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21. June 2005

Manal Omar at the Press talk on May 31st 2005 © Martina Handler/FoG

Manal Omar at the Women without Borders press talk on May 31st. She talked about her work as country director for Women for Women International and presented the report "Windows of Opportunity".

Manal Omar und Shirin Aqrawi, © Martina Handler/WwB

Shirin Aqrawi, wife of the Iraqi ambassador in Vienna, attendet the presstalk "Windows of Opportunity" - Chances and Risks for Women in Iraq.

Manal Omar at the WwB Presstalk © Martina Handler/WwB

Jaleh Lackner-Gohari, Manal Omar, Edit Schlaffer © Martina Handler/WwB

f.l.t.r.: Jaleh Lackner-Gohari, Manal Omar and Edit Schlaffer at the iraqi bufet after the event.

Manal Omar © Martina Handler/WwB

Iraq - "There is always a Hope for Change"

Manal Omar/Iraq was in Vienna talking about the current situation in Iraq.

Manal Omar, Country Director of Women for Women International Iraq, was in Vienna participating in the conference "Civil Society Participation in Muslim Countries. Different Models, a common pattern?" organised by Students of the Diplomatic Academy on May 31st.

Women without Borders arranged a presstalk where Manal Omar presented the report "Windows of Opportunity", a study about the situation of women in Iraq.

"First of all, I would like to thank Edit and the entire Women Without Borders team for making this possible. It is a wonderful opportunity to talk about Iraq, not just because of the many things that have happened there over the past three years, but because of the fundamental  difficulty in expressing the situation of women in Iraq.

Retrospectively, looking at Iraq between 2003 and 2004, is like looking at two completely different countries - the same can be said about the Iraq of 2005.  There is a constant dynamic and fluid environment that is promoting change and development in Iraq, which has also significantly affected the situation of women. 

One of the things that we have observed in Iraq, is that women have served as a sort of barometer of society. If more attention would have been paid to women in Iraq there is a lot that could have been told about what direction the future of Iraq was heading. However, before I further elaborate, let me go back a few steps to tell you a bit about the sentiments of women in Iraq from a survey conducted by Women for Women International called “Windows of Opportunity”.

Three of the largest cities were chosen to conduct this survey. Musor in the north, Baghdad as an extremely diverse area - almost all ethnic groups are represented in Baghdad - and Basra in the south.
We asked 1000 women about what their biggest needs and concerns were one year after the war. The three primary concerns that resulted were security, job opportunities and infrastructure. Infrastructure in the sense of electricity and access to water. This is a very common complaint among women. The lack of job opportunities is a crucial issue for Iraq as a whole, but in particular for women. Generally, the poor economic state of Iraq is of great significance and one of the most important hurdles that will have to be overcome. 
Iraqis and particularly Iraqi women, at all social and economic levels, want to have some sense of control over their life – this means access to jobs. Security is clearly the number one challenge for both, locals and internationals. As bad as security is, one of the things that impressed me most is the fact that Iraqis refuse to stay at home, despite of the risks involved in leaving the house.
They go to work, saying good bye in the morning to their families as if they would not return. But they are still leaving their homes and children are still being sent to school.

Another question we asked was: “Are you hopeful for Iraq and particularly for women in Iraq?”. An overwhelming majority, over 90 % of the women still maintain to be hopeful. There was generally a strong sense of hope that was reflected in many of the answers.
Under Saddam, there was no opportunity to even consider the possibility of change. The people endured very hard times which they believed would never come to an end.  The fact that change is now happening at such a rapid pace is an important factor making me want to stay and work in Iraq. As you know, a large number of internationals have been targeted and killed in Iraq. Particularly on the Iraqi side, where lot of Iraqis die every day.
Also, there has been a large number of women that have been shot. Therefore, it was only natural to consult with our staff whether we should actually stay in Iraq or pull out.  An Iraqi staff said that the moment we pull out “you might as well just dig our grave and leave”.  Another member of our staff said: “You know, you would instantly kill us.” There is a real sense of importance in what we are trying to achieve and subsequently there is a need to continue.  This belief is also fundamentally driven by the very strong sense of hope in change that is shared by everyone.

Elections in January 2005 – “we knew this was our right”

I think this sense of hope was best represented by the January elections in 2005.
On a personal level, I was very worried about the elections and believed that the timeline was very tight. Repeatedly my staff would tell me: “Do not worry; people are going to go out to vote.” - Of course we pushed the public awareness campaign for women forward in terms of elections -  Since the women that we work with are the most socially and economically marginalized women, we try to go into the areas that are in biggest need of assistance. It was therefore very important that these women had a sense of what the election process was all about and to inform them about who they would vote for.
As you all know, the turn out of the January elections was overwhelming and the Iraqis really took ownership over the process. Iraqis woke up in the morning, realizing the risks.  They prayed their morning prayer, said good bye to their families as if they would not return and went out to vote. I think that is very indicative of Iraqi women, particularly in the most social economical areas, who recognised that this was something hat they really needed to do.

In our survey we also asked women: “Do you know what you are voting for?”  The results showed us that it was not any particular party that inspired them but rather what motivated them to risk their lives to go and vote was predominantly the fact that: “we knew this was our right”.  Iraqi women strongly believed that exercising their right to vote was something that they needed to do, in order to first and foremost their dignity to take ownership over what was happening in their country.

The struggle of Iraqi women continues

The original election process would not have included reserved seats for women. When Iraqi women saw the initial election process, which was based on a congress system, they were not satisfied. They lobbied in the coalition as well as in Iraqi governing council, proclaiming that this is not something Iraqi women would not be happy with. It was a direct result of their work that the 33 % of Iraqi women are now in the initial national assembly.  I therefore think it is really important to acknowledge that fact. We saw networking, lobbying, and an unbelievable amount of pressure being applied for the women to be adequately represented.

From victims to active citizens

Let me now go back a few year and tell you a little bit about Women for Women International.  We started out 13 years ago and have been in Iraq since July 2003. One of the most important objectives of WWI is that we try to help women  shift from being victims to survive and prosper as active citizens. Initially when we set up our Iraq office in 2003, we had, one the one hand, very educated women from various professional fields, but on the other hand, we had women from certain areas, even within Baghdad, that can be considered to have suffered from “institutionalized poverty”. Infrastructure was extremely weak, it was very common for children to have common diseases like diarrhea or typhus and just overall poverty to an extent that was even unknown to  some of our staff. 
We had many discussions with women were we dealt with many issues such as the election process and their constitutional rights, however it proved to be very difficult since their main priority was merely to get food on the table. 
You have to also consider that the average household had four to five children and many of them were also supporting their parents. So the only issue which was of importance was the issue of survival.  Many women cried out  that: “we need food, we need the basics…then can you start talking to us about other things.” With others the response was an even harsher one: “don’t even try to work with us, go work with the youth, our life is over.” What you have to consider is that these women were in their 30’s when there life was just beginning.

Women have created a space for themselves

We started working with them in terms of job skills training. Twice a month women met and stayed with us for a period of one year. This was crucial in order to move women from being victims to active citizens, which cannot be achieved in a short period of time. The job skills training was very successful from the beginning on.  We also were particularly keen on training them to do non traditional jobs such as carpentry, which we started in the south. Even though carpentry is considered to be a male dominated domain, the women were actually phenomenal – even though we first had to convince a trainer to teach women carpentry. 
The women were so good that men even started hiring some of the women to work with them. A lot of them started their own businesses in terms of doing carpentry outside the house, which included a lot of refurbishing, pulling apart furniture and putting it back together. Once we were able to get them on their feet, economically stimulating their sustainability, the move towards active citizenship followed naturally.

In the January elections a lot of women from the areas we worked in were running for an office. We are talking about very socially and economically marginalized women, women who had no income and were mostly illiterate. However, the most notable success is that the women created a space and established it for themselves.

The daily life – a very high price to pay

The normality has definitely been interrupted. Children went to school and people went to work very well aware of the risks. Let me tell you about the kidnappings for example. Kidnappings in Iraq are a reality. Even though we only hear about International citizens being kidnapped, Iraqis are being kidnapped almost on a daily basis. And the kidnappings are random. It’s not just the rich that are kidnapped. Anybody is at risk of being kidnapped in exchange for even the smallest amounts. It is not necessarily an elite. Nevertheless, people still send their children to school.
Personally, I could not imagine acting this way.  I would rather lock my children up in the basement and not let them see sunlight for quite some time. But I think that this is the Iraqi way of reclaiming their society.  It is a personal choice in many ways just to reclaim their own society. But unfortunately it is not without paying the highest possible price, which is being paid every day. I am begging friends not to send their kids to school.  Even when the son of a friend of mine was being kidnapped, we went through tiring negotiations with the kidnappers and ended up paying a large ransom, the mother send her son back to school the following week.  When I asked her how she can do that, she told me not to live in fear.  It is truly amazing – it is heroic."

Edit Schlaffer: Thank you very much! You gave us a very clear picture on gender and social change in Iraq and how much women achieved.

In an interview with Edit Schlaffer Manal Omar talked about her childhood, her career, her goals, fears and worries. Read a very personal talk.


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