Fatma Khafagy is women’s rights activist in the Arab region. She worked with the United Nations on gender issues for 15 years.

She established and presided over the first Ombudsperson office on gender equality in Egypt. For the past four years she has been assisting the UN agencies in developing gender equality strategies in Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and Libya.

Gendercentric: Fatma, thank you very much for agreeing to share some of your experience on working with gender equality issues in Iraq. It is sometimes the case that situations of political upheaval provide an opportunity for women to take on new and more dynamic roles in society. Has that happened for Iraqi women?

Fatma: To some extent. There has been an interest from the Iraqi government and the American occupation to increase women’spolitical participation and this has happened with several limitations. Women were also encouraged to participate in putting together the new constitution. Women have had also to take care of their families when they became heads of the families as a result of losing their husbands. Because of the large amounts of development aid also, several new women’s NGOs were established and many of them managed to administer new projects in Iraq. However, gains that Iraqi women have achieved since 1970 under a constitution that granted women equal rights in education, employment, and political participation have been lost since the Iraq-Iran war followed by the Gulf war and ending with the US invasion.

Gendercentric: Could you perhaps say a bit more about women’s rights efforts pre-Constitution which resulted in relatively favourable conditions under the Constitution?

Fatma: Yes, well there are still serious barriers against equality in the context of women’s participation in public life. Iraqi women continue to be underrepresented at the legislative, judicial, ministerial, and sub-ministerial levels, as well as at the economic and social institutions.

Women from the local councils were interested in running for election, but only a few were elected during the first local election. Women were only able to increase their political participation through the gender quota system. However, the gender quota of 30% in the parliament was not reached and therefore was reduced. Only 25% of women were able to become parliamentarians as a result of enlisting women on voting lists of political parties.

Gendercentric: I suppose looking at the global picture 25% is not too bad, though of course it would be better to have more. How does this figure compare with some of the neighbouring countries in the region? Are there many women’s organizations actively working to reduce this or other gender gaps? I guess an equally important question would be ‘Are there Iraqi men who actively support greater gender equality?’

Fatma: Iraq fairs better than Arab countries. Women have to occupy 25% of parliament seats. But many women are elected for religious or tribal reasons. There is much influence of religious parties on women in parliament. Also many of the women parliamentarians are relatives of male conservative leaders and they have no experience or expertise in politics. Very few though are secular women’s activists. The Americans were very much concerned to show that the change in

Iraq is so positive for women and that is why they insisted on the 25% gender quota. However, it is only a matter of quantitative representation and not of quality representation. Iraqi women are also very much less represented than men in ministerial positions and in decision -making positions.

There are several women’s organizations now but they much more involved in administering large developmental projects than in work to reduce gender gaps. I mean that they work as consulting firms more than popular organizations with constituencies of women Some of government men officials support greater gender equality but the majority needs to be gender sensitized.

Gendercentric: What are some of the other striking inequalities in Iraqi society that you have noticed?

Fatma: Well in terms of women’s personal status law it is important to note that despite the establishment of the1970 Constitution the old Personal Status Code (1958) is the one implemented in all Iraq except in Kurdistan which has a much more gender equitable law. The 1958 law permits polygamy upon the husband’s obtaining permission from the court and demonstrating his ability to support more than one wife. The husband has the right to divorce and the wife has a right to petition for divorce in case of the husband’s imprisonment, desertion for two years, is impotent or infertile or refuses to provide maintenance.

Rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, honour crimes, female genital cutting, domestic violence, trafficking and prostitution are types of violence women are suffering from in Iraq today. Many women live under constant fear of being abducted, raped or murdered. In the early 1990s, legal restrictions were placed on women’s freedom of movement and women had to be accompanied by a male relative if they were to travel outside the country Freedom of movement is still limited due to the ongoing conflict and many women are not able to leave their homes without male escort. Kurdish women generally enjoy a greater degree of freedom and more rights than the rest. The majority of women wear a veil in public. It is a religious practice for many but also due to social pressure and there is a risk of being harassed if they do not.

Gendercentric: if women’s movements are so restricted presumably their economic participation is also rather limited?

Fatma: Women’s labour force participation rate is around 13% only. It is higher in rural areas due to the fact that women are engaged in family agricultural unpaid work. The number of widows in Iraq varies according to source of data. Some sources estimate it to be 2 million widows. The number of female headed households is estimated sometimes to be 10% of total households. The level of poverty of female headed households is very high with no means to make ends meet and many of them reported that they live on donations from neighbours and relatives.

Gendercentric: Has there also been a regression in women’s education?

Fatma: As for education, the adult literacy rate for both men and women aged 15-24 years is only 34% (18% for women and 50% for men). The gross enrolment rate for girls at primary schools was 54% in 2004, while the total gross enrolment rate was 94%. This shows that boys are currently benefiting more from education than girls do. Boys are twice as likely as girls to complete primary school, and this difference widens at the secondary school level, and widens further still in higher education.

Gendercentric: and what about women’s health status in this situation?

Fatma: Endemic insecurity is an obstacle hindering women’s access to health services. Fewer women are working outside the home in the healthcare sector. Economic deprivation results in basic medicines and health care being scarce and few people are able to pay for private care. In addition, transportation costs to reach services for those in rural areas add to the cost of healthcare. Contraceptives are not considered essential and are not fully covered by the state and therefore the majority of women have no access to birth control. In addition, instability, insecurity and violence affect the mental health of both men and women. According to Iraq Mental Health Survey conducted in 2006/7 and which surveyed a sample of over 4000 men and women over 18 years of age, representing the Iraqi household population revealed that out of the 16.5% who suffered from a mental health disorder during their lifetime, only 2.2% were recipients of health disorder during their lifetime, only 2.2% were recipients of medical care. Anxiety and behavioural disorders were found higher among women than men.

Gendercentric: Can you spot any glimmers of hope in this situation either in terms of support provided by foreign donors or in terms of the activities of government or civil society in Iraq?

Fatma: Iraqi women can capitalize on the relatively large representation of women in parliament to demand gender equality in legislation. They can actually demand for a better family law that restricts unilateral right of man to divorce his wife, can restrict polygamy and can increase the age of marriage. Part of the large funding provided by bilateral and multilateral donors can be used to organize gender sensitization and gender planning training of the Iraqi bureaucracy. Their skills in addressing gender inequality should be developed and there is a chance to do that.

Gender based violence and lack of security that women face and which discourage women from participating in education and in economic life and restrict their movement and mobility is being seriously looked at and plans to address it are being developed at present.

Gendercentric: Many thanks, Fatma, for sharing your insights & we look forward to seeing you again on Voices soon.