As a teen growing up in a progressive, upper-middle-class Baghdad family in the 1980s, Zainab Salbi often fell asleep to the sound of bombs exploding. It was the Iran-Iraq war that haunted her then, but it was the Persian Gulf war in 1990 that would change her life.
She was visiting friends in Seattle just before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and was unable to immediately return due to an embargo. She stayed, and, soon after enrolling in college became aware of the dire situation for women in the war-torn former Yugoslavia. Stories of rape camps inspired her to start
Women for Women International, a not-for-profit that helps survivors of war become emotionally strong and financially self-reliant.
In June Zainab organized a two-day conference in Jordan to bring together members of the Constitutional Committee, Iraqi feminists, and experts from Africa and Asia to discuss building an Islamic society that respects the rights of women.
Did the women in attendance feel safe and comfortable speaking their minds to the men on the Constitutional Committee?
Some were adamant, argumentative, some weren’t. The men were all educated and [these sort of men] never say anything like “women are not equal.” They just don’t see women’s issues as really important. One woman, she was a lawyer, kept trying to speak, but a man—he was a judge—kept talking over her. Finally she said, “You are not some big dictator. You are just a little dictator and you need to let me speak!” Everyone laughed; it was fine.
Was she wearing a hijab?
She wasn’t. Some women were covered, but they were saying, “This is what we believe, yet we don’t want to impose our views on everyone.” The lawyer had burgundy-colored hair and very dark makeup. But wearing or not wearing the
hijab, or even the abaya, is no indicator of passivity. Years ago I was in a Bagdad market and I saw this woman—all covered up—beating this man in the head with her bag! He had touched her or something. But, you know, before Hussein it was optional. Now everyone wears it. When I was there [in February] I wore it too, out of fear.
In spite of the success of the conference, the draft constitution is pretty much void of any tangible protections for women. Do you feel a little defeated?
It’s definitely a downer, but one should never give up hope. I’ve seen four drafts in two weeks already, with significant changes in them. We still have another week. Also, the process of discussion is key. This was the first time the women had met with the drafting committee. And I have to tell you, there is one good thing pertaining to family law. Before, citizenship was strictly patrilineal. Now a child is an Iraqi if either the father or mother is—that shows a degree of equality. The worst part of the draft relegates all other family matters to tribal courts. So Shiites go to Shiite courts, Sunnis to Sunni courts, and so on. It gives local imams the right to interpret Shari’a law as they see fit.
After Hussein was deposed, women reported feeling suddenly threatened by their acquaintances and neighbors—they got warnings to dress differently, for example. Sometimes the intimidation reaches the level of death threats. Why did men turn against their sisters and peers?
I always say that under Hussein the violence was top-down. Now it’s horizontal. Iraq has become a free-for-all. But still, the greatest danger isn’t from neighbors, it’s from the insurgents. I know of 20 women, colleagues and friends, who have been assassinated. They fit a certain profile—educated, professional. It’s a message we must not ignore.
At one time you considered temporarily closing your office in Iraq because of the danger posed to outspoken women.
Our staff begged us not to. Now we operate very carefully. We don’t hold meetings. We work on the ground, in secret. I can’t divulge a lot of details for security reasons. But the staff are all Iraqi—they are usually from the provinces they work, so they are not outsiders to the women they work with. The fact that they are associated with us is kept quiet for their safety.
In practical terms, does the constitution really matter? With the way things appear to be headed, won’t ideologues and imams in the provinces just treat women as they like anyway?
I love this question! In our survey of women in the three largest provinces, 94 percent thought it was important that women’s rights be enshrined in the constitution. There are two levels of discussion—theory and practice. You need one to have the other. Nigeria has great laws—it is illegal to cut a woman’s genitals but people still do it. They haven’t moved to the second level. But in Rwanda, after the constitution was ratified, they put together a booklet on women’s rights, with pictures. They took it out to the towns and villages and educated people about women’s rights. Getting the theory in place is just the first stage.
People always ask why should we care about Iraqi women—
I don’t ask that!
[Laughs] I know, but I’m just saying. When you sacrifice women’s rights, when you negotiate women’s rights away, the entire society suffers. I am not coming at this from a strictly moral point of view; it is also very pragmatic. You need strong women—at the grass-roots level—to build a strong society. Women are the barometers.