ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Women in Iraq's parliament have rallied behind the former minister for women's affairs. The minister resigned earlier this month. She said she was frustrated by a lack of support from the government. That resignation points to the plight of many Iraqi women, especially war widows. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.
COREY FLINTOFF: Nawal al-Samarraie had served as Iraq's minister for women's affairs for less than six months when she created a stir by turning in her resignation. She complained she had never received support from the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and that her budget for projects had been slashed from about $7,500 a month to around 1,500.
Ms. NAWAL AL-SAMARRAIE (Former Minister for Women's Affairs, Iraq): I think it is wrong to stay as a minister without doing anything for my people, especially in this time and in this situation of Iraqi women, that an army of widows, violated women, detainees, illiteracy. Many, many problems we have. I had to resign.
FLINTOFF: Iraqi women's advocates have coined the phrase an army of widows to refer to the women who lost their breadwinners in the conflicts reaching back to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Samarraie says there are more than three million such women, most of them with children, who have no social safety net.
Samarraie, a 47-year-old gynecologist and member of parliament, says that part of the problem is that Iraq is a patriarchal society, where women are considered adjuncts of their husbands or fathers. And part of it, she says, is political expediency.
Ms. SAMARRAIE: I think they neglect it because they consider that women's issues is a secondary one, compared with what's going on in the street — violence and unemployed men.
FLINTOFF: Traditionally, widows in Iraqi society move back in with their extended families, but many families already have too many mouths to feed, leaving widows and their children homeless. An Iraqi widow can claim a small government pension, ranging from around $50 to $75 a month, which many Iraqis say is not enough for a family to subsist.
Not everyone agrees that Samarraie received no government support in her campaign to help widows. Haider al-Abadi, a leader of Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa Party, says Samarraie failed because she was an ineffective manager.
Mr. HAIDER AL-ABADI (Leader of Dawa Party): I believe that probably the reason she is chosen with not adequate research, I think.
FLINTOFF: Other male lawmakers say that Samarraie, who's a Sunni from the northern city of Mosul, was set up to fail for partisan and sectarian reasons. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular Sunni lawmaker, blames the main Shiite religious parties.
Mr. SALEH AL-MUTLAQ (Sunni Lawmaker): Should we expect from all parties - or is key to support women issue? I mean, it was a joke from the beginning, and they will never support it. And this poor lady, she was a minister for some time, but she didn't have any kind of financial support to support the women issues.
FLINTOFF: Samarraie's resignation stirred a mini-revolt among women in Iraq's parliament. Alla al-Talabani, a Kurdish lawmaker, says the women's caucus met for five hours to discuss ways of getting the minister reinstated, with the funding she needs.
Ms. ALLA AL-TALABANI (Kurdish Lawmaker): (Through translator) We work on work on establishing this ministry by setting up an independent council or independent commission for women's affairs in Iraq, with a good budget.
FLINTOFF: Nawal al-Samarraie says she is heartened by the promises of support, not just from fellow lawmakers, but from hundreds of phone calls that have besieged her office. She says she's wary though, and she wants the promises in writing.
Ms. SAMARRAIE: If they are serious and work with me, I'll have 50 women working with me. It will be wonderful, if they are. And I'll make them just write and sign: I will work with you without paying.
FLINTOFF: Samarraie says she'll take a few days to think about returning to her job.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.
SHAPIRO: The former minister told NPR today that she has written Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, requesting to withdraw her resignation. She said she has not yet received any response from the government.
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