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08. March 2005

Manal Omar © Stephy Ewers/ Frauen ohne Grenzen

Manal Omar, Director of Women for Women International/Iraq, as speaker at "Women Included" in November 2003.

Womens Day + Iraqi Elections = Hope?

A Letter from Manal Omar, Country Director for Iraq, Women for Women

Baghdad, 8th of March, 2005

Dear Friends, family, and supporters,
I wish everyone a wonderful International Women’s Day! For many, reflection and resolutions come on the New Year, but for me, I always use International Women’s Day as a time of reflection on what my past years challenges and accomplishments have been.
No matter what the obstacles I have faced, for some odd reason I always feel optimistic and re-energized on March 8th, a day that women have celebrated since 1857. So I would like to seize this moment of strength I can pull on annually and use it as a time of reflection for my time in Iraq.
For most of you, it has been a long time that I have written or you have heard from me – especially about events occurring on the ground in Iraq. I think the main reason I have refused to try and capture the past few months experience on paper is a refusal to process what is happening, which at first sight may cause panic and seem like chaos. And the whirlwind of feelings are very much intertwined with the feelings of the Iraqis I have lived with for now close to two years – which makes me appear to be just as fickle as them. I switch back and forth from disappointment to hope to depression to optimism so quickly and frequently that I have developed mental whiplash.
But we are not to blame, for the overall situation on the surface mainly due to security could plummet almost anyone into depression. However, the optimism stems from the determination of the Iraqis to move forward. In fact, the Iraqis dedication creates an optimism that is contagious, and if u are immersed in the society, it cannot be denied. Similarity, their fears, disappointment and feeling of betrayal at the deteriorating security situation in their country also is undeniable – and the two overwhelming feelings makes me feel like I am in a revolving door between hope and despair.
I believe the betrayal comes from the fact that I never imagined it would get as bad as it did. I never imagined that I would look back and feel foolish for the hope and dreams for Iraq that I once felt. I never imagined the day would come when I would be expelled from the wonderful streets of Baghdad, the magnificent and warm hospitality of my friends from the South, and then the vibrant life in the Northern Kurdish areas. The months filled of kidnappings and deaths of people close to me, both international and local, left me with an unbearable feeling of being defunct. I now feel like a bandit in Iraq, not allowed to sleep in the same location and traveling under a guise from fear of falling into the wrong hands. The last time I left Iraq I was practically smuggled across the border, and when I arrived heard of the possible killing of Margaret Hassan. I collapsed, ready to allow myself to be swallowed by defeat.
But Iraqis were not so willing to fall into the jaws of defeat. They reminded me that the martyrs who were falling were more reason for us to continue, and that the women who believed in us would be the fuel for our programs. We went underground, but I am proud to say we never stopped. As elections became closer and closer, I felt the fervor and hope of Iraqis return. Change was inevitable – too much bloodshed, too much energy had been spent to allow this opportunity to pass them by.

In January 2005, the Iraqis taught me the most valuable lesson – despair is not a bottomless pit, but hope was – for once a person throws themselves into complete hope, it will provide an endless source of energy. I could not share their hope they felt for the elections, and braced myself for an election that would once more yield another failure for Iraqis to overcome. The Iraqis were determined to prove me wrong – and they did. For many of my friends, elections were a farce – a process that under normal circumstances and under a normal timeline would be extremely difficult. With Iraq in chaos what hope for a successful elections could there be?
It was hard for me to disagree with these arguments. Nonetheless, I knew very well the tenacity of Iraqis, and over and over maintained that the determining factor for the success of elections is if Iraqis believed in the process.
That was where I allowed my faith to wonder – the elections would be the barometer for how much Iraqis wanted change. The personal risk for participation was clear – would Iraqis decide the process was worth the risk?
One of the first things I realized about elections was how irrelevant my reservations about the elections were – and like many times before reminded myself this was not about my own views and experiences from other countries – it was about Iraq and how Iraqis feel. I think this is something many people have lost sight of.

Women for Women International was part of the out of country voting for Iraqis in Jordan, and I was happy that my observation team consisted of Iraqis themselves who could bear witness to the process. Many people are determined no matter what to maintain the elections were a failure, and so I would like to shift back attention to the Iraqis and what elections meant to them. Iraqis came out to vote in masses, although I do not refer to any statistics, phone call after phone call from throughout Iraq reported the long lines at the voting stations. I was amazed. Even Iraqis were amazed by the turn out.
One Iraqi wrote “It was such a beautiful experience! It was something amazing watching the crowds walking miles and miles just to get to these boxes and vote. I saw people on wheel chairs, I saw blind people guided by their families, I saw very old people with smiles on their faces. I heard people talking about how this is the first time happening in Iraq within more than 50 years - that is half a century! I went with my dad and brother walking about 1.5 miles to reach the election centre. I couldn't imagine a better success for the elections, in fact, I'm amazed by the numbers heading to vote!” Naturally, security was the primary concern, and indeed many explosions in the morning made me people wonder if the elections would have a turn out or not. One young woman from Baghdad writes, “We put our bright wear on just like first day of EID and had breakfast, then, walked by our way to reach the post at 8:15. We spent around 1h to participate in this new experiment. At 9:40 am after we back at home we heard so load explosion it was in our quarter electoral post. There was a man hiding his hands in pockets refused to be searched and the policeman insisted to check him. At that moment he killed himself and killed around 8 persons (one child was among them). The place was so crowded. But what is wonderful was the braveness of the people themselves. They increased after explosion, even the American forces asked people to go back to their houses and come back to vote after one hour, while they checking and cleaning the place again. But the people refused. They said we will stay until you are done, and then vote.”
The stories of tragedy were balanced with the stories or true heroism that came alongside it. Whether it was the security guard at one of the voting centers that noticed a suicide bomber, and sacrificed his own life by tackling the bomber and running with him to minimize the fatalities or the father of three who in an act of kindness brought a some tea to the Iraqis operating the polling stations and was a victim of one of the bombs.
One of my friends and someone I consider to be a pioneer for Iraqi democracy wrote “Although we lost 44 people on the elections day, but in one day Saddam killed more than five thousands in Halabcha. Our people didn’t think their lives were cheep when they went to vote. They voted because they felt their lives were precious and it was their decision to keep it this way.” Of course, there are those who shared with me their disappointments. One Iraqi from Baghdad whose family are in Falluga wrote that the election place was more than an hour and a half away, and since all Iraqis were walking to the polls because of the curfew, he could not participate. He was also very disappointed in what he saw as recklessness from the Iraqi army that was shooting in the air randomly, and felt that it created a climate of intimidation. Nonetheless, he admitted that the days following the elections he felt a sense of peace in Baghdad, and for him if that continues that in itself was worth the world.
Another older man who has been cooperating with our organization since summer of 2003 reminded me that democracy wasn’t some theory that is discussed or taught in school or at the university. It is something that emerges with practice and experience, and for the first time in his memory Iraq was finally being able to take the first step in building their own experience.
I cant hold back my own reservations, nor do I think it serves the best interest of Iraqis to silence these doubts. For close to two years I have seen too much lipservice, to many smokes and mirrors, too many unfilled promises, and way too many unnecessary deaths to allow myself to fall into the trap of unmonitored hope. If the elections was an Iraqi wedding as it is commonly being described, I remind the newly election national assembly to add electricity, water, security, and job creation on the bridal registry. The past couple of years have proven that the enthusiasm is short lived if slogans are not backed up by deliverables. Iraqis are too intelligent to fall for illusions, and cooperation and enthusiasm will only be maintained if the elections are followed by tangible results that prove there will be a different in their lives.

I speak of the elections now, on International Women’s Day, because 2005 holds many more historic events. Most importantly is the writing of the constitution, and many women I know across the globe are expressing despair about the future of Iraqi women. The same reservations from the elections are surfacing about the referendum in mid-October 2005, and the same sense of hopelessness.
But Iraqis have hope, and Iraqi women are determined the safeguard their writes. They have proved that with little resources, little support, and only lipservice they can earn their place at the decision making table when women won over 30% of the seats in the newly elected committee. Iraqi women have proved their place in Iraq’s history throughout the 1900s and into the 20th century. I am cautiously optimistic they will not let the formation of a constitution slip through their fingers. I hold on to the stories of the women on the ground – and in my mind I picture the Iraqi women from a socially and economically excluded area – that brought with her a bag of candy and began to throw it in the air after she placed her vote. An Iraqi act after a wedding and in expression of the feeling of joy and ecstasy.

Iraqis did their part, and now the international community must do theirs to support the Iraqis in being the main decision makers for their future – afterall, they are the stakeholders. The process has set the tone of 2005, and as one Iraqi friend told me, "it has returned to me a sense of pride and nationalism”. At this point and time, its not about army of occupation verses liberation, or where the weapons of mass destruction are. Although we should not ignore mistakes of the past, if we continue to focus on events two years ago, we will miss the very important present; a present that will determine the situation for women for decades to come.

Manal Omar, country director for Iraq, Women for Women International (, was a speaker at the First International Women without Borders Conference "Women Included" in November 2003.


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