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An Iraqi Feminist’s Journey - 2003-04-28

English Feature #7-37393 Broadcast April 28, 2003

Refugees from Iraq in the United States all have personal stories that reflect the difficulties – indeed, the dangers – of having lived under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Today on New American Voices, a member of Iraq’s small Christian minority talks about how she became a fighter, a feminist –- and an exile.

Katrin Michael was one of twenty-eight Iraqi women, mostly exiles, who just last week participated in a conference in Washington organized by the non-governmental organization Women Waging Peace on the role of women in post-Saddam Iraq.

“We try to support Iraqi women as much as we can from here, to use our experience from outside to bring it into inside Iraq. There was a lot of ideas, starting from the constitution, how we should change the civil laws to have reforms of these laws, how we should support Iraqi women to develop their economic situation, what we should do to improve civil society, to let women have a greater role in civil society.”

Katrin Michael’s interest in women’s issues grew out of her own experiences as a trailblazer of equal rights for women in largely Muslim, male-dominated Iraq. As a member of the small but ancient Christian minority living in Northern Iraq, in the 1960s young Katrin attended coeducational Catholic schools.

“I finished a high school where there were mixed boys and girls together. This was unusual, but I don’t remember absolutely that we had a problem with this. We were like brothers and sisters, we were doing good, and in opposite, all girls that were in the high school they were doing better than boys.”

At nineteen, she left home to attend Mosul University. She chose to study geology, a field until then not open to women in Iraq.

“Yes, it was unusual. We were actually the first group that studied geology. We challenged the law that they were saying, no, women are not supposed to go to geology, because this is [for] men, this is unheard of, but we were the first group [of women] to study this subject.”

In 1976, Ms Michael won a scholarship to study geology and petroleum engineering in Baku, Azerbaijan. By the time she returned to Iraq with a doctorate in petroleum engineering six years later, Saddam Hussein had seized power and was brutally repressing a Kurdish rebellion in Northern Iraq. Katrin Michael joined the Peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrillas fighting Saddam Hussein’s army in the rugged mountains of Kurdistan.

“I was there as a political woman advisor. As a Peshmerga woman I was in military uniform, and what we were doing, we were a group of women organizing action against the Iraqi regime, in different ways. I went to Baghdad in disguise, I was mobilizing women not to send their sons, their brothers, their husbands to join the army.”

The Iraqi regime, for its part, was determined to use all means to suppress the guerillas. On June 5, 1987, the Iraqi army dropped bombs containing mustard and cyanide gas on the Kurdish fighters. Katrin Michael was among them.

“I was blind for three days. My skin was burned. I had problems breathing. I lost my hair. Three days we were without food, without medical care, and I lost my friend, Rebar Ajeel, he died because of chemical weapons.”

A year later, after Saddam Hussein launched another deadly attack against the Kurds, this time with more sophisticated chemical weapons, Katrin Michael joined the thousands of Kurds fleeing to southern Turkey. Finding conditions there intolerable, she managed to escape to Syria. From there her saga took her to Algeria, to Bulgaria, to Russia, to Romania, and finally to Greece, where she received political asylum and for three years worked in a rehabilitation center for torture victims. In December 1997, Katrin Michael came to the United States. She says she felt at home very quickly.

“American people, they are very, very friendly. From the first day. When they meet you in the street, ‘Hello, how was your day?’ You don’t know this person, in the street, ‘Hello, good morning'. This is nice, it’s something friendly, you feel that something supports you emotionally.”

But while Ms. Michael thought that her troubles – and her travels – were over once she reached America, this proved not to be the case. A year after coming here, she applied for political asylum – unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

“They denied my case, because they told me you already have asylum in Greece, and then I appealed, I told them that I was in Greece temporarily and I didn’t have permanent residence in Greece, and secondly the only thing I had in Greece was my job, and I lost my job, for six years I am here in the United States.”

A month ago Katrin Michael received a notice from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that her appeal had been denied, as well. She now has three lawyers working on her case, trying to reverse the decision and let her stay in the United States. In the meantime, she continues working as a translator for the Iraq Foundation in Washington. Sitting in her small apartment on the outskirts of Washington next to a window framing blossoming cherry trees, she also dreams of a better future for her native Iraq.

“I want to see Iraq to have democracy, and I want all the groups to participate in the government. And the most important for me – woman to have a big role in the government, and woman to be a decision maker for Iraqi policy. Because woman, she is more patient, she is more tolerant, and she is responsible for raising children to be tolerant with each other. Saddam Hussein damaged our culture, he damaged our community, so we need to rebuild our community to live together, all groups, peacefully.”

In the near future Katrin Michael hopes to publish her autobiography, which she wrote in Arabic and is having translated into English. Its title - “From Violence to Non-Violence”.