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Iraqi Delegation Seeks Larger Role for Women - 2003-11-20

Earlier this week, President Bush promised a delegation of Iraqi women that the U.S.-led coaltion will continue to work to secure their country, even after a provisional government takes over sometime next year. The 17-member delegation is in the United States to promote the role of women in Iraq -- including a larger role in the new government.

Ala Talabani is a Kurdish activist who has seen a lot of change in the past 13 years in her homeland, which, even before the fall of Saddam Hussein, enjoyed relative freedom under the protection of the U.S. and British "no fly zone." Now, she -- as well as the rest of the delegation -- hopes to bring that kind freedom to the rest of Iraq.

Ms. Talabani tells VOA that she's finding an audience for her message among Iraqi women, although there are still some cultural obstacles to overcome. "It's a patriarchal society and religion always plays a role in our society. But again, I'm going back, it's all in the hands of women themselves," she says. "If I'm believing in women's equality, if I believe in change, I can do it."

Ms. Talabani and the rest of the delegation have been in the United States for the past two weeks for meetings with various U.S. officials and non-governmental organizations. The head of the delegation -- Raja Kabib Khuzai -- says the discussions were not limited to women's issues. "We have met top officials here and discussed the role of women especially in the constitution, the drafting process and the legislation, as well," she says. "Also I have raised the point of security and the creation of jobs for the unemployed."

Ms. Khuzai's colleague, Ala Talabani, agrees that the role of women needs to be addressed in a new Iraqi constitution. However, she says she was disappointed with the formation of the current Iraqi governing council, which includes only two women. She also notes that the committee that will be drafting a constitution has no women. But, she says, that has served as a wakeup call for Iraqi women to become more involved. "We are more than 55 percent of the Iraqi population," says Ms. Talabani. "That's why there's a very strong united voice among Iraqi women that says we want 50 percent representation in all political processes in Iraq."

To that end, Ms. Talabani says she has found support among American officials -- including President Bush and several members of Congress. "We're always talking, we have the strong voice but we need ears. We found it here, not only with President Bush -- he really supported the participation of women especially in this new political draft in Iraq," she says. "Also we found good ears in the State Department and defense, women NGO's and congresswomen and so many NGO's here."

In spite of the problems facing post-war Iraq, Ms. Talabani remains optimistic about the future of the country. She says since being liberated, Kurds in northern Iraq have been able to build a civil society. Now she says her mission is to take that knowledge to the rest of Iraq, and -- as experience has taught her -- it can be done. She says in the mainly Muslim Kurdish north, there are now shelters for female victims of domestic violence, as well as newspapers, radio and television programs for women. And, it's through those channels, she says, especially the media, that the campaign for women's rights can reach out to the rest of Iraq.