Written for The Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College and presented at its April 2006 Conference: “Mr. Jefferson Goes to the Middle East: Democracy’s Prospects in the Arab World.”
Women, often the first sector of society to be negatively impacted by war, conflict, and economic upheaval, suffered tremendously under the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Despite years of degradation under these regimes, both Afghan and Iraqi women emerged as full participants in civil and public life as their countries embarked on the path to democratization. Even at the expense of their personal security, Iraqi and Afghan women actively engaged in the electoral process and advocacy efforts to shape national policy on a host of issues, including women’s human rights. Women joined political parties, voted, and ran for office in record numbers. As a result, Iraqi and Afghan women are represented in the various echelons of government as ministers, parliamentarians, and members of local government. In addition, women’s non-profit organizations have established themselves as key stakeholders in these countries– nascent, yet flourishing, civil societies. After the overthrow of the Taliban, women comprised 12% of the Emergency Loya Jirga. In addition, two women ministers were appointed to the Afghan Interim Authority. The 2004 Afghan Constitution also provides a broad equal protection clause that extends to men and women.
In February 2004, Iraqi women demanded that the Interim Governing Council withdraw Resolution 137, which would have put family law under shari’a law. The Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period (TAL) and Iraq’s permanent constitution mandate that 25% of the seats of the National Assembly be reserved for women. Under the Transitional National Assembly, women were elected to 87 out of the 275 seats and six women were appointed ministers. Both Iraqi and Afghan women are actively participating in civil society through NGOs and vocational centers.
Despite their sizeable representation in government, Iraqi and Afghan women still face considerable challenges. Political instability, lack of security, and traditional social and religious mores continue to prevent women from being full participants in the political process. Women’s rights, particularly in the area of family law, need to be protected under the constitution; the constitution’s subsequent interpretation and related legislation must be protected from strict interpretations of shari’a that discriminate against women. Education and employment opportunities for women will ensure that future generations of qualified women leaders assume positions in the private and public sectors.