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Political Leaders Need to Protect Women's Rights, Says President of Women-for-Women International


Women are poised to play an increasingly decisive role in Iraqi politics in the aftermath of the January 30th election. But many women who were elected to parliament have indicated an interest in replacing civil laws on “family status” - laws on marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance - with Islamic or Shari’a law that some analysts say could roll back many rights of women.

However, Zainab Salbi, president and founder of Women for Women International, a nonprofit organization that provides emotional and monetary support for women in combat zones, suggests Shari’a law would not necessarily curtail women’s rights. 

Speaking on VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, Ms. Salbi, a native of Iraq, says - while civil or secular law is preferable - the debate over Shari’a versus civil law is not black and white.  She points out that laws governing family matters in conservative Saudi Arabia and liberal Tunisia are both called Shari’a.  What matters, says Zainab Salbi, is how Shari’a is interpreted and applied, not the label itself.

Ms. Salbi said her organization has done a survey of women in three Iraqi cities to understand better what Iraqi women think about the future.  In addition to complaints about lack of water, electricity, housing, and employment, Ms. Salbi noted that 94 percent said protecting their legal rights was the “most important thing.”  But, Iraqi women differed over whether they thought religious or secular law would provide the most effective protection for their rights.

When asked about whether Iraqi women are better off today than they were before the war, Ms. Salbi noted that under the secular rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women were also victimized.  Furthermore, she said, economic sanctions negatively affected Iraqi women.  For example, middle-class mothers might have been educated, working women, but their daughters stayed home, and poor women often did not send their daughters to school.  In post-Saddam Iraq, Ms. Salbi says the threat comes from insurgents with fundamentalist tendencies who have been targeting educated professional women for assassination. She says that, unless the insurgency is eradicated, women’s rights will be the first to suffer.

Ms. Salbi’s organization, Women for Women International, has assisted more than 25,000 women by distributing nearly $18 million in direct aid and micro-credit loans, by helping women start their own small businesses, and by training them in human rights awareness.   Ms. Salbi said she was inspired by her mother, an independent, college-educated, Iraqi woman, who helped her appreciate the issues women often deal with – such as physical violence, disparities in decision-making, and their own silence in the face of suffering.  Ms. Salbi said that’s because women survivors of war believe that whatever they experience is “not only about themselves but also about their families and their honor.” 

According to Zainab Salbi, helping women victims of war begins with recognition of their immediate, physical needs as well as their emotional needs.  She said it involves a commitment for a whole year.  During this time, Women-for-Women International provides training in vocational skills and in human rights.  In Afghanistan, for example, women are taught cutting stones for jewelry, carpentry, and embroidery.  The goal is for women to progress from victim to survivor to active citizen.  Furthermore, the women meet every two weeks for a year in small groups to talk about women’s rights.

Zainab Salbi said her organization works with the most marginalized women who would otherwise “fall through the cracks.”  But she noted that in her experience middle-class victims are the group most likely to keep silent because they have far more to lose – such as their family name and honor.  Ms. Salbi explained that domestic violence affects women around the world, so she said they talk about how American women also suffer from domestic violence, which helps women victims of war understand that their problem is universal.  

Zainab Salbi said Women-for-Women International has also developed a training program for men in leadership positions regarding women’s rights.  She explained that one cannot be a good leader without acknowledging what 50 % of the population is asking for.  In Nigeria, for example, her organization works with traditional chiefs regarding female genital mutilation and widowhood practices.  And in Bosnia and Iraq, women are learning how to deal directly with their elected officials regarding their needs.  According to Ms. Salbi, women are an indicator of the direction of the larger society.

Zainab Salbi warned that political leaders “always use women as a bargaining chip” with religious groups.  And she noted that, when women are not at the negotiating table, they end up “being negotiated.”  She said that pattern prevails, whether the leaders are religious or secular.  According to Ms. Salbi, political leaders need to protect women’s rights because the welfare of the whole society ultimately depends on it. 

Women-for-Women International is based in Washington, but also has offices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria. Most of its budget of $10 million a year comes from private contributions. 

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.