On May 22, 2003, the Independent Women’s Forum sponsored a panel of experts on Women in Muslim Society at the National Press Club. Some sixty guests heard the panelists discuss issues concerning the restructuring of society and the liberation of women in Muslim countries, particularly Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. Moderated by IWF Senior Fellow Melana Zyla Vickers, the panel addressed the following issues:

  • What role U.S. policy should have in shaping the reconstruction of society and in supporting women in Muslim-majority countries,

  • To what extent the U.S. can successfully support Muslim women, and

  • Whether or not the U.S. can accomplish this without accusations of cultural insensitivity.

Our speakers included Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, author and Executive Director of the Iraq Foundation Rend Rahim Francke, President of the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace Mahnaz Afkhami, and Senior Coordinator of International Women’s Issues with the State Department Charlotte Ponticelli.

“[Supporting] women in Muslim-majority countries is
a top priority of the U.S. government.”
– Paula Dobriansky

Citing cooperative projects in education, economics, and political participation, Undersecretary Paula Dobriansky highlighted the United States’ current outreach efforts to Muslim-majority countries on women’s rights, and recognized that the success of these programs requires a ‘cultural sensitivity and also a commitment to the ideal of women’s full participation in social, economic, and political life.’ She added that the U.S. government relies on extensive dialogue with a range of experts to avoid trampling cultural and religious traditions. Other points made:

  • The U.S. is strongly committed to helping Iraq’s transition from Saddam’s dictatorial regime to a ‘sovereign representative form of government that respects human rights, that rejects terrorism, and that maintains Iraq’s territorial integrity’.

  • The U.S. recognizes that Iraqi women have a ‘critical role’ in the ‘future revival of society.’ Thus, the U.S. has sponsored programs to educate, to employ, and to enlist the women of Iraq in the economic and political development of their country.

Rend Rahim Francke focused her comments on the “serious problem that we have” regarding women’s civil and human rights in Iraq, noting that Iraqi women have been significantly educated and employed, but without social freedom to pursue their own futures. Francke explained that social laws in Iraq, in particular the family law and the personal status law, were based on Islam; there liberalization of these laws that occurred in the 1960s was rescinded when the Baath regime assumed power in the 1980s. The worst instances of laws made against the interests of women and the reversal of the legal status of women have occurred in the last ten years. It is important to recognize the absence of women in decision-making positions and the impediments which hamper advocacy for women’s rights. She stated that the U.S. should focus on “carving out a role for women in the public arena.”

“Those trips to Iraq opened my eyes to the serious
problem that we have as a woman, but also as an activist on civil
rights and human rights.”
– Rend Rahim Francke

Mahnaz Afkhami also stated the intimate relationship between Iraqi religion and law, and the historical development of women’s rights in society. For these reasons cultural sensitivity is very important to the U.S.’s efforts in Iraq. Citing a University of Michigan Institute of World Values survey from 2000-2002, Afkhami demonstrated that people in Muslim-majority countries aspire to establish a democratic society, but are hindered by a deeper problem: “They are lacking gender tolerance, gender equality, and all of the other lifestyle choices that have to do with modernity.” The failures in Iraq are related to the connection between religion and governance, a tie that is “detrimental to democracy,” according to Afkhami. The basic precept of separation of church and state, a fundamental pillar and impressive lesson in American democracy, “has to be a part of [the new Iraqi] culture.”

The panelists agreed that a strong impediment to improving women’s participation in local politics and the reconstruction of Iraq is the state of national security, or rather the insecurity in which these women live. Iraqi women need access to the basic infrastructure of economic security and political participation, such systems as education, microcredit/microfinancing, and phone networks. There is a rising rate of professional Iraqi women; yet they need to feel socially accepted and physically secure in that role. The U.S. can positively influence democratic development via its mass media capabilities, educating the Iraqi public about the democratic ideal of “being an American” and living this wonderful life across the world.

“A hundred countries in the last half of the 20th century
became democracies; women’s roles were enhanced. These experiences
of transition and transformation are not available to everybody.
The United States can have a very important role in sharing that
information and building the communication networks to make that
learning, that sharing, available so that these women can choose
what is best for them.”
– Mahnaz Afkhami