Iraq’s nearly 1 million war widows desire progress. Like men, women seek opportunities to feel normal again. But in a patriarchal society, women understand that men are central to their survival. Therefore, we can only hope to improve the lives of women in Iraq by making sure that men are included in any gender-based project.
The spectacular news of a female suicide bomber in Iraq is a showstopper. Not surprisingly, female suicide bombers receive the greatest attention in the media. But women who care for and nurture the next generation are more important to the future of Iraq.
Women who engage in non-violent activities in a war-torn society represent a powerful human resource for their country. They are members of parliament, community leaders, health officials, lawyers, educators, and importantly, the mothers of Iraq.
If we care about rebuilding Iraqi society, then we must mobilize women. This requires support from Iraqi men. Without them, women will not have a chance at survival, equal employment, equal access to higher education, or equal rights as citizens. By empowering women in Iraq, the United States has an opportunity to promote long-lasting change.
The U.S. government is taking slow but steady steps to include women in the political and economic process. The U.S. government is holding more private sessions with Iraqi women in an effort to understand their needs and improve their daily lives. In a recent email from a U.S. commander, I was asked to join a women’s conference this year aimed at recognizing women’s issues.
Other organizations in the United States are focused on helping women cope with trauma. An American psychologist is raising funds for a women’s trauma center in Diyala, where women have taken part in suicide attacks.
All these initiatives are positive signs of progress, but will take years to result in change for women who have long suffered from years of occupation. Hence, the war is not yet over.
To make sure that we win the war in Iraq, the United States should demand more support from Iraqi men. Too often, men allow women certain freedoms if it benefits them. For example, the often-glamorized U.S.-sponsored Daughters of Iraq program is a wonderful initiative but is likely to fail if the Iraqi government – controlled by men – do not allow women to do more than just search other women.
For now, the Daughters of Iraq program provides women with an income. But these are desperate women who have no other means of survival. An Iraqi woman who once worked at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told me, “The program will never work in the long run because the religious conservatives can’t accept a woman in a uniform. In Iraq, security is a man’s responsibility.”
In recent years, men in Iraq perceive women as a threat to their stability. This is especially true as more women in Iraq detonate. To detect the bomber under the veil, men began to hire women for the sole purpose of looking for female suicide terrorists. As authorities began to arrest would-be female bombers, it became apparent that women could pose a serious threat to civil society. But how do we know that all the women that have been detained since the war are terrorists?
In reality, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of women languishing in jails throughout Iraq on terrorism charges. It is unclear how many of these women have been charged for committing an actual crime. There is no accurate figure of how many women in Iraq’s jails are murderers vice mothers.
At a recent lecture at Rutgers University School of Law, where I presented my work on women in Iraq, I met an American lawyer, Vincent Warren, the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He told me he met many women being held at Abu Ghraib because they are believed to be accomplices in terrorism – they allegedly have a husband, brother, or son in the al-Qaida organization. What we don’t know is if the female detainees support their violent men or are falsely accused.
Of the accused, jail is the worst rehabilitation center in Iraq for women. When journalist Anita McNaught was first to interview Rania, the 15-year old girl with a bomb hiding under her veil, she called to tell me, “This girl has a horrible future. She will be abused by men behind bars. She would have been better dead than alive.”
Outside of jail, women are calling for change. The country’s nearly 1 million war widows desire progress. Like men, women seek opportunities to feel normal again. In a patriarchal society, women understand that men are central to their survival. Therefore, we can only hope to improve the lives of women in Iraq by making sure that men are included in any gender-based project. As men are gatekeepers of Iraq, as well as obstacles for reform, we should demand that men develop policies to protect the rights of women – the mothers of the nation.
(This article previously appeared in the Middle East Times. Photo by Jim Gordon)
Farhana Ali is a senior fellow with the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism. She is a former U.S. government political officer and policy analyst with the RAND Corporation. She lectures widely on women in conflict in the Islamic world, which is the focus of her forthcoming book.