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Women's rights put to test in Iraq

THE FATE of Iraqi women's rights rests on the outcome of today's election. Zainab Al-Suwaij and Ala Talabani, two prominent Iraqi women leaders, say the elections will decide whether women will really become equal citizens or lose their voices.

Women are the majority in Iraq: 55 of every 100 citizens. And for the first time, the interim constitution guarantees at least a quarter of the 275 seats in Iraq's new National Assembly to women.

But Al-Suwaij and Talabani have spoken out against the efforts of some conservatives and religious extremists to limit the role of women in the new Iraq, and to impose restrictions on the feminine majority. ''Some are using violence -- shootings and car bombs -- to try to stop women from campaigning and being elected," Al-Suwaij says.

That women's rights are an explosive issue is a bitter reality for Al-Suwaij, 33, who grew up under the harsh rule of Saddam Hussein, took up arms against the Iraqi ruler, and today is working to bring democracy to a country that is struggling both with Hussein's legacy and an age-old authoritarian tradition. With her friend and comrade Talabani, Al-Suwaij has been working to ensure that freedom extends to all the population. This, they say, is a crucial moment for women in Iraq.

Before becoming a peace-wager, Al-Suwaij was a warrior -- and has the bullet scar on her cheek to prove it. At 20, during the 1991 Gulf War, she heeded the words of the first President Bush, who broadcast messages on Voice of America urging the Iraqi people to rebel against Hussein, promising US support. As an armed fighter, she helped open the gates of a prison where there was a human meat grinder for those who didn't confess. The promised support never arrived, and the battle-scarred veteran went into exile in the United States. Lately she has focused on training Iraqi women leaders about democracy. ''I called it Democracy 101," Al-Suwaij says.

As part of the program financed by $1.5 million from USAID, Al-Suwaij recently gathered 70 Iraqi women from nine provinces. Twenty-five of them are running for office in today's elections. ''Some of them have not had the opportunity to study higher education, but they are very smart and capable. Very impressive," she says.

Al-Suwaij especially admires the courage of Bedor Alyassri, 36, from Samwah. After the American occupation, Alyassri organized meetings among women, following her heart and her instincts.

''Bedor has been targeted for her work," says Al-Suwaij. ''She doesn't know exactly who is trying to assassinate her. Could be insurgents, or members of other political parties who don't like the fact that she is mobilizing many people."

Talabani, a civil engineer who has also been struggling to empower Iraqi women, was fired from her job for refusing to join Hussein's Baath party 15 years ago. After joining the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, she was detained by the Iraqi security service. In 1996, she went into exile in England and helped organize the Women's Union of Kurdistan. She recently trained 75 women in political leadership, and hopes that some will be elected today.

Even with some women guaranteed political posts today, the women of Iraq have a long way to go before Iraqi men treat them as political or social equals.

''In this first election, the candidates will be elected based upon religious orientation," Talabani said. ''This will be a party-based election, not based upon their points of view on issues or projects."

Both women fear that if extremists are elected, they might consider it a mandate to resurrect measures such as the infamous ''Resolution 137," an attempt to restrict women's rights ''by making religious Sharia family law into civil law." Al-Suwaij said Resolution 137 would not have allowed women to leave their houses without asking for permission from their husbands, while Talabani pointed out that the resolution would have allowed men to marry several women without going to a court.

Resolution 137 was defeated this past March. But today brings a fresh vote on women's status in Iraq. Talabani pointed out that Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, the man behind Resolution 137, is campaigning to become president. She strongly hopes he doesn't win.

Despite the many battles ahead, both women are hopeful; each would like someday to be president of a democratic Iraq. Then they could get some real work done.

''We, the women, are building bridges among cultural, ethnic, and religious divides," Talabani says.

Supporting Iraqi women leaders who are risking their lives to help rebuild their country should be a higher priority for the United States and the international community. It is necessary to multiply the resources being invested in this vital front. Iraqi women leaders are key players in this nation's struggle toward democracy. When the last US troops pull out, it will the Iraqi women who will try harder to keep the peace.

María Cristina Caballero is a fellow at Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership.  

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