Earlier this month, some 50 Iraqi women rallied in Baghdad's central square to urge the United States to include women in Iraq's interim administration.
Iraq-born Zainab Salbi is President and Founder of Women for Women International, a Washington-based group dedicated to help survivors of wars and other kinds of violence. "It's a critical moment in Iraqi history from all different sides," she says. "And from a woman's perspective, this is a critical moment for women as well, in terms of insuring their active political participation in establishing the transitional government as well as the reconstruction of Iraq."
Ms. Salbi says Iraqi women fear that exclusion from the initial stage of reconstruction does not bode well for their future. "This is actually a dangerous stage because this is a historical moment. We can start it right, making sure that women, who are 55 percent of the Iraqi population, have a very active representation and not symbolic women's ministry, but in every single aspect of the government and civil society. Or we can postpone that, and that would have a lot of repercussion on women's rights and I would say on the societal liberation in general."
Women's advocacy groups in the United States say the US reconstruction team has invited only a limited number of women to round-table discussions on the future of Iraq. Swanee Hunt, former US Ambassador to Austria and Chairwoman of Women Waging Peace, says "when women aren't invited around the table at the very beginning, generally what you hear from the people who are inviting people around the table: well, let's get this situation stabilized and then we'll think about the women, as if thinking about the women is a marginal issue."
Ambassador Hunt says another excuse for the lack of women's participation is that they have been unavailable or even invisible. "There have been lots of incidents of kidnapping of women and girls so much that it's becoming actually a restriction on women's movement outside of the door in Iraq."
Zainab Salbi says many Iraqi women have been in virtual hiding in their homes. But those who lost husbands or male relatives to Saddam Hussein's wars or prisons have had to go out and provide for their families. And they, says Ms. Salbi, are the most vulnerable. For lack of better protection, many women who used to wear western clothes now resort to covering themselves up in traditional robes and scarves. "Before, women who, for example, wore the traditional head scarf were a rarity and not a common thing. Now it's a common thing and not a rarity at all."
Establishing law and order is a priority in Iraq, no doubt. But Ambassador Hunt says the US authorities should not use lack of security as an excuse for excluding women from decision-making. "We are in charge of the security problem. If we were to prioritize that in Afghanistan and in Iraq, it would make a difference in terms of the women."
Swanee Hunt adds the United States must provide security for everyone in Iraq. But since the lack of security seems to hurt women the most, they should have a role in providing it. “The women should be around the table saying: here is what will make us secure and they ought to be brought in to the security forces."
Another threat facing women in Iraq is one of extremism. If religious fundamentalism takes over, it can wipe out decades of women's progress. Pamela Taylor of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting is currently training journalists in Afghanistan. "They always have a scarf over their head and they are very careful to be appropriately attired from head to foot when they are out on the street."
Women suffered drastic repression under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. With the overthrow of the regime, women can move about more freely, but harsh constraints remain. By force of habit or tradition, male relatives keep tight control of them. Ms. Taylor says they often get odd, sometimes hostile looks from men even on the streets of the capital, Kabul. “Apart from that, life is really very oppressive for women. You are always made aware that women don't go here and women don't do this and women don't go about without being accompanied by a man."
Iraqi women, on the other hand, have enjoyed a higher degree of freedom than women in any other country in the Middle East. Even under Saddam Hussein, when their status gradually deteriorated, they held one in five seats in Iraq's parliament, compared with one in 30 on average in the rest of the region.
Ambassador Swanee Hunt says there is no shortage of women able to help run Iraq today, if the reconstruction leadership would take advantage of them. "And during the Iran-Iraq war, a lot of women came into positions that men had held because the men were all fighting. So what you have here is a population with women who may not be as educated in terms of the numbers as men are, but you don't need more than 400 extremely well educated women to hold positions."
Charlotte Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues at the US Department of State, says that may change under the new US administrator for the reconstruction of Iraq, Paul Bremer.
"We have spoken directly with Mr. Bremer and we are working with him and his people to alert them to the pool of talent that is there on the ground and also again, we have several Iraqi-American women who, two of them I know are heading over this weekend. So, yes, Ambassador Bremer is very aware and is giving this a very high priority."
The United Nations, which recently made a decision to participate in the post-war reconstruction, also promises to aid women. Maha Muna is in charge of the Governance, Peace and Security Section of the United Nations Development Fund for Women. "We'll be there to support women in claiming their rightful stake and to ensure that the international norms and standards under SIDA are implemented and also to look at security council resolution 1325 which passed in October 2000 and that also talks about women's role as equal participants in peace processes.”
Zainab Salbi of Women for Women International says so far the support for Iraqi women by the West has been mostly verbal. "I have not seen anything practical yet, whether it is women's representation in these political meetings, or in the new formation of the different aspects of Iraq's government or civil society."
In the meantime, some religious leaders in Iraq have called for women to wear the head-to-toe burqa and no make-up. Zainab Salbi says including women in leadership roles now will help them to wear the clothes choose and maintain other freedoms in the future.