In Washington, D.C., conferences about democracy and limited government are as common as pumpkins on Halloween. Interns and junior staffers tend to slouch in their seats, half-heartedly listening to speakers while waiting for the start of the free sandwich buffet.
A conference for Iraqis is a different story. When the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), in partnership with the American Islamic Congress and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies organized such a conference for Iraqi women, women from across Iraq sought to attend. In all, 1,300 women throughout Iraq applied to attend the conference. This meant filling out lengthy applications and, in some cases, traveling to an interview.
Ultimately, 150 women were selected based on their leadership qualities and commitment to democracy. They traveled across Iraq- some leaving their villages for the first time- to attend the conference in Jordan at great personal risk. In fact, several program participants were shot at en route to the event.
The Iraqi women wanted to attend this conference because they want the things embodied in the conference agenda. They want democracy and a government beholden to its people. They want a limited government, a free press, and economic liberty. The women who attended represented almost every ethnic and religious group in Iraq. Some dressed in western garb, while others wore headscarves. Some were dressed in black abayas, and still others wore the brightly colored dress of Kurdistan. But they shared a common vision of a free and democratic Iraq.
The five-day conference provided an overview of the concepts that underpin a stable, democratic country such as limited government, religious freedom, and economic liberty. Not only were these fundamental ideas explored, but there was a “democracy in action” session- taught by Rep. Kay Granger (R.,Tex.), Rep. Tom Osborne (R., Neb.) and several other Members of Congress- dedicated to the practical application of these principles. Women roleplayed, learning how to lobby and influence policymakers. At the end of the conference, the women were given ways to continue to work together through follow up events and communication networks.
Today, these women are working toward their common goal. They continue to participate in regional conferences to encourage more women to become politically active. These women can draw upon a women-experts panel, which consists of some top scholars from around the global, who offer advice about the ongoing efforts to protect women’s rights in the new government. They continue to partake in networking events so they remain in contact and coordinate their efforts. And they are making a difference, laying the groundwork for women’s full participation in Iraq’s government.
The Iraqi constitution- a step forward in creating a stable, democratic Iraq- initially failed to explicitly protect women’s rights and contained some provisions of concern to Iraqi women, by leaving open the possibility that religious courts would dominate important areas of the law. Many Iraqi women fought against this and won important additional protections for women. While only time will tell if the new Iraqi government successfully protects and secures women’s rights, the very fact that women are participating in the government’s creation gives reason for optimism that ultimately Iraq will view women as equal under the law.
Of course, there are many forces in Iraq hostile to women’s equality and political participation. Some of the women who have been most active in promoting women’s rights in Iraq have lost their lives. Amal Mamalchi, who had been an early advocate of women’s rights in a post-Saddam Iraq, was assassinated last November.
Others face the threat of violence. Narmin Othman, the minister of women’s affairs under the Iraqi interim government and current minister of environment, who attended the conference in Jordan, survived an assassination attempt this summer. Three bodyguards were wounded, but this brave woman was defiant after the attack, saying “This is a cowardly act that will not prevent me from carrying my duties.” The current minister of state for women’s affairs, Azhar Al-Shakly (who attended another conference for Iraq women IWF hosted in Washington, D.C. in July) receives threats regularly and recently lost her brother to an assassination. In spite of these dangers, these Iraqi women remain committed to ensuring women are fully represented and allowed to participate socially, economically, and politically in their country.
These Iraqi women may one day be remembered as trailblazing leaders who helped craft a truly free society in the Middle East. For now, they are women of unparalleled courage who are some of Iraq’s best assets as it moves forward to a free and stable democracy.
Carrie Lukas is the director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum and Michelle D. Bernard is senior vice president and incoming president and CEO IWF.