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Women Wonder What Role They'll Play in Iraq's Political Future - 2003-04-27

U.S. and Iraqi leaders continue their meetings aimed at mapping out the country's short-term political future. Women are starting to wonder where they will fit.

Iraqi women voice their complaints to the self-declared civil administrator in Baghdad. They want respect. They want jobs and help to survive. And, they want a voice in shaping Iraq's future.

For now, Iraqi women have more pressing issues that need attention.

Iraqi women have the right to vote, but law professor Mishkat el Momen says that is not enough. She says women need a special government office that will deal with women's issues.

"Social and civil rights are more important than political rights. Let women feel socially safe, civilly safe. Then let us talk," she said. "Under Saddam Hussein we have the right to vote. Do you think it is important that I have the right to vote, but I cannot put a sandwich in my son's mouth?"

Many Iraqi women have lost loved ones in Saddam's prisons and his wars and have had to raise families on their own with little help.

Mrs. Momen says widows and divorced women have suffered discrimination and neglect under Saddam Hussein.

"Iraqi women suffered a lot," she said. "First there was a direct damage. Many women lost their husbands and this was very difficult for them. They have to raise their children. They have to get money to raise their children and it was not a very easy job."

Mrs. Momen says divorced women like herself were treated with disdain and discrimination in the workplace.

"For men, when I worked at the university two years the dean refused my application because I was a woman. Yes, he told me that and the head of the department said the same words," she said. "I can not get a mission outside the country to develop my mind. Women are forbidden to go outside the country. Even if I want to travel, I cannot travel alone. My father should accompany me or my husband or my brother. Otherwise I cannot go outside the country. So it is not so easy to get a suitable job."

Many women have sought out Mrs. Momen for legal advice. She dreams of opening a women's center to provide moral, psychological, and legal support.

"I have an idea of starting a small union just for widows and divorced women because first of all I felt it myself what does it mean," she said.

Businesswoman Fadwa Shehab Ahmed has few complaints about her work situation. She ran a travel office before the war and hopes to reopen it soon.

As she adjusts her loose-fitting headscarf, Mrs. Ahmed says she is more concerned about the shape of Iraq's future government.

"We need a government that respects Iraqi and Muslim customs," she said. But, she cautioned, "not a strict Islamic rule that would curb women's rights."

In the political vacuum that has followed the end of the war, Iraqis express concern that fundamentalist Muslim clerics could grab control of Iraq's political future.

University student Souded Younis says she would never accept an Iranian-style government ruled by religious leaders.

"Saddam Hussein used to talk about religion, but not force us to wear chador and go to the mosque If they get the chance to rule Iraq, a Shia government, they will force us to do many things," she said

In the end, she believes the majority of Iraqis will choose a secular government that has "a religious dimension."

She also expects women to play an important role.

"I hope I can see a female minister in the government representing Iraqi women," she said. "We could have a woman who could run a newspaper and a magazine. We have not heard of these things before. I am sure we have this ability."

Souded Younis wants women included in the interim government that oversees Iraq's transition to democracy. After all, she adds, women represent half the population and cannot be ignored.