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America Thanked for Liberating Iraqi Women By: Meghan Clyne
The New York Sun | Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Iraq's and Afghanistan's new ministers for women's affairs thanked America for liberating their countries, especially their women, at a press briefing yesterday sponsored by Freedom House, America's oldest human-rights organization.

At the pro-democracy group's Wall Street offices, Afghanistan's minister of women's affairs, Massouda Jalal, and Iraq's minister of state for women's affairs, Narmin Othman, spoke of how new constitutions and recent elections have advanced women's freedom in their countries. They also urged continued support for their fledgling democracies from the American government, and they encouraged increased support from America's press, civic organizations, and private sector.

In Afghanistan, Dr. Jalal said, women under the Taliban regime "couldn't live like full human beings." Under the country's new constitution, however, women enjoy equal rights and are allowed to participate in civil society, pursue an education, and move freely without the escort of a male family member - things unheard of under the Taliban regime, she said.

Women are also taking an active role in Afghan politics, Dr. Jalal said. The minister - who was a presidential candidate in Afghanistan's first-ever elections, held October 9 - said 25% of seats in the lower house of Parliament are reserved for women, 40% of her country's registered voters are women, and, despite heavy snow and rain, women were the first to come out and vote in the elections.

Also, Dr. Jalal said, since 2001,women have taken advantage of the new opportunities open to them in the private sector. They are participating in the country's economy as businesswomen, in the news media, and are pursuing legal training, Dr. Jalal, formerly a practicing physician, said.

While the new freedoms and constitutional protections are having a positive effect on educated urban women, she said, they must be extended to rural women as well. To achieve that and the country's other democratizing ambitions, she called on America's private sector, particularly its women, to help by sharing experience and knowledge with those trying to build Afghanistan's private sector and ensure women's inclusion in it.

Continued American financial support was also important, the minister said. The Afghan democracy "is like a small baby, not walking on its feet yet," she said, warning, "If we leave it behind, it will fall back."

"We are not asking for eternal support," Dr. Jalal added, nor are Afghans ignorant of the sacrifices made by Americans to help their country.

Saying her countrymen "will never forget the help" Americans provided in creating the new Afghanistan, Dr. Jalal told her audience: "The children - they know the name of President Bush. ... They realize the Americans are helping us." Aiding women, she added, was important to ensuring that her country's next generation carries on the Afghan-American friendship, because 99% of Afghan women are mothers.

Ms. Othman, too, expressed gratitude for American help in advancing freedom in her country, saying the removal of Saddam Hussein was "wonderful."

"You should never think you did a wrong thing. You did a very big thing for the Iraqi people," the minister said.

Ms. Othman, a Kurdish former minister of education, recounted how the Baathist regime created "hundreds and hundreds of mass graves," filled mostly with women and children, and how "they sold young girls to Saudi Arabia and Egypt." Yet, she said, "I never saw one article in the newspaper written on Saddam."

Ms. Othman's uncle and brother-in-law were executed by Mr. Hussein for their political opposition, she said, and her husband was imprisoned for five years. "In every family, there is a story," Ms. Othman said.

The story of women's rights under Mr. Hussein was a dismal one, according to Ms. Othman. While the Baathist regime granted women certain rights in theory, the government's practice was another matter entirely. Under Iraqi law, the regime was allowed to execute female prostitutes without trial, Ms. Othman said, and women involved in opposition movements were labeled prostitutes so they could be eliminated. In October 2000, the minister said, about 100 women, including a 61-year-old member of the opposition, were branded prostitutes and executed "without any article in the newspaper" documenting it.

To help Iraq's women, and the rest of the country, Americans need to extend their support to Iraqis, because "we cannot rebuild Iraq under the conflict situation," Ms. Othman said. The terrorists' strategy is to destroy Iraq, she said, even while women are making progress there.

"For the first time we have a women's minister in Iraq," Ms. Othman said. "We have about 500 women's organizations, and they are active even under the terror."

Women are "doing very well" in her country, Ms. Othman said, adding that more than 50% of voters in the January 30 Iraqi elections were women. To preserve those advances, Ms. Othman said, the "one major job is to write the constitution" such that it protects women's rights.

During this process, the Iraqi people "really need the help of the media," Ms. Othman said, urging the press to report more than bombings and terror attacks. In the question session following the ministers' prepared remarks, she said news organizations "need to show people that there's a positive side to Iraq," including the advances made by women.

"We need a real media - an honest, truthful media ... showing the negative and the positive, not all negative," she said.

Dr. Jalal, too, urged greater focus by news organizations on women's programs and achievements in her country. She said radio coverage was particularly valuable to the cause of spreading information about women's initiatives, given the 4% literacy rate among Afghan women.

Those initiatives and their success serve an important exemplary function for other countries in the region, according to the State Department's senior coordinator for international women's issues, Charlotte Ponticelli, who also participated in the briefing.

After reaffirming America's commitment to women in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ms. Ponticelli said that "despite the naysayers and the doom-and-gloom predictions in the international community and in the press," women set an example by being the first to vote in Afghanistan's first elections in the country's 5,000-year history. Almost four months later, Iraqi women "watched their sisters in Afghanistan and said 'If they can do it, we can,' "and participated in what Iraqis are calling their country's Purple Revolution, Ms. Ponticelli said.

The State Department and the United States Agency for International Development are acting as hosts to the ministers and their delegations. The visitors arrived Monday to participate in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York and will be celebrating International Women's Day, observed on March 8, in Washington, D.C. There they will also meet with members of Congress and be trained in constitution-building by nongovernmental organizations. The Freedom House briefing was organized by one of the group's women's-issues scholars, Sameena Nazir Ford.

Meghan Clyne is a staff reporter for The New York Sun.

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