With U.S. forces having completed their pullout, Iraqis are hopeful their country will regain its lofty status in the Arab world, but one group expects little to change for the better: women.
Until the 1980s, Iraqi women were widely considered to have more rights than their counterparts across the Middle East, but they have suffered in the face of brutal violence, Islamic extremism, and a run-down education system. “It has been a very bad regression,” said Nada Ibrahim, an MP belonging to the secular mostly Sunni-backed Iraqiya party, adding that women have paid a heavy price in recent years.
Only one woman sits in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s national unity cabinet, Ibtihal al-Zaidi, the minister of state for women’s affairs. “Yes, women have experienced conflict situations, war and terrorism, but security is getting better in Iraq, and based on that, the situation for women will also improve,” Zaidi said. But she has said that violence is not the only threat to women’s rights, noting last month that one in five Iraqi women is subjected to either physical or psychological abuse, often inflicted by family members.
Anou Borrey, senior gender adviser at the United Nations Development Program, remains hopeful, despite the uncertainty over Iraq’s stability after the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Iraq. “There have been discussions about a possible increase in violence, but there’s also an understanding of the rule of law, and that people will get punished should women be harassed or hurt or violated,” she said. Borrey added, “I think women are getting more and more organized, they recognize they have potential, they also know they have rights.”
In the end, though, Ibrahim said, the responsibility for improving women’s rights fell to women themselves. “The U.S. did nothing for the women in the country when they were here,” she said. “I think the struggles of women’s rights activists, and strong advocates for women’s rights, will change the situation in the country.”