LIANE HANSEN, host:
In Iraq, women have long fought to grab a significant share of seats in the country's parliament. And with elections scheduled for early March, many female lawmakers in Iraq say they are still struggling to be accepted.
Quil Lawrence is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, and he joins us from Baghdad with more. Hi, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Hi, Liane.
HANSEN: You've been speaking with Iraqi women in government and civil society. How would you characterize the progress of Iraq's women's movement since the last round of parliamentary elections?
LAWRENCE: Well, the consensus was that there was sort of an advance and then a retreat. They have a 25 percent quota in the parliament, which was put in place by the American Occupational Authority. That was led, of course, by Paul Bremer. And there was a campaign by Iraqi women, a grassroots movement, to push him to veto a proposed law that would've changed Iraqi family law and set it back decades. And this was seen as a victory for grassroots women organizing to defend their rights in Iraq.
Unfortunately, when security started to fall apart in 2005, 2006, women's rights and women's security seemed to fall apart with it. Women were sort of the most vulnerable in a society that everyone felt vulnerable in. This was a point that was made by Manal Omar, who's been working with women's NGOs here in Iraq for years. She's currently with the U.S. Institute for Peace, and here's what she had to say.
Ms. MANAL OMAR (U.S. Institute for Peace): Now, 'cause of security in 2005, I would say everything related to women, and a lot of development, particularly women's issues, froze. So it's almost like we're just picking up now. So the last few years - and it was, I mean, you know, by all accounts it was the dark ages of Iraq. So it was very difficult for women to be able to step forward. I mean, their primary objective was to stay alive.
LAWRENCE: So, Ms. Omar actually said that the fragile success of the current security situation means that women's rights are just getting back to zero. But again, that's just as fragile as this current situation we're in, in Iraq.
HANSEN: Well, let me ask you, are the obstacles for Iraqi women the same this time around?
LAWRENCE: They're similar, but they're a bit harder perhaps. The family law is a good example. Women back in 2003 and '04 felt they had a victory in preventing a much more conservative law from being passed. Iraqi law passed in 1958 was some of the most progressive law on women's issues in the region. But in the interim, at the same time the security situation was falling apart, the constitution was passed. And that had an article in it - Article 41 - which might be interpreted to give local judges the authority to interpret family law.
So perhaps in the Kurdish north or some of the urban centers, there might be judges who would interpret that quite liberally - things about divorce, inheritance, child custody. But in more conservative parts of the country, in the Shiite south or parts of the Sunni triangle, the judges could be quite conservative. So women's groups are just starting to organize around this again.
HANSEN: Are the issues of women's rights a priority among the candidates who are running for office in Iraq?
BOWMAN: Well, when I asked this of these four or five leading women's activists we talked to, they more or less agreed, no. Women's issues kind of get discussed in the periphery. And one of the women I spoke with said that they were sort of intimidated to bring up women's rights per se. They said they thought they had a better chance of just discussing general things about security and welfare, trying to improve everyone's lot, and hoping that that tide would lift all votes at least some.
She pointed out that if you say women are the victims of this, then you're sort of pointing the finger at who the oppressor would be, namely men, and people aren't really feeling safe enough, secure enough to start doing that yet.
HANSEN: Who are Iraq's female parliamentarians, and how do they identify politically?
BOWMAN: Well, that's something of a sore point because many of the women who were brought in seemed to have - and they're quite able politicians - but they seem to have other connections. That was a point that was made by Hana Edward, who is one of the women's activists I spoke with back in 2003 and 2004. And she said she thought that most of the women parliamentarians at the moment were beholden to - sort of the traditional power brokers here in Iraq.
Ms. HANA EDWARD (Activist): The majority have been chosen not from women movement; they were chosen because of family relations or tribe relations or very narrow political party relations. And they are not strong women leaders. They are just women. They want to obey what the leader will say, so they will say yes. And this is - unfortunately, we need to develop the leadership of women who they are - when they are occupying such high position.
HANSEN: Quil, what role has the United States played in the forthcoming elections?
LAWRENCE: We asked the embassy about that, but we didn't get any comment from them. Informally, I know there's a lot of concern that U.S. help on this issue has focused on, kind of bricks and mortar projects. So they've been building these new women's centers with computers and all sorts of high-tech facilities. But some women's rights activists are complaining that they were just throwing money at the problem without really looking to see whether these centers will be used.
On the other hand, it can be a hot-button issue, and some of these activists expressed some optimism that U.S. taxpayers can be very sensitive to bad publicity around women's issues here in the Muslim world. And so they thought that that was something that the embassy could still give a push on.
HANSEN: Looking ahead a bit to the March vote, what kind of progress do Iraqis in general hope to make?
LAWRENCE: I think everyone's still waiting to see if this current security situation can hold. We've seen some high-profile bombings since August. There have been three of them that targeted government buildings, and it's really rattled people. Especially by the third one, I think, people I was talking to, who had been optimistic six months ago, are quite scared now.
And they're hoping that Iraq can make a transfer to a new government, that government can hold the security situation together, but they're really not sure how long that'll take or how it'll go down. Many of them seem to be waiting for the next attack.
As for women's leaders, I would say they're hoping for more serious positions. One expressed an interest in getting a woman as defense minister or interior minister, at least in one of the ministries that has the purse strings so that a woman can be in a position of power and really start using her influence in a high-profile way that would be a role model to Iraqi women.
HANSEN: Quil Lawrence is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief. Quil, thanks a lot.
LAWRENCE: Thank you.
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