At a reception sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies late last week, the 20-member Iraqi Women’s Delegation met 20 American women who were described as Washington’s female “movers and shakers.” The Iraqi delegation’s ten-day visit to the U.S. is sponsored by the World Bank, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, United States Institute for Peace, American Bar Association, Center European and Eurasian Law Initiative, and Women Waging Peace–groups not especially known for backing the Bush administration or the war in Iraq.
One of the delegates, Lina Abood, who was a candidate for Iraq’s Governing Council, described her fellow delegates as “strong women.” As I interacted with them for several hours, it was very apparent; they had had to develop strength in order to survive in Saddam’s Iraq.
The delegation’s message is clear: The U.S. celebrity war protesters are far off the mark in criticizing the war in Iraq; instead, the protesters should be talking about how the totalitarian and racist policies of Saddam’s Baathist regime destroyed their nation and killed some two million of their citizens. The 20 Iraqi women praise the United States for liberating them and their country from 30-plus years of tyranny. Almost all know someone who suffered under Saddam’s iron-fisted dictatorship; all are grateful to see an end to fear and terror and are eager to realize their hopes for freedom and democracy.
When Mrs. Colin Powell was introduced at the reception, they cheered and started snapping pictures. When Mrs. Paul Bremer was introduced, they were awestruck; grinning from ear to ear, they clapped and bowed in appreciation. They begged her to come forward and speak. Both former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and undersecretary of state Paula Dobriansky received warm, enthusiastic receptions. All of us were asked to pose for photographs with the Iraqis.
The women expressed appreciation over and over again and talked with deep sorrow about the Iraqis who were executed, gassed, or mass murdered. They don’t even want to think about the torture chambers and the unmarked mass graves documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Pentagon files–18 tons of documents consisting of five million pages of atrocities. For the women in the delegation, the stories of Saddam’s brutality are all too true, as is the fact that women, especially, were targeted by the regime.
For them, talk of peaceful solutions is unrealistic; their personal experience belies any attempt at “containment” or “compromise.” Several of them were born during the terrorist regime and have never known peace in their homeland; all of them were affected personally by Saddam’s horror. They know that they cannot stop the Baathists without the United States’ military force. They know that they cannot institute democracy alone; they need assistance from U.S. peace forces.
All agreed, though, that America’s role was to help the Iraqi people achieve their dreams rather than to colonize the nation and shape it in America’s image. Many are equally determined that their country not be dependent upon the United Nations or be subjected to U.N. interference as they rebuild their nation.
They may share this viewpoint, but each of the women, though, has her own story and concerns about aspects of Iraq’s future.
Amina Al Jabouri, for example, graduated from London University with a law degree. She advises the local government in Kirkuk and works to establish women’s support groups. Along with Siham Hattab Hamdan, a member of the Baghdad City Advisory Council, Amina is concerned about safety and security issues in Iraq. Iraqis identify personal safety and security as their primary problem and these concerns have deeply affected morale. Siham spoke passionately about the need for trust. Trust, she said, is essential, but will be a long time coming after the brutality that the Iraqis endured under Saddam. In the uncertainty of postwar Iraq, trust will be even more difficult to establish.
The issues of trust and security were the elephants in the room all evening. It was obvious that these women had sacrificed greatly, and it was equally obvious that their presence in the delegation meant that they are willing to sacrifice everything–including their lives–to provide hope for Iraqis and a future for Iraq.
Asmaa Yousif Pauls Al-Chaderch, an electrical engineer, is founder of the Association of Christian Families. She reports that Christians are very concerned about their future in postwar Iraq. Many Christians are afraid; religious persecution exists and some Christians are leaving the country. Other reports indicate a general fear that any new regime will institute ethnic cleansing campaigns and that Christian persecution will increase if Islam becomes the official religion of Iraq. With so many minority non-Muslim ethnic populations (Arabs and Kurds, Turkomen, Chaldeans, and Assyrians), there is also concern that all tribal and ethnic groups be treated equally and that religious freedom and free speech be integral to the new Iraqi democracy.
The articulate Nassreen Haydir Qader Al-Bayatti, member of the Baghdad City Advisory Council and a microbiologist whose specialty is virology, told me that she wants to expand the infant-vaccination program. Raja Habib Dhaher Khuzai, an OB-GYN, medical professor, and founder of a women’s health center, is also concerned about babies in Iraq. She reported that the infant and maternal-mortality rates skyrocketed under Saddam. Those rates are going down now, but women’s health and infant care remain her major concerns for postwar Iraq.
These women are extraordinarily talented, articulate, and well educated. Previously, women couldn’t do anything in government; now there are 75-plus women on local councils. Twenty-nine women are training for the police force. Iraqi women are preparing for leadership in the new Iraq, but they will need training in democratic processes and political involvement. They are eager to help rebuild their nation.
President Bush is a hero to these women; they understand and appreciate what the U.S. is doing in Iraq. They love seeing the schools reopened and 1,200 of them refurbished. They are encouraged by the establishment of a women’s business center in Baghdad. They are deeply grateful for the money ($23 billion thus far) and materiel that the United States is pouring into the reconstruction of Iraq. They also understand the political risk that the president took by pursuing military action to oust Saddam.
Right now, American soldiers are doing the sacrificing and dying; they are the ones putting their lives on the line for Iraqi freedom. But at some point, the American soldiers and civilians will have done all that military might and reconstruction know-how can do. After the American soldiers are gone, will it–once again–be the Iraqis who die? These women, too, are putting their lives on the line, praying that after the soldiers are gone, peace will reign.
–Janice Shaw Crouse is a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, Concerned Women for America’s think tank.