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05. March 2007

Rajaa al-Khuzai1 © Xenia Hausner

Rajaa al-Khuzai&Edit Schlaffer © Xenia Hausner

Rajaa al-Khuzai and Edit Schlaffer in Vienna.

Iraqi Widows Orga © Rajaa al-Khuzai

An assembly of the Iraqi Widows organisation in Baghdad.

Rajaa al-Khuazi Nacht d.Wr.Wirtschaft © Elisabeth Kasbauer/FoG

Rajaa al Khuzai at the night of the Viennese Economy on February 17th in the Vienna City Hall.

Daliya, Edit, Raja ©Schedl

v.l.n.r.: Daliya F. Shawkat / Baghdad, Edit Schlaffer / FoG, Rajaa al-Khuzai / Baghdad

Rajaa al-Khuzai2©Xenia Hausner

“They Even Stole my Tears”

Edit Schlaffer, Chairperson and founder of Women without Borders in discussion with Dr. Rajaa al-Khuzai, Vienna, February 2007

Rajaa al-Khuzai is the architect of the new Iraq. The constitution displays her signature. She was one of the first three female parliamentarians in the interim government. She is used to entering new territory: she was the first woman in her hometown of Diwaniyya to become a doctor. During the last sanctions when she was forced to operate by candle light – she was head of a hospital for women and children and she didn’t join the others who fled when maraud guards tried to plunder the medical facility. She took a stand against them and shouted: “This is our hospital!” Her courage saved her and the patients. And now, as the fragile structures are crumbling, Rajaa is one of the most reliable voices for a new way.

She has, however, paid a high price: death threats define her daily life. She goes out with up to 30 bodyguards and just recently she just managed to get the youngest of her 7 children out of the country. But Rajaa wants to stay. Knowing that she is the only hope for survival for thousands of widows, she has set up a microcredit program for them. She was nominated for the Peace Nobel Prize. Of course, she is appreciative of such honours, but distinctions are not her priority: “This is your Iraq!” is what she tells her fellow Iraqis. And her message during her visit to Vienna: This Iraq is also your responsibility. We need the humanitarian engagement of the European Union.”

Edit Schlaffer: Rajaa, you assumed responsibility and the lead for various situations as a matter of course; this was certainly not always easy.

Rajaa al-Khuzai: I am the daughter of a teacher; my father was an educated man. And the Iraqi women of my childhood were well-educated and emancipated. Our house was full of books and I was able to recite the poems of Egyptian, Lebanese or French poets. In summer we went to our farm where my father called all the farmers to come. He asked them to sit down and told them that this was now their school and he would start to educate them. This inspiring atmosphere shaped my life.

ES: You show us a picture of an Iraq far from bombs, terror and hopelessness.

RK: My father was the first student to graduate in Diwaniyya and the day he left to begin his studies, a music band accompanied him on the way to the railway station. Education was always something amazing for us, and it still is.
My daughter finished studying pharmacy last year at the University of Baghdad. Everyday, when I said good bye to her in the morning, we didn’t know whether we would see each other again. Daliya and her friends took all the risks to get an education. They had to pass checkpoints and their way to the university often was frightening: grenades, sirens and crying people.

ES: You moved into politics…

RK: … although politics was horrible when I was a child. My father criticised the monarchy and the secret policy sifted through our house quite often. More often than not, my mother managed to burn up critical texts. But I remember very well the cuts he had from the hand-cuffs in prison. Our order was to stay out of politics.

ES: You didn’t stick with it.

RK: I decided to do the best for my country by becoming a doctor and I managed to get my vocational training in gynaecology in London. To get the visa, I had to trick them. They didn’t want doctors to leave the country, so a friend of my husband’s filled in housewife on the form asking for my profession. That was fun. It didn’t gnaw at my conscience because I knew for sure that I would come back with the best qualifications.

ES: As the head of a big maternity hospital, you weathered the Gulf wars and the sanctions and kept your clinic open.

RK: During Saddam’s rule, we knew that we had one enemy and we could manage it somehow. We were not allowed to speak out openly, political comments were a no-no. Doctors and nurses made jokes about Saddam quite often while operating, this was our favourite “national sport”, but I was always quiet. I didn’t want to take any risks and I knew that there were spies on my team, too.

ES: You welcomed the invasion and the fall of Saddam.

RK: Yes, totally, like most of the Iraqis. First, on a personal level, he hated doctors. I assume that he was angry because he had everything except a medical degree. The University of Baghdad gave him a juris doctorate; at the entrance of the college you could see his image holding the scales of justice in his hands. How ironic!

I remember that he once fired more than 57 professors from the medical faculty, just like that. During the sanctions doctors and engineers were so desperate that they started to sell cigarettes in the streets after finishing their shift at the hospital – they needed the extra money to make ends meet.

ES: In this time you started to stand up for the widows in your country.

RK: Nobody talked about these women or noticed the problem. But as a gynaecologist, I met them very often; in a sudden burst we had more than 1 million widows. Saddam’s solution: when he heard about the high number of young widows he passed a bill – every man who married a widow got 20,000 Dinar.

The situation is dramatic at the moment; every month we have hundreds of new widows and they are so young, often only 15 or 16 years. I won very important support from the World Bank and was able to start an economic program for the widows. But it is not enough. There should be much more money for these kinds of projects so that the people can regain hope.

ES: You gave birth to seven children in these critical times….

RK: …and I lost my younger brother. I can’t stand it. He had just finished his studies and was in the army. Suddenly, I lost contact with him and received the message that he was in a hospital in the south. My husband, my mother and my uncle joined me on the way, but he was not there. The next day the director of the military hospital, he knew my brother, came to me and told me to brace myself. They had executed my brother. At night we took his corpse out of the morgue and clandestinely buried him at 3 o’clock in the morning. They even stole our tears. I still do not know what my little brother was accused of.

ES: In June 2003 you were called to come to the palace and meet Ambassador Paul Bremer III, the future civilian administrator of Iraq.

RK: I received this call in the morning and they told me to please come after lunch. I was 150 kilometres away and didn’t know what to expect. When I entered the palace I had mixed feelings because it was from that place that Saddam had terrorised all of us and now they were setting the course for our new life from there too.

Bremer was very friendly, asked me how long I lived in the UK, when I had come back to Iraq and what I knew about the constitution. Finally, I asked him: “Why am I here?” His short answer: “Because you are a strong woman.” I was quite confused on my way back home.

ES: This is so exciting, how did it go on?

RK: My husband wanted to know why Bremer called me. I could just repeat the sentence: “Because I am a strong woman.” But this was no news for my husband. Two days later I got another call from Bremer. He just told me: “Congratulations. You got the job.” And I responded: “Which job? I already have work.”

Bremer explained that from now on I was an appointed member of the transitional government. I was so perplexed that I asked for time to think it over. I got 48 hours.
We had family council at home. I just repeated all the time: “What do I know about politics?” But my husband insisted: “This is your chance! During the last decades you have saved the lives of so many children and mothers. Now you have the chance to be there for all Iraqis.” I remember the feeling of panic: “What if I fail?”

Finally my husband convinced me: “If you do not try, you will never now. And who is born as a politician?”

ES: On July 13th 2004, the day when Bremer introduced the transitional government, he presented three women and 22 men. And you were one of these women.

RK: Very quickly I got a glimpse of the horrors the future had in store. My colleague, Aquila al-Hashimi, was murdered on her way to work. Shortly after that, her successor, Salema, violently lost her 19-year-old son in a targeted terrorist attack. She was informed that this should be taken as a warning to stay out of politics.

After Aquila al Hashimi’s murder, it was clear that I was also a target. I currently have bodyguards 24 hours a day; they even sleep in my garden. I’m like a prisoner in my own home. I can’t even sit in front of my door. The guards are always there in their tents. On my first journey away from the house, I noticed that my bodyguards were sticking their arms out of the car window and firing their guns into the air. Alarmed and scared, I told them to stop it. Otherwise, I would drive myself. This method of protection wasn’t reassuring at all.

ES: Do you believe your work is worth the risk?

RK: This was a very critical period for women and I’m happy that I was able to exert a positive influence. Our old family and social welfare laws needed to be abolished because they were associated with the era of Saddam. I consulted legal experts and was assured that our laws were the best in the Middle East. I filed a petition in Parliament and won 15 out of 25 votes. We were able to retain the old laws which were important for women. However, on the same night of this crucial vote, I receive death threats from the opposing political parties. Imagine; these threats came from my fellow parliamentarians.

ES: How did you deal with this situation?

RK: At first, I was paralyzed, but then I felt empowered again. Through my political involvement I had already placed myself in a danger zone; at least I was able to do something positive, something that would benefit the Iraqi women. This is what I’ll be remembered for.

ES: You are the voice for women in Iraq and travel about in constant danger in order to be an advocate for their cause. You’ve told us about the thousands of orphans who are forced to leave the orphanages at the age of 15 in order to make space for younger children. This is really traumatic for the orphan girls because they’re living on the streets. Unfortunately, you’re no longer a member of the government.

RK: Last year I decided to focus my efforts on the humanitarian level. I left politics because nobody was listening to me anymore. I felt that many of the people I had worked with lost their loyalty to Iraq.

ES: Chaos and disorientation seem to prevail in Iraq right now. Are there any strategies in place? Any solutions?

RK: Yes, absolutely. Up to this point, the EU hasn’t done enough. During the 14 years of sanctions, the EU didn’t help the Iraqi people. Now the time has arrived to rebuild Iraq, but this process will only make sense if it’s based on providing much needed support to women. This sort of strategy would enable us to reach the families in Iraq.

The children don’t play anymore; depression and despair have affected the whole country. Half of the people live under the poverty line; the dropout rate for school children has reached 700,000, 74% of which are girls. We feel like hamsters in a running wheel. Numerous security measures have been carried out but nothing has worked, except for the curfews implemented by the government.

Let’s focus our efforts and attention on the Iraqi women! They make up 60% of the population. If we directly support them through programs ranging from microcredit initiatives and career-oriented training campaigns, to postgraduate programs aimed at our enormous potential of highly talented young people, we will see a sense of hope return.

Dr. Rajaa al-Khuzai was guest of honour at last week’s Nacht der Wiener Wirtschaft 2007(Night of the Viennese Commerce) in Vienna.

This interview was published in the Austrian newspater Die Presse on March 3rd 2007.


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