Friday, May 23, 2003

Women’s liberation may not be a totally foreign concept in American-occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, but it will be years before there are many signs of it, a panel said yesterday.

But participants in the discussion, sponsored by the conservative-leaning Independent Women’s Forum at the National Press Club, were adamant that U.S. foreign policy should agitate for expanded roles for women in both countries. In meetings of emerging Iraqi leaders convened by U.S. forces, only a handful of women have been represented, panelists complained.

Also, out of the 35 persons involved in the drafting of a constitution for Afghanistan, only seven were women, one panelist said.

“We are going to be vigilant about the involvement of women in the political process,” promised Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for global affairs. “Women are a bellwether of democracy in Muslim societies.”

In authoritarian states, women are the first to lose their rights, she said, whereas democracies are known for enshrining women’s rights. Thus, part of the U.S. effort to build democracy in Iraq must include promoting women.

But first, Mrs. Dobriansky said, Iraqi cities must be made secure enough so that women will feel safe enough to travel within the country.

“I’ve heard the specious claim that Iraqi women have it pretty good compared to the rest of the Muslim world,” she said, adding that one-quarter of all Iraqi women cannot read and only 20 percent can find work of any sort outside the home.

To address this, the State Department is touting a Global Summit of Women, slated for June 28-30 in Marrakech, Morocco, which focuses on women’s economic development, women in government and in corporate leadership positions. Morocco will be the first Arab state to host the summit.

Two other panelists stated that the United States is uniquely powerful at this time to influence world history and politics. The rights of women, they said, must be built into the legal framework of countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan — both of which are currently drafting their constitutions.

Current Iraqi law discriminates against women in a “far more subtle” way than does Afghanistan, said Rend Rahim Francke, executive director of the Iraq Foundation, a pro-democracy group. Much of the Iraqi legal code had come from the Egyptians who in turn had borrowed from the Napoleonic code, she explained, but starting in the 1980s when the Ba’ath Party tightened its grip on power, laws were passed preventing women from traveling outside the country without a male guardian. Government offices were forbidden to employ women in certain positions.

Shariah (Islamic) law, which discriminates against women in terms of divorce, rape protection and inheritance rights, is a looming possibility in a new Iraq, panelists said. Mahnaz Afkhami, a Shi’ite Muslim and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership, a nongovernmental organization devoted to women’s rights, said Shariah law provides far more rulings on women and the family than in areas such as business or banking.

Coalition forces in Iraq plan to award an interim governing authority of Iraqis with the task of writing a new constitution and other judicial reforms. But there are calls, Mrs. Francke said, for this document to state that Iraq is “a Muslim country.”

“But we have a Christian minority so I am sure the Christians would object,” she said. Her preference: a statement that Iraqi law “will be inspired by the values of Islam.” This skirts the dangers of Shariah law, she said. But will this satisfy Iraq’s radical clerics?

“We can’t have a statement saying we will separate mosque and state,” she said. “We must be very subtle, clever and ingenious at this.”

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