Despite threats, Balad council member fights for women's rights, her kids' future
July 1, 2006
BALAD, Iraq — In the last year, she’s seen two of her brothers, both of them Iraqi Army soldiers, killed by insurgent groups. A surviving brother, also a soldier, has a $60,000 bounty on his head for killing nine insurgents. She, too, is marked for death by an extremist group for cooperating with American soldiers.
But for 39-year-old Menar Abd Al-Matalab, out of despair, comes hope.
Once a week, the rail-thin mother of four dons her black chador and goes to the Balad City Council building, where, as the only woman on the council, she vigorously, vociferously argues for women’s rights, improved security and an end to the corruption and infighting that has hindered the city’s progress.
Her hope is that one day women in Iraq will have more rights than they do now, that all children will have a safe and secure future, and that — inshallah (God-willing) — the decades-long cycle of violence will end.
Balad, an entirely Shiite city inauspiciously located inside the Sunni triangle, suffered a rash of sectarian killings under the orders of Saddam Hussein. Today, tribes fight against other tribes for power and influence, causing violence between families.
She said she risks her life to fulfill an obligation to her family, to secure their financial state and their future.
“I can’t put my life on hold,” she said, through an interpreter. “I have two dead brothers. I can’t stay in the house. I need to take care of their kids.”
Besides, she said, “The women have a poor life here. I want to help. The people here think females are very weak. They don’t want them to have good jobs.”
To that end, she’s lobbied hard to build a women’s resource center in the city, a project that has gained support from the city council but has yet to be acted upon.
American soldiers who meet regularly with Menar say they’re impressed by her drive and courage.
“I think she’s a very impressive person,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Martindale, commander of 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division of Fort Carson, Colo. “If everyone in Iraq were like her, this country would be well on its way to democracy and freedom. Through her personal courage, action and taking responsibility to make her city better, she’s had a big impact.”
But her younger brother, who speaks fluent English and goes by “Money Mike,” (a fitting sobriquet, he said, considering the price on his head) said he’s given up on Iraq. He’s anxiously trying to find a way out — he’ll go “anywhere where there’s safety,” he said.
“Many times I tell my sister, ‘Why do you help them when they don’t help you?’” he said in English.
“If I die,” she retorted, “I don’t care. I’m working for the future, for my children, not for myself.”
She views her fate with almost shocking bleakness.
“I’m not scared,” she said bluntly. “The terrorists have put car bombs down and killed two of my brothers. There’s nothing more to be scared of.”