- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

Iraqi women must organize in order to ensure their rights in a new democratic system, the lone woman in Iraqs Cabinet said yesterday.

“The window of opportunity was opened with the liberation of Iraq,” Nasreen Barwari, minister of municipalities and public works, told a Washington luncheon audience. “Iraqi women are capable, are educated, are willing, are ready” to be a part of the political process.

As members of the Iraqi Governing Council signed an interim constitution yesterday in Baghdad that included a goal of 25 percent female representatives, a panel sponsored by the United Nations and comprising women from Iraq, Turkey and the United States used International Womens Day to call for further progress.

Panel member Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, urged Iraqi women to take advantage of existing social structures to improve their networking and to focus on empowering women economically as well as socially.

Iraqi women have demonstrated their power, using marches and protests in the past month to force the Iraqi Governing Council to repeal a law that would have made family matters subject to the strict Islamic Shariah law.

As a result, “women now feel confident,” Mrs. Barwari said.

But Anita Sharma, director of the Conflict Prevention Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said these achievements must be sustained and the laws must translate into practice on the ground, something that has not always happened.

During the Baath Partys rule, the constitution technically granted many rights to women, but Saddam Hussein issued edicts that violated the constitution, including legalizing honor killings.

Postwar security issues also pose a problem for women in Iraq. Mrs. Sharma said many women are wearing tentlike robes in situations and places they wouldnt have before the war.

Authorities also worry that women will not leave their homes to vote in elections in January if they do not feel safe.

Although cultural traditions in Iraq have excluded women from social and political life, Kurdish women have enjoyed more rights than their Baghdad counterparts since the Kurdish region gained some autonomy in 1991. Mrs. Barwari, a Kurd, said they can use that advantage to push the rights of women to the forefront.

Iraqi women have made progress on the local level, winning seats on city councils in Baghdad and other communities for the first time. But whether this type of success will be repeated on the national level remains to be seen.

“My greatest fear is that the 25 percent will be reached, but by candidates put forth by men,” said Rend Rahim Francke, the Iraqi envoy to the United States.

Cultural barriers to women holding power stem not only from men, but also from women, she said.

The diplomat said she is “haunted by the January 2005 date for elections,” because Iraqi women dont have enough time to field independent female candidates who can persuade men as well as women to vote for them.

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