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Women government workers, such as this police woman in Baghdad, are under-represented in the new Iraq ecomony, says Al-Shakly.
Women government workers, such as this police woman in Baghdad, are under-represented in the new Iraq ecomony, says Al-Shakly. (Anita Powell / S&S)

BAGHDAD — Even as Iraq moves towards democracy, rights and personal liberties have become demonstrably less accessible to a large portion of the population.

Women have suffered significant setbacks since 2003, said State Minister of Woman’s Affairs Azhar Al-Shakly. In recent years, she said, women have lost access to medical and educational services, workplace rights and fair hiring practices, and much of their former status in Iraqi society.

“We have the majority of people (for whom) the mentality is that she is less than a man and she has to be behind him,” she said through a translator. “The country is moving towards religious fundamentalism.”

Her ministry — which, by virtue of being a state ministry, and not one of the 30-plus national ministries, does not receive its own funding — works with national ministries to start programs, most health and education-related, to help increase women’s place in Iraqi society.

Al-Shakly, who said she wants Iraqi women to have choices and opportunities in their education, employment and home life, sounds reminiscent of leaders in the American women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. However, her goals are actually reminiscent of old Iraq: the rights she’s fighting for were available to Iraqi women in decades past, she says.

In her youth, she said, “we never believed that the culture was against us. We used to make our own decisions. In the ’70s, it was much different.”

Those thoughts were echoed by Azza Humadi, a recently repatriated Iraqi who serves as women’s issues coordinator for the Project and Contracting Office, an arm of the U.S. Army.

“The most important thing that is facing women is her rights,” Humadi said. “Getting her right to be a decision maker is one of the most important things. And this will take some time, by hard work and educating people.”

But Al-Shakly said it will be an uphill battle: new social pressures in Iraq have made the nation less open to gender equality

“My husband is very progressive,” she said. “He’s more progressive than my kids. It should be the reverse. The young generation, I’m disappointed in what’s going on.”

She said she sees numerous examples of women’s diminishing status in Iraqi society, such as rules forcing women in government jobs and at universities to wear head coverings, decreased educational opportunities for girls, ministries’ unwillingness to hire women over men and — perhaps most worryingly — no legal protection against abuse of women.

“I wanted a paragraph in the constitution that was against all harm to women,” she said. “I worked on getting this law in this constitution, but couldn’t. Before, if a man used to beat his wife, he would be punished for at least six months.”

Now, women who are abused by their husbands, “in general, don’t really go to the police station,” she said. “First of all, the husband might take revenge, and secondly, because of what the police might think.”

Surprisingly, she said, many of the voices speaking against women’s empowerment have come from other women, a telling sign of the nation’s push towards religious fundamentalism.

“I met several women from religious backgrounds. They said they don’t support having shelters because it encourages women to go against their families,” she said.

Though there may be little support from within the Iraqi government, several U.S. organizations conduct projects to help women. Those include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ work on maternity and children’s hospitals, clinics and new schools; humanitarian projects by the U.S. Agency for International Development, an arm of the State Department; contributions and assistance from internationally known non-government organizations, such as UNICEF; and a slew of small projects intended to extend job opportunities to Iraqi women.

One such program, called Women’s Initiatives, has an unlikely home: within the Project and Contracting Office’s water sector. The $700,000 program, originally intended to give opportunities to women contractors seeking water infrastructure contracts, has blossomed into a job database for professional women, an educational resource for women seeking contracts and a network for professional Iraqi women.

“We can’t just say, ‘No, we can’t help you unless you’re in the water sector,’” said program director Eileen Padberg. “Because we’re the only ones doing this.”

Since the program was started in June, nearly 300 women have registered on a career database and nearly 20 professional seminars have been done. Still, Padberg said, the program’s ultimate goal has been only modestly achieved.

“About 260,000 contracts have been let in Iraq on reconstruction,” she said. “Less than 1,000 of those contracts have been let to women. It’s pathetic. I’m ashamed.”

Padberg said she, too, has encountered resistance in an area many wouldn’t expect:

“It’s our own ... guys who are having a problem with this,” she said. “It’s just not high on their priority list. It’s just like in the U.S. When you want to hire someone, you want to hire someone like you. What we’re fighting for is giving them a level playing field.”

“Women want to work,” she said. “If you give a woman a job digging trenches, she’ll get the job done.”

It’s perceptions like that, Al-Shakly said, that may prove to be the biggest battle for Iraqi women. But the future of Iraq’s women, she said, is integral to the nation’s success.

“The government can’t really function without the women,” she said. “You can’t move forward if the women are repressed.”

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