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Monday, July 12, 2004

Back to the Burqa? 

Courtesy of Juan Cole, an article by Trudy Rubin of the Philly Inquirer that reminds us of one reason why Osama never liked Saddam to begin with:
Iraqi women are among the most advanced in the Arab world, with a long tradition of higher education and professional jobs, even in the Saddam Hussein era.

But during my recent trip to Iraq, middle-class women spoke to me about their fears of moving backward after the U.S. invasion. A temporary code of law drafted by American lawyers guarantees women's rights in coming months. But an elected Iraqi government could cave to growing religious pressures to curb those rights.

"I think women are left naked after July 1" when sovereignty reverted to Iraqis, said Manal Omar of Women for Women International. Her group, based in Washington, helps women in post-conflict societies. "In Afghanistan, you saw a bit of easing [on women's rights], but in Iraq we're going backward. We are fighting for the status quo."

Yet what is fascinating in Baghdad is that educated women are organizing to hold their ground. I visited Omar in the Mansour Women's Center, one of nine such centers set up with funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development. In one room, female leaders of fledgling nongovernmental organizations talked about how to organize on issues such as violence against women . . . .

The fate of women's rights will rest heavily on the outcome of Iraqi elections. Even under occupation, the former Iraqi interim governing council nearly pushed through Resolution 137. It would have rescinded a 1959 law that banned arbitrary divorce and polygamy and protected women's interests in child custody and inheritance. "Family status" matters would have been put under restrictive Muslim sharia codes.

Public protests by women's groups and pressure from U.S. occupation czar Paul Bremer canceled Resolution 137. But the issue of "family status" is sure to reemerge during elections for a constitutional assembly early next year, especially because the strongest political parties are based on religion . . . .

The buzz, among clusters of women, some heavily veiled, some in Western dress, was how to get women to vote.

Salma Jabbou, a senior official at the Ministry of Industry and Minerals, with blond hair uncovered, bemoaned the lack of security, which, she said, made the situation much tougher for women. She said Iraqi women's rights had taken a quantum leap in the late 1950s. When she attended Baghdad University in the 1970s, she "wore a miniskirt and T-shirt, and everyone wore the same."

But now, Jabbou says, "Because of the bad economic and security situation, there is a social reaction." Today, nearly every woman at the university is covered from head to toe. "If the security improves, society will develop more quickly."
The article has a link to WomenforWomen.org, where you can sponsor a needy Iraqi woman by donating as little as $25 a month. Says Omar: "We've only gotten 600 sponsors in Iraq, where we got 2,000 in Afghanistan in a year."

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