Meet the Iraqi Woman Addressing the UN Security Council Tomorrow

   •    October 27, 2014

In 2007, at the height of the Iraq War troop surge, Suaad Allami opened the country’s first all-female legal clinic in her hometown of Sadr City, one of the poorest Baghdad suburbs. Since then, in addition to serving in local and provincial government, she’s continued to provide free legal services, medical care, and vocational training to vulnerable women and girls. Her bravery and determination in the face of constant threats led her to be named a 2009 International Woman of Courage by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

During a June 2014 visit to Washington, DC (where she was honored with a Vital Voices Global Leadership Award), I spoke to Suaad about her work, the current crisis on the ground, and how Iraqi women can lead the way to inclusive democracy.

Pari Farmani: Can I hear a little bit about the work that you do in Sadr City?

Suaad Allami: I established a nongovernmental organization, Women for Progress, which is the first clinic providing free legal assistance and psycho-social assistance to vulnerable groups: women, girls, and victims of gender-based violence. We’re tackling some other issues like early marriage, unregistered marriage contracts, and working with displaced groups and trafficking cases—all of these things affecting vulnerable groups of women. We’re providing them with comprehensive services that they need. You can say it’s a one stop shopping center.

PF: What is an average day like for you? Are you able to freely move around?

SA: It’s very hard to get around. You cannot attend two meetings in one day. There are so many security procedures, checkpoints, and traffic. There are always some bombs here, or explosions happen there…so this is the life lived. And besides that, the lack of services is something that we’re all suffering from. Sometimes security personnel suddenly block some areas and you do not know for how long. Sometimes you just spend hours and hours waiting in the line to try to get into your city and neighborhood.

PF: Unfortunately the situation has gotten much worse recently. How has life changed with the current upsurge of violence in Iraq?

SA: Look, in one word: it is a mess. Chaos. No one knows what is going on. We do not know who are the good people and who are not. Furthermore, the previous situation in Baghdad or other hot areas was already overwhelming for all of our people, but doubly overwhelming for these vulnerable groups. For these groups, there is a lack of everything.

PF: Do men and women see the current crisis differently? Do you think there’s a different effect on either group?

SA: This crisis affects the whole family and whole society, but the effect on the most fragile populations (like women, children, and elderly people) is more because they have more family responsibility. The men, they’re out of their houses, they can go around. But women and children are affected more than others.

PF: So that, in a way, leads to my other question. There have been some media reports here in the US that the Iraqi government’s lack of inclusion partly led to the recent crisis. Has that been your experience? Do you share that view?

SA: Yes, this is part of the problem that led to the current situation, but not all. It is also because of interventions from some our regional neighbors who do not want to see real democracy in Iraq. And this fragile government situation, where no one has control of anything, makes it easy for anyone to intervene to do whatever they want and create all of this mess. Some countries support certain groups, others are supporting other groups; and if there’s any conflict between these outsiders, they fight it through Iraq.

PF: You’re saying they’re taking advantage of the fragility.

SA: Yes.

PF: What has been the current government’s openness to women’s leadership? Have women had any sort of role? Have they been included at the higher levels?

SA: No. The last government (2010-2014), we had only one female state minister out of 33 ministers. The rest were all male. And this is a state ministry without a budget, without significant power. So this is one of the gaps that we have.

Also, there is no genuine, real role for women. During the negotiations between the political parties and on national security issues, no Iraqi women leaders were allowed to participate. We have a quota in parliament for 25% women, but this is just a quantity; it does not measure the quality of women we’re looking for to represent and bring forward women’s issues. Last election, which was on the 30th of April this year, 83 women won seats in the parliament, which has 328 total seats. Twenty-two of them won without needing the quota, which is a great achievement that we had! This is the first time (since the quota was endorsed in 2005) women have been able to win without the quota. One of these candidates got more than 90,000 votes and she was the top of all candidates for her province. That is a great achievement for women!

PF: As in she legitimately won with her own constituency.

SA: Yes, we are so happy with this achievement, but then some of the men started to say, “so you don’t need the quota anymore,” because they say that we got what we want, that the people are voting for us as women, so the quota is not needed anymore.

PF: So are you saying that the gains that were made are under threat?

SA: Yes, yes. But still, even our gains are not enough because there’s a lack of unity between the women themselves and the women’s groups in the parliament. Also these sectarian issues still affect them and there’s a strong affiliation with their political parties. There are ideological issues, some are conservative and some are liberal. But even the liberal women don’t bring women’s issues forward.

PF: If I’m a woman in Iraq, is it possible to run in an election without party approval?

SA: Ok, this is a good question. This is something I want to do. It is allowable for a woman to run in an election without being in the list of the political party. But it will cost her much more. Let me give you an example: A woman will get a seat in the parliament when she gets 1,200 votes because of the quota, but if she wants to run in the election alone, she will need around 20,000 votes. This is risky for any woman because of her lack of skills on campaigning, messaging, speaking publicly with her community to convince them. These are skills lacking among all, men and women. But if you want to empower women to participate, they need to have these skills.

PF: Are there women who are working across sectarian or ideological or any of these divides that you’ve mentioned?

SA: To be honest, no, we do not have any. They did not play the role that they should. In our work as women’s groups, we’re not unified. Always, there’s someone who wants to dominate this work or discourse. Some want to only be the leader, some are damaging to other women. There is no unification to bring forward a common agenda.

PF: Would you be willing to work across lines?

SA: Of course! You know, I have been part of the Baghdad City Council and the Sadr City Council for six years. To work with the grassroots is important, like I do, but we have to get out of that box. We have to be able to bring our issues to the larger national level. And we have to also not only work in the traditional way. We have to find innovative ways to bring women together.

PF: What could be done? How could women come together around a particular agenda?

SA: We have some issues that we can come together around, that have affected all of us. We have moderate, conservative, and liberal women. What I would suggest is to bring these women together to identify common issues and build an agenda with a specific timeframe on what we can agree on. We need to start with simple issues that we can achieve together.

PF: In your view, what are some these uniting issues?

SA: Peace for the whole community—who can say that they don’t want peace for the whole community?! We start with local peace and move to national issues that affect all of the people: the security situation and the sectarian violence.

PF: You know that we have a large Network that you’re part of, so I wanted to ask if you could share some lessons (either challenges or successes) with other women working in conflict zones.

SA: It is very important to be unified as women around women’s issues no matter our differences in our political affiliations and ideologies. Unification is the most important thing in our work because it will affect our lives, our families.

It is also important to get involved in the security process. In Iraq, we have women in the military, in the Ministry of Interior, as police officers, but we still do not have women in the decision-making level who are making security-related decisions. Also, it is important to have more women in the judicial system. And in Iraq we’ve also endorsed the UNSCR 1325 National Action Plan (NAP).

PF: Do you think that the 1325 NAP is something that women can build an agenda around?

SA: Yes, we also have a national strategy on violence against women just endorsed more than a year ago. And three months ago they endorsed the 1325 NAP. And they’re about to finish their security NAP, which is very related to women’s issues. All of these steps have been taken. It is important to have these strategies and solutions – but what we’re missing here is the implementation of these policies. There’s a lack of political will to support these moderate voices. We need people to really understand—we have laws such as the anti-trafficking law, but no one knows about it. So what good is it?

There is unfinished work in Iraq. As the government of the US, as agencies working with governments, we need to work in a genuine, real way. What has been the benefit of the past work? There were all these women who were involved in different programs, were elected, but they couldn’t bring forward any agenda. It is true that we’ve achieved some good steps but this is from the efforts of civil society, not from the women at the decision-making level.

PF: Thank you very much for you time. And for all that you do.

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