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Hundreds of Iraqi women gather to demand political power

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The demand came from Iraqi women in stylish pantsuits and from those in traditional embroidered gowns. Veiled and unveiled, they gathered by the hundreds Saturday seeking a significant share of their country's political power.

More than 600 women filed into a heavily guarded country club here on Saturday for the debut meeting of the National Council for Woman, an umbrella group for women's rights advocates from the country's disparate ethnic groups and religious sects. Despite comprising the majority of Iraq's population of 25 million, several women said, they are struggling for even a token role in bringing democracy after dictatorship.

With elections unlikely for at least a year and tentative plans to expand the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, however, the political turmoil in Iraq suddenly looks more like opportunity to many of the country's most ardent women activists.

"We want a loud, influential voice for women," Rajaa Khuzai, one of three women on the Governing Council, told the cheering audience. "We need to build a strong society, away from those who would oppress us ... We want women to have at least 40 percent representation in the next stage of government."

The push for quotas in Iraq's interim leadership is emerging as the latest sticking point between the U.S.-led coalition and the Governing Council in the drafting of a constitution and more immediate transitional law. After a long silence on the issue, the coalition now supports including a 40-percent quota for women in the assembly and constitutional convention, said Jeremy Greenstock, the United Kingdom's special representative to Iraq.

"You must work and we must all work for that provision to stay in the law," Greenstock said at the women's event.

Conservative Islamic parties on the Shiite-dominated council are trying to scrap the quota idea altogether or at least pare the figure down to no more than 20 percent, according to sources familiar with private debates on the issue. The transition legislation is to be completed by Feb. 28 and will remain in place until a permanent constitution is written by an elected convention and ratified by referendum next year.

"The religious extremists are trying to keep us out of politics and the coalition is helping them because they don't want to offend what they think is tradition," said Faihaa al Bayati, a 50-year-old Turkmen activist. "We are 55 percent of the country. Look, we'll leave the extra 15 percent as a gift for the men. Just give us 40 percent and we'll be happy."

American administrators appointed only three women to the 25-member Governing Council. There are no women on its rotating presidency and none on the 24-member constitutional committee. Women's advocates said they finally have a chance to bolster their presence in government now that the United Nations has ruled out elections before the June 30 deadline for the transfer of authority to Iraqis.

Without a vote by this summer, the coalition and many Iraqi politicians support expanding the existing council to include more women and other under-represented groups. That plan is one of many on the table since the Bush administration last week withdrew its complicated caucus system that drew criticism from Iraqi political and religious leaders as a poor substitute for elections.

"We came today because we want more influence; we want a bigger role," said Ruba Hameed Majeed, 43, of the Iraqi Islamic Women's League. "And the problem is not only in the numbers, but in what women are chosen for the interim government. We need someone who can help the Iraqi woman realize her power, her personality. Only then will her reality change."

Though many women said the meeting Saturday inspired them to remain active around women's issues, others said the spread of religious extremism in Iraq pits them against powerful clerics whose words are considered law. Women at all levels of government said they have received death threats.

In September, Governing Council member Akila al-Hashemi, outspoken and unveiled, was shot in her car and died days later. Her replacement, Shiite dentistry professor Salama al-Khufaji, is a soft-spoken woman who wears traditional Islamic coverings.

"Maybe all these women's movements are in vain," said Khawla al Zaidan, a dentist. "We ask for 40 percent and the men only want to give us 10 or 12 percent of the new government. If we end up with 15 percent, so what? Is that really a victory?"

Women at the event marked at least one success. Khuzai, the Governing Council member, announced the death of a bill that would have replaced secular family laws with strict Islamic rulings. Thousands of Iraqi women spent recent weeks lobbying against Proposition 137, a Governing Council recommendation to roll back women's rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance.

"If that had become law, we all would have suffered," said Whylet Khourgis, a 33-year-old Christian activist. "We are Iraqi before we are Muslim or Christian. We are sisters. What hurts them hurts us."

As the women inside celebrated the end of Proposition 137 with joyful trills usually reserved for weddings, dozens of young Iraqi policemen stood guard outside the country club. With their machine guns over their shoulders, they chatted in groups about the women's demands.

"We'll be useless," lamented 1st Lt. Ali Jassem.

"No, this is their right," countered 2nd Lt. Waleed Hassan. "Without women, we'd die."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-WOMEN


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