By Heidi Fleiss as told to Nadya Labi
My Gay Divorce By Laurie Essig

A Bigger Tent

By Katharine Mieszkowski

THE STRUGGLE FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOR IRAQI WOMEN is in many ways just beginning. Meanwhile, the temperature of the ongoing postwar crisis is often measured in their silent gestures. The conspicuous absence of women at Baghdad markets is said to mean that the streets still aren't safe. The appearance of the traditional head scarf on previously uncovered brows signals the rising influence of fundamentalist Islam. But this view of Iraqi women as symbols instead of political actors is a problem, and not one that the United States is solving, contends Dr. Shatha Besarani, the founder of Iraqi Women for Peace and Democracy, a London-based nongovernmental organization.

Dr. Besarani is a 40-year-old London gynecologist who fled Baghdad as a teenager in 1980. Her mother, once a leader of Iraq's Communist Party, had been in hiding for a year and a half when the family went into exile to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein's secret police. Early this summer, Dr. Besarani's group tried to organize a three-day tent meeting in Baghdad for 300 women—Kurdish, Sunni, Shia, Turkmen, and Christian—from Iraq and its diaspora. The goal was to ensure that women have a hand in shaping the new Iraqi government and constitution.

But the big plans for a women's tent meeting were rejected and then recast by the American government. Instead of supporting Dr. Besarani's group, Judith Van Rest, a newly appointed American official who is focusing on gender issues, convened a small one-day women's workshop in Baghdad in July. "I know that [Iraqi] women are participating who are backed by the Pentagon and other departments in the U.S.," said Dr. Besarani. "But women who are there on the ground, who suffered from the regime, cannot go and knock on a tank to ask to be present at the meeting." She herself went back to Baghdad to attend and reported that the meeting matched her low expectations. It "was all a set up which no one was happy with," she wrote in an e-mail to supporters.

The hijacking of their tent meeting, the activists charge, shows how the demands of Shiite clerics and Kurdish political leaders are taking precedence over those of the female majority (55 percent of the Iraqi population). Van Rest's appointment is the Bush Administration's response to the activists. Susan Hovanec, a senior advisor in the office of international women's issues at the U.S. State Department, couldn't provide any background information about Van Rest. But Hovanec said that the new appointee will "accelerate the participation of women in the political and economic planning in a liberated Iraq."

The dispute over the tent meeting aside, Van Rest will have plenty of accelerating to do: The interim governing council set up in July has three women out of a total of 25 participants, and Besarani's group questioned how they had been chosen.

The problem isn't that few Iraqi women are qualified for the task of nation rebuilding. Paradoxically, Hussein's dictatorship permitted a level of gender equality in Iraq not known in much of the Persian Gulf region; women could drive, work, and go to school alongside men, could travel abroad alone, and could even choose whom to marry. In the 1970s and '80s, a large class of professional women developed. Iraqi women lawyers number in the thousands, according to Mehabat Salih, a Kurdish lawyer now living in London, who practiced law in Iraq for seven years.

Some of these professionals escaped into exile in the early '90s, when Iraq's economy and infrastructure collapsed under Saddam's despotic rule and the international sanctions that followed the Gulf War. It was a time of setbacks for women. To court the country's fundamentalist leaders, Saddam introduced some extreme interpretations of fundamentalist Muslim law, or Sharia, into Iraq's penal code. With Article 111, he legalized honor killings in 1990, exempting men from punishment if they killed a female relative for disgracing the family by, for instance, having sex outside marriage. In June 2000, he began a campaign of beheading women accused of being prostitutes, exploiting the policy to murder women who were simply accused of opposing his regime or were related to men who had opposed it.

The return of fundamentalist Muslim law galvanized many Iraqi women exiles to organize against Saddam's regime. The only women's group permitted to meet was the official Baath Party group. The Iraqi Women's League, which was founded in the 1920s and which fought against fascism in the '40s, went underground. The group is now being revived in Baghdad, where Dr. Besarani is getting in touch with some of its nascent leaders. They are just beginning to organize again openly after nearly being wiped out during the years in hiding. Meanwhile, the women's groups in the Kurdish north that remained active during Saddam's rule—there are now 19 of them—and the groups of exiled Iraqi women abroad are in the best position to be heard.

The activists don't have many illusions about their chances of playing a significant role in the American-led reformation of Iraq. But they're determined to try. Dr. Besarani likes to talk about U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, unanimously adopted in 2000, which calls for women to participate at all decision-making levels in conflict resolution and peace processes. "The most important thing is to include Iraqi women in the reconstruction of Iraq, to start to argue for 40 percent representation of women in all levels of government," she said, conceding that a figure like 10 or 20 percent may be more realistic. She argues that this is a good moment for quotas because the first round of interim Iraqi government officials will be appointed rather than elected. When and if elections follow, female officials would have the experience to compete fairly on their merits.

Other Iraqi women exiles put reforming the law before getting women into office. The Iraqi Women's Rights Coalition, based in London, is calling for complete separation between religion and the state in Iraq, which means replacing Sharia with secular law. "Having women in high posts is fine," says Houzan Mahmoud, a 30-year-old antiwar activist. "But if the constitution is not a secular one, we will have tokenism, where laws are discriminatory against women anyway." Her group rejects the planned interim government as illegitimate, since it's being organized by an occupying force, advocating U.N. leadership instead.

It may seem beside the point to argue about the place of women's rights in a new Iraqi code of law, when civilians lack basic services like reliable electricity, telephone service, and a police force. But by the time the streets are once again safe for women to travel alone, it may be too late to push for better rights and more positions of power.

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for based in San Francisco.

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