By George Emile Irani (from Sulaymaniyya, Iraq, for Safe Democracy)

George E. Irani describes the current situation in Iraq from the chaos of terrorism, to the condition in which women live, to the creation of safe and peaceful Kurdish settlements in the North of Iraq. The country faces many challenges in the years ahead: how to avoid falling into a total civil war, how to construct a national identity, how to reach a consensus among the Iraqi people for the creation of a stable state founded upon the rule of law, and how to rebuild its economy. But perhaps the most important challenge of all is the treatment of women in the country. Despite the fact that the abuse and oppression of women in Iraq continue, in Irani‘s opinion the future of the country rests in the hands of women.

George Emile Irani is the Lebanese-born director of the Africa and Middle East Program of the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid. He is the author of “The Papacy and the Middle East: The Role of the Holy See in the Arab-Israeli Conflict”.

I WAS TOLD THAT SULAYMANIYYA WAS THE SAFEST PLACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST during my recent visit to Northern Iraqi Kurdistan. Over the last ten years the Kurds have succeeded in creating a peaceful autonomous area within Iraq thanks to the American-imposed no fly zone. And while the rest of the country chafes under daily violence (bombings of all sorts, kidnappings, lawlessness reminiscent of Al Capone’s Chicago), Sulaymaniyya and the rest of the Kuridsh areas are growing rapidly thanks to foreign and Iraqi investments.

It was ironic to be in a place so peaceful, while Beirut, the city where I grew up, was burning.

I was in Sulaymaniyya to conduct a conflict resolution workshop for Iraqi women from all over the country. This workshop was organized by the partnership of the Centro Internacional de Toledo para la Paz in Madrid and the Iraqi Al-Amal Association based in Baghdad.

Over ten days I had the opportunity to learn about the current situation in Iraq and the conditions in which women live. Iraq today is at a crossroads: either the country will choose to plunge into a total civil war, or the Iraqis will succeed in reaching some kind of national agreement. The challenges today are many.

Of all of the terrorist groups bringing chaos to the country, the most prevalent perhaps is Fidaiyyu Saddam (Saddam’s Fedayeen), a group largely composed of Iraqis faithful to the Baath Party and to Saddam Hussein. The group was organized by Saddam Hussein himself before the suqut, the fall of his regime.

Other groups include the Jihadists, Islamist recruits who come to Iraq to terrorize the population and spread a Wahhabi type of Islam. And most recently a Shia dominated group called the Al Badr Brigade, supported and funded by Iran, has begun to spread terror activities all the way up to the city of Kirkuk.

In Baghdad and Basra a lawless, Hobbesian state of nature has set in. The government in Baghdad is wracked by divisions, factionalism, and corruption. The same applies to Basra where the active presence and influence of Iran infiltrates at all levels of society.

Both American and Iranian influence will be present in determining the outcome of Iraq’s future. Many Iraqis carry on a love-hate relationship with the US occupation, believing it to be a necessary evil. And while most wish that Uncle Sam’s troops would leave Iraq, they are fearful of the vacuum of power that they would leave behind.

Although the fighting and chaos has been tremendous, there is a consensus among Iraqis that they are not yet plunged into a civil war. The situation differs from region to region.

In Baghdad, the situation is on the brink of a civil war. Ethnic cleansing has begun to take place in both Sunni and Shia neighborhoods. But what distinguishes Sunni-Shia tension in Iraq from the same situation in Lebanon are the extensive intermarriages between Shias and Sunnis. This is what makes the current situation so unbearable. Many families in Baghdad who can afford it have left their homes and fled to the safety of cities like Sulaymaniyya and Hawler (Erbil) in the Kurdish dominated areas.

Another giant hurdle for Iraq will be the rebuilding of its economy. Iraq is one of the largest oil producers in the world but is currently unable to exploit the resource. Throughout my stay in Kurdistan I saw jerricans of gasoline being sold on the sides of the road or in the souqs. In Baghdad people have to wait in line for hours to fill their cars up with gas.

The reality for Iraqi women is one that is extremely dominated by the influence of the clan and the tribe (ahsaa’ir wa qwabaai). I learned about this from the more than twenty women who attended my workshop.

Nothing happens in a person’s life without the approval of the family and clan. Men and women lead separate lives until marriage. Dating is officially forbidden, but many lovers court through SMS text messaging. I saw several young couples embracing in one of Sulaymaniyya’s parks. The wife of a Kurdish colleague told us that she dated her husband in secret for eight months before they were married.

In many cases the rigid patriarchal social structure in Iraq has continued to keep women down. Families still select future husbands for their daughters, giving women no choice at all in their own futures. This is a yoke of oppression that many Iraqi women continue to fight against in order to avoid the unhappiness and incompatibility of character that arranged marriage can often bring.

But on a brighter side Iraqi women hold the country’s future in their hands. Demographically there are more women than men in Iraq and Kurdistan, leading to hopeful situations in which women can refuse to get married and can focus on building careers. The social work being done by women’s organizations that take care of orphans, train youths on the importance of civic education, and build a national identity is essential for Iraqi society. The construction of a national identity, and of a state in which the rule of law dominates, are the paramount concerns of Iraqi and Kurdish women’s organizations, and will be essential in bringing peace to the region.

Yet abuse of women continues to be widespread throughout Iraq. Rape, beatings, and biased divorces that rob women of everything in benefit of their husbands are widespread.

I visited a shelter for battered Iraqi women in Kurdistan. Its owner told me of the difficulties that she has had in gaining the support of the government for her work.

The treatment of women is a fundamental issue in all Arab and Islamic societies. The question as to how to save the honor of the family without resorting to violence against women is one that must be resolved. On my last day in the area, Ms. Bakhshan Zankana, an impressive Kurdish women’s activist who belonged to the peshmergas (Kurdish armed militias) spoke to our group. The peshmergas resisted Saddam Hussein’s regime during all of the years of its rule over Iraq.

Ms. Zankana is a member of the Kurdish Parliament. Her speech was moving, but most moving of all was when, at the end, she raised her head, looked at every single one of us and said: If women’s issues are resolved in Iraq, than men’s issues will also be resolved.

A truly eye-opening statement.

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