I hadn't been to my homeland, Iraq, since so many professional Iraqi women started to be assassinated, including one of my good female friends, in fall of 2004. In February I traveled the country to visit with Women for Women International's courageous Iraqi staff -- who have served nearly 4,000 women since 2003 -- and to interview women who participated in the study released this week by our organization.
The "Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: 2008 Iraq Report" asked more than 1,500 Iraqi women what they thought about the status of their country five years after the U.S. invasion and what their hopes and dreams were for the future. In my visit, I found a destroyed country that has been overwhelmed with death and fear. I found a country in which the status of women has become substandard in many ways. Despite all of that, women continue come forward to ask for security, jobs and national unity. Perhaps it is time for the world to hear what they have to say.
I knew going in that 27 percent of the women we interviewed this year said they were optimistic about the future compared to 90 percent who expressed optimism in a similar study we conducted in 2004. I didn't know what that meant on a personal level until I heard news about a place very important to me. Four years ago, I was in Baghdad celebrating my brother's wedding at our family's home. One of the first things I heard in my way from the airport to the city was how this home has been taken over by one of the militias.
My colleague who picked me up turned to me in the car and said: "Zainab, remember the basketball hoop your family put in the cul-de-sac in front your home? Al-Mahdi militia have been using the basketball pole to execute Sunnis." I couldn't believe what he was telling me. "Zainab," he continued, "every day I saw tens of bodies lying in front of your house after being executed. Every day there was a body hanging from the basketball pole. Your home has turned into an execution center." I was going to throw up. All my childhood memories were in this house. Memories of laughter, tears, sorrow, fear, love and joy have all been violated. All of a sudden I understood the results we had in our study about optimism. I knew why 89 percent of respondents believe that someone in their family will be killed in the next year.
I no longer recognized Baghdad. Each neighborhood is now controlled by a different militia. We never talked about Sunni/Shi'ah as much as everyone is talking about it today. We never thought about the idea of splitting the country into federations more or less divided along sectarian lines. We never had as many religious symbols as we have in the city now -- so much so that a new visitor could never believe that Baghdad was once a secular city where religion was seen and respected as part of its citizens' private lives but not as the public definition of the city.
Even beyond Baghdad, 89 percent of women thought that the separation of people along ethnic/religious/sectarian lines was a bad thing. Although 72.7 percent of the women said that in the future there should be one unified Iraq with a central government in Baghdad, only 32.3 percent of the women thought there would in fact be such a thing in five years.
As I traveled the country, I asked women what they want for Iraq's future. One woman, Shatha, explained, "If I was the president of the country, the first thing I would do is ask the Americans to leave. I then would make filling the stomachs of the people my utmost priority, by ending poverty and creating jobs. And thirdly I will focus on education. We can't have real democracy if we don't have educated people pushing for a real democracy." When I asked the women to further explain their position on American presence in Iraq, one woman, Amira, explained that the Americans "gave us something but they took from us another thing. They gave us freedom and they took from us security... but if I have to choose one, I will choose safety and security."
Security discussions have dominated U.S. coverage of Iraq, which rarely addresses the economic, health and educational realities of Iraqis. The women I interviewed complained the most about the lack of opportunities and the economic harshness they are facing daily as a result. This echoes our study's result, where 67 percent of the women we interviewed complained about the lack of jobs in the country. This reality is compounded by the increased daily expenses of all kinds of fuel, medical treatment, and even food.
When Saba, an 18-year-old daughter of a Women for Women International-Iraq staff member, was shot on the way to school in December 2007, it cost the family about $800 just to get her the blood and the basic medicine she needed while at an Iraqi hospital for one day. The young woman stayed in the hospital for about 24 hours wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket. She remains paralyzed from the neck down today. When Saba narrates the story, her eyes are filled with tears. "I am left paralyzed for what? I have nothing to do with politics. I have nothing to do with anything. I was simply trying to finish my studies and to live my life." Saba's nights are now filled with nightmares. And Saba's cries echo those of so many women in Iraq, 2 million of whom are estimated to be widows and mothers to about 6 million orphans in the country -- this out of a population of 27 million.
March 8th marks the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. On this historic day I ask you to remember the women who struggle in Iraq and around the world to create peace. There is no way to talk about a future stable, economically prosperous and democratic Iraq without listening to what women have to say. It is time to listen to what Iraqi women are saying about their economic, political and social reality and the future of the country. We cannot talk about the building of strong nations, any nations, if we don't make sure we support strong women. Strong women lead to strong nations. And there can't be talk about building a strong Iraq if women continue to be killed, oppressed, and suppressed from expressing their views on the future of the country. It is time to hear what women have to say.
This post first appeared on the Women's Media Center.