Iraq’s Excluded Women

   •    October 27, 2009

This article, co-authored by Swanee Hunt and Cristina Posa, was originally published by Foreign Policy.

It was August 2003 in the Iraqi city of Najaf — long before the holy city’s takeover by Muslim cleric Moktada al-Sadr — and U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin faced a dilemma. Arriving at a swearing-in ceremony for Nidal Nasser Hussein, Najaf’s first female lawyer and Conlin’s selection for a judgeship on the local court, he encountered a gaggle of demonstrators protesting her appointment. Despite their relatively small number (about 30 in a city of more than half a million), Conlin relented and delayed Hussein’s appointment indefinitely.

Sadly, this episode of sacrificing Iraqi women’s political participation to pacify vocal minorities is hardly anomalous. Although the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush extols women’s advancement as a centerpiece of its Iraq strategy, good intentions have seemingly substituted coherent policy. The administration devoted millions of dollars to women’s professional training via the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the U.S. entity created to run Iraq until the sovereignty transfer on June 30, 2004. But after Bush ended major combat operations in May 2003, the CPA undermined its own good work by allowing Iraqi women to become a bargaining chip in political negotiations with powerful religious parties.

The United States thus made the classic mistake of sacrificing long-term stability for political expediency. Failing to include women in Iraq’s government notifies other countries in the region that women’s political engagement is not, in fact, the pillar of democracy the West portrays. Ultimately, such failure could undermine support for the U.S. mission in Iraq by reinforcing the notion that Washington used human rights as a pretext for war rather than committing to it out of principle. Moreover, it condemns Iraq to the fate suffered by its Arab neighbors: autocracy, economic stagnation, and social malaise caused by sidelining half — or 60 percent, in Iraq’s case — of the population.

The political and religious climate in Iraq practically guarantees that if women are frozen out of a nascent Iraqi government, their chances of breaking through later are slim to none. For Iraqi women, it’s now or never.

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