A Woman's Perspective

Iraqi women throughout the nation have had their eyes on the events currently enveloping their nation.

From the most socially and economically excluded to the more educated and well-established areas in the country, women have recognized that a potential window of opportunity is available through the nation-building process.

Make the Vote Count

Many women in Iraq were particularly concerned with the process of drafting the constitution, and women's rights activists were extremely worried by the arguments for introducing Islamic law, particularly with regards to the personal status code, which would determine marriage, divorce and inheritance issues pertaining to women. They were quick to point out that without a clear legal system, women could fall victim to courts that would be free to use their own interpretations of Islamic law against women.

Initially, there were many women's groups lobbying for a "no-vote" on the constitution, but with some of the last-minute adjustments many of these women have voted for the constitution.

One active women's rights activist living in Baghdad explained: "For months I was watching the constitutional process with worries. All my fears had reasons, but I had hidden hopes that led me to the idea that we must approve it as not to let the sacrifices of the past two years of blood and suffering be useless."

Due to the last-minute changes, the approval of the constitution during the October referendum was not seen as a defeat. Nonetheless, women have felt a need to mobilize for the forthcoming elections as the newly elected parliament will have a four-year term. While it was not viewed as a defeat, the constitution leaves women facing many challenges to secure their rights.

The last-minute adjustments provide women with a four-month window, and would need a two-thirds majority approval, to make changes to it after the Dec. 15, 2005, elections. Many women's rights activists welcome this window but feel, in reality and practice, any introductions to advance women's rights will have a slim chance of passing.

Not a Single Voice

It is important to emphasize that there is no monolithic Iraqi women's voice.

The voices of the women are as diverse and rich as the Iraqi population itself. Many competing views will be found on issues ranging from the elections to Saddam's trial. On one side of the spectrum are those women who support an Islamic state, and on the other are women who feel that an introduction of Islamic law would ensure the downward spiral of women's rights.

Women who support the United Alliance and a concept of an Islamic state are quick to point out that jobs have been created, and that women's rights will be well protected within an Islamic framework.

The women that come from a more secular background are quick to point to the rise of violence in the country, particularly against women, and fear that rights previously protected in earlier decades may be eroded in the new Iraq.

The need for dialogue between the different women's groups is essential if the Iraqi women are to successfully integrate important civil rights into the final constitution and the emerging legal and judiciary systems.

Although women's groups are determined not to see the window close before them, many women on the grassroots level are not optimistic. Women have served as a powerful force when it comes to the popular vote, and groups like the United Alliance have used women's numbers to their advantage. Yet most women have seen little to no change in their daily life. As a result, more and more women feel discouraged from voting. Nonetheless, women admit that there is more at stake in these elections than previous elections in 2005.

There is also a fear from women's rights activists that due to difficulties with security and a lack of information, many women still depend on their husbands' and brothers' political opinions, and there is a sense these women will vote with their husbands.

Despite the fact that there is wide disagreement among women, Iraqi women agree on one main objective -- securing their rights as their nation is being formed. Iraqi women are quick to point out that their rights are intertwined with the interests of the nation as a whole. At the top of their list of demands is security, electricity and economic opportunities -- issues that resonate with all Iraqi citizens.

Since 2003, women have made it clear that without their presence in the public square as part of the reconstruction process, no real progress can be made. Iraqi women have done their best to overcome difficult obstacles, mainly security and a pressing timeline, and recognize that their battle to ensure their rights is one that will last a long time.

One thing is certain -- it is crucial for women to be an intregal part of rebuilding Iraq.

The only way to have strong nations is to have strong women.

Omar is the regional coordinator for Middle East and North Africa for Women for Women International. Women for Women International helps women in war-torn regions rebuild their lives by providing financial and emotional support, job skill training, rights awareness and leadership training and access to business skills, capital and markets.