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US, Women's Rights Groups Work to Raise Status of Women in Iraq, Afghanistan - 2003-05-28


As post-war work continues in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government is teaming up with advocates of women's rights to try to raise the status of women in the two countries.

Reconstruction efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq are providing the opportunity to improve the status of women in both countries.

Rend Rahim Francke, executive director of the independent human rights group, Iraq Foundation, said she became convinced of the need to advocate for women's rights in her homeland after participating in two meetings there to determine post-war Iraq's future government.

Seventy-five people attended the first meeting, but only four were women. Ms. Francke said the second meeting, which brought together more than 300 participants, only included three women.

"I must say that those trips to Iraq opened my eyes to a serious problem that we [women] have. And as a woman, not just as a woman really, but as an activist on civil rights and human rights, I felt that if we are defending the rights of prisoners and defending the rights of children and so on, then women's civil and human rights also have to be defended," she said.

Women also are facing difficulties in Afghanistan. Minky Worden, from Human Rights Watch, said she is concerned that the post-Taleban gains made for Afghan women there are being rolled back.

"Outside of Kabul, we have found that there are women being bundled back into the burqa, denied education through a number of administrative restrictions, and even cases of women, women and girls, who are seen on the streets alone and picked up and hauled off to hospitals for virginity tests," she said.

Ms. Worden said these violations against women are occurring with the knowledge of Afghan warlords, some of whom are U.S. allies.

Charlotte Ponticelli, the senior coordinator for international women's issues at the State Department, said U.S. officials have expressed their serious concern to the Afghan government.

"Where the deficit is right now is not a lack of will from the central government to address it or a lack of will on our part, but we need to make sure that steps are actually implemented then on the ground to address some of these concerns. So, it's one of those things that's evolving that is of serious, serious concern," she said.

Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky, said outreach to Muslim-majority countries on women's rights is one of Washington's top priorities.

"And we warmly welcome the opportunity and efforts to interpret Islam in a way that advances women's status and addresses their needs. Our own emphasis, however, is less on theory than on concrete cooperative projects to improve women's lives, particularly in education, economic opportunity and political participation," she said.

For example, Ms. Dobriansky said the State Department has been working to ensure that Iraqi women are actively engaged in the country's path toward democracy.

"We have just proposed, in fact, a significant program of women's civic education, leadership training and voter registration activities in Iraq. We're also brainstorming with non-governmental organizations and others about identifying qualified Iraqi women who can be very engaged in the political process, who are qualified for public service and leadership positions," she said.

Do culture or religion explain why women have lesser status than men in many Muslim countries? Mahnaz Afkhami, of the Women's Learning Partnership, a non-governmental group dedicated to advancing the status of women in developing countries, said she doesn't think so. She points out that a woman was among the earliest converts to Islam.

"It's very important to refer back to role models. To important heroines of Islam's own history. We also refer to Khadija, the Prophet's wife, also his employer and the first woman to become a Muslim," she said.

Ms. Afkhami adds that culture is not fixed and is always evolving. She says she believes Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Iraq will inevitably change as they become more developed.

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