Videos of Manal




  • Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity-My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos
    Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity-My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos
    by Manal Omar
  • Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak
    Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak
    Beacon Press

Understanding the Role of Women in Post-Conflict & Transitional Countries

March 11, 2014

In 2003, I led a delegation of women from the United States to Afghanistan to celebrate International Women’s Day in Kabul.  There was a remarkable air of excitement and discussion about the potential advancements Afghanistan could make towards gender equality.  At that time, women were steadily increasing their political participation; they had also secured legislation that protected women’s rights, such as the Elimination of Violence Against Women law.  A few months later I traveled to Baghdad and was met with the same level of excitement by women in Iraq.  There was a strong belief that women would be able to reclaim their foremothers’ legacy as one of the leading countries in the region on women’s rights.

Fast forward to over ten years later.  The conversation is dramatically different. I continue to travel and meet with women leaders in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  The excitement has dissipated.  Instead, it has been replaced by frustration and confusion.  How did we get here?  How did we move from a climate of ways to leap forward to desperation to secure the rights we already have? The reality is the window of opportunity was replaced by a struggle to maintain the most basic rights for women in both countries.   

My life’s work continues to focus on conflict, and in the past three years I have spent time in the squares in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and beyond.  My heart remains convinced that women are the missing ingredient to a successful transition.  It is not simply a matter of securing rights, it’s the missing piece to establishing security and stability. 

As I watch the stagnation of women’s rights in many countries I cannot but wonder what are the key lessons learned moving forward. In Iraq women face fewer education and economic opportunities than they did a decade ago. Iraqi women are losing their voice in the political arena, which is demonstrated as Iraq’s Article 41, a personal status law, remains unrevised. Without a conscious effort to advance the progression towards equality, women in transitioning countries face the risk of losing recently acquired rights and political capacity.       

In 2011, along with my colleagues at the United States Institute of Peace, a series of round table discussions to explore lessons learned from conflict and post-conflict programs of support for women’s rights was held. With the understanding that empowering women is critical to obtaining peace and security, six key points were developed:  

Islam has a critical role in the progress of the women’s rights movement. As post-conflict and Arab Spring countries make efforts to incorporate Islamic theory into new constitutions, important questions regarding the rights of women remain unanswered.  With Islam being open to various interpretations, it is necessary that Islamic laws, such as laws addressing personal status, be well defined and not confused with cultural customs. With many of the laws directly affecting the daily lives of women, women should participate in the shaping of their country’s Islamic constitution.  Furthermore, to successfully advance women’s rights, the movement must have the support and advocacy of religious leaders. These leaders are considered the voice of the law, and are often able to maintain respect and influence that political activists lack. 

The women’s rights agenda must be reinvigorated and prioritized. After a decade of costly occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, alongside the global economic crisis, many development programs are seeing donor fatigue. Women’s empowerment has been proven critical to peace building, national security, economic and social development.  Leaders must see the unique value in these programs and reinvest sufficient funding.  I often emphasize that this is not a nice thing for the international community to invest in.  It is necessary for any success to secure our past investments.

In order to become empowered, disenfranchised women must receive holistic training. Women in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown a desire for training programs that provide political empowerment, negotiation, advocacy, leadership, technical, and vocational training. By providing a suite of skills, women are better prepared to actively participate in leadership roles within their communities.

Men must be activists for women’s rights. Women’s training programs are more likely to be successful with the support of male community leaders. Male participation in the women’s rights movement is particularly needed in more conservative communities, where women tend to be excluded from leadership roles and political engagement.

Women from varied communities, religions, and cultures, must unite in the pursuit of women’s rights. Demanding women’s rights as a collective unit reduces the ability for political parties or other entities to manipulate and discredit the discussion through ethnic/sectarian differences. By engaging women from various communities, peer to peer learning, understanding, and collaboration between conflicted sectarian communities is fostered.  Women’s empowerment programs must also be strategically distributed to ensure training is equally accessible across social classes and geographies.

Women’s rights must be a mainstreamed discussion. Women and men across the globe in local, national, and international leadership positions must continue to discuss and prioritize women’s rights.  Media outlets should be used to highlight women’s rights and participation in peacebuilding. By using media to host an ongoing dialogue (radio, television, and print) women’s rights and leadership initiatives will become a mainstream discussion. Media outlets should also be used to distribute trainings and peacebuilding tools in order to reach a wider and more varied audience. 


  • Women and Rural Communities in Egypt

    April 7, 2011

    Following longtime leader Hosni Mubarak’s departure, USIP’s Manal Omar traveled to Egypt in early April to assess how the recent turmoil there has impacted rural communities and women.



    What specific challenges do women in Egypt face during this transitional period?

    There are two immediate challenges facing women. First, is to ensure that they are part of the process. Women were clearly part of the revolution, and played a distinct role in Tahrir Square. The main issue is to make sure they remain at the decision making table, and as part of the ongoing negotiations with the military. Already there is concern over language introduced for constitutional reform. The most cited was the fact that the language assumes the president will be male. The second challenge is recognizing the possibility of women's rights sliding backwards, and proactively working to ensure that does not happen. In the last few years, the laws passed promoting women's issues are tied directly to former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. Meanwhile, there is a fear that monolithic interpretations of Islamic law will be introduced by some of the more extremist viewpoints in the Muslim community.

    There is already a growing fear of a "Salafi" movement inside the country, with stories of attacks on women across the rural areas. During my trip, an announcement was made in Menia that there would be a day of Salafi protests, and acid would be thrown on any uncovered woman. No incident materialized, but the announcement was enough to leave women feeling threatened and pull girls out of schools. In the current environment, perception is reality, and the rumor mill is in full swing. In addition to rumors, there have been several incidents, such as a woman being accused of dishonorable acts in Sadat City and her house being burned down. There haven’t been investigations or interference into such incidents by the Military Council, thereby fueling a climate of fear for women.

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    The uprising in Egypt has been seen in the West as a largely urban phenomenon. How is it affecting rural areas?

    The rural areas across Egypt are sharing with their urban patriots a strong sense of pride and nationalism. They echoed youth in Cairo's statement that they are feeling a return of Egyptian nationalism, and reclaiming their role as citizen in the country. For example, each village formed impromptu local community councils during the days of protest to fill the security vacuum that threatened to take over the country. And now, there is a stronger desire to become aware of the constitution -- both historically as well as the new reforms that are being introduced.

    However, there are three distinct areas that were highlighted during my meetings with local women's committees, farmer and fisherman collectives, and community-based organizations.

    First, they pointed out that they are the most vulnerable of the population. The smallest economic impact could ruin farmer’s and fishermen’s livelihood for an entire season. They expressed deep solidarity with the protestors in Tahrir square, and feel through this solidarity they were part of the movement. Yet many pointed out that they physically could not participate in the protest because of job commitments, needs of the land, or in some cases they simply could not afford the transportation cost. There is also a sense that now during the transition, they continue to be the most vulnerable because the steady rise of costs (there is no longer any government control of agriculture products (seeds, fertilizers, etc.) as well as the increase in day to day cost of living is potentially going to create a sense of resentment over the revolution. This is also true in the sense of a growing feeling of a lack of local policy and security within the villages. There is a growing concern that security will continue to deteriorate, and that villages far away from the city could become easy targets for local crime.

    Second, the rural areas acknowledge the challenge that a large percentage of the population are illiterate. This challenges their ability to participate in the transition process, especially with the upcoming discussions over elections and constitutional reform. The main request during my meetings was to deliver the message to Cairo to slow down. The revolution gave birth to a strong sense of civic duty and participation, and people feel frustrated that they are not able to be completely aware of the process. Their worst fears were validated during the referendum process. Many people expressed confusion over the referendum. Some women indicated they had believed they had voted for a President, and were surprised it was actually a referendum on constitutional reform. One young woman from the village of Tayyibah outside Media expressed her deep desire to fully follow the debates over the constitution. She explained she has never seen the constitution, but as a result of the revolution felt a responsibility to be aware of what was going on. However, the debates and discussions are bypassing the majority of the population. Over and over, Egyptians from the countryside emphasized that although they may not have formal education, they have crucial insight into the success and failure of the country. For many, they felt specific laws directly threaten their livelihood (such as the 1995 land policy), and that their opinions should be factored into the reform process. The issues were not just a matter of freedoms and democracy, but changes that would reflect in tangible improvement of their daily life.

    The third issue is tied to the challenge of illiteracy and limited education. There was a strong sense of awareness that this challenge coupled with a fast forwarded political process would make the rural areas vulnerable to religious institutions. There was an acknowledgment that religious institutions are the only ones organized to reach out to the grassroots. Many people admitted to voting in the referendum simply as they were instructed because there was not enough time to get a better sense of the debate. They felt a strong dedication to participate by voting, but had no real knowledge of what to vote on. Many community based organizations felt the referendum highlighted a real threat of growing sectarian tensions - especially between the Muslim and Christian populations. The spirit of Tahrir square was one of religious tolerance, but the tension around the referendum reflected the potential for a very different scenario. The popular perception was that all Muslims should vote yes, and Christians/secularists/leftists would vote no.

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    What are the expectations of Egyptians today about how the transition will affect their lives? What will the consequences be if their expectations are not met?


    The expectations are limitless. People are eager to see changes in their lives, better access to income, health, education, and government. Already in the rural areas frustration was expressed because nothing tangible has changed. Many Egyptians were genuinely surprised when they learned of the large amounts of foreign aid that were coming into the country, and the fact that it clearly never reached the population. People are now expecting that aid to improve standards of living. They also expect a process that will result in a leader selected by the people, and a constitution that protects people’s ability to hold the government accountable. This notion of seeking accountability is a key indicator of a new Egypt. If people do not begin to see the immediate change, there is a strong chance that they will become politically apathetic.

    Once more, this is an important lesson from the referendum. Youth in the rural areas were already talking about how the revolution has been "hijacked" by the military and religious institutions. The process forward will need time and will be a difficult one, hopefully build on negotiations and dialogue. It is important that civil society and youth groups spend time in managing the expectations, and helping communities through dialogue to establish realistic goals and map it out over a long period of time. The biggest request is for the process to be transparent.

    One older Egyptian farmer pointed out that since the country has been waiting for change for 30 years, they are willing to wait a few more years -- as long as the goals for the future are clear and the milestones for getting there are shared.

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  • Iraqi Women Refuse to be Negotiation Chips

     3 November 2010

     Below is an excerpt from her recently published memoir.


    My six months on the ground had demonstrated what I had known by instinct. Iraqi women were powerful. Through my relationship with Reema Khalaf, the chairperson of the Independent Nahrain Women’s Association, I met regularly with the heads of various organizations. These women were predominately engineers, doctors, lawyers, and professors. They were considered the elite of their communities, and often they had their own informal networks that they were willing to use to strengthen the women in their communities. Some of these women had attained the highest level of decision maker.

    At the same time, I was able to communicate with women on the ground. I was traveling in and out of the most ghettoized areas of Iraq, including the marginalized areas of Baghdad. Like most of the world’s poor, these communities suffered because they were stereotyped as being infested with drug dealers, pimps, and thugs. In some cases the stereotype was true. In most cases, however, the areas were populated with families that were struggling to make ends meet. In every case, the women bore the brunt of any violence and all the poverty.

    Manal meeting with women in a ghettoized area of Baghdad (Shawaka) during one of the women’s sessions.

    The majority of women I worked with were widows and divorcees, and some were just teenagers. Despite their difficult circumstances, these women were determined to carve out a better future. I was amazed at their outspoken nature, their candid list of needs, and their resolution to create change for themselves. In the short span of a few months I watched countless women who had entered my office downtrodden emerge from it full of optimism.

    Such was the case of Saadiyah. She had learned of our program through word of mouth. Several women in her neighborhood were already enrolled, and as a widow with six children, she felt she had nothing to lose by visiting our office in Karbala. Saadiyah attended the first few sessions reluctantly. Over time, she became more easily involved in the work of the women’s center. Not only was she an active participant in the rights awareness workshops, but she signed up for the carpentry class. Saadiyah introduced an innovative way of earning money through carpentry. Each morning she would go to the fruit and vegetable market and collect empty wooden crates. She would then break the crates and use the wood to refurbish furniture.

    The women ranged from the elite to the grassroots, and it was an honor to work with each of them. They particularly embodied for me all that our shared culture could accomplish. It was easy to see why their strength was legendary in the Middle East. They had paved the way for women in the region by being among the first to vote, the first to participate in the judiciary system, and the first to demonstrate their economic power. Women from the rural areas became legendary for devising methods to survive the sanctions of the 1990s. The women I met were proud of their ability to survive, and although they were exhausted, they were willing to continue the struggle for a better future.

    Manal (l) with Rajaa Khuzai (c) and Songul Chapouk (r) - the Iraqi female members of the Interim Government Council (IGC) on a panel discussing the Iraqi constitution.

    Nonetheless, these women were not naive. Regardless of their economic status, they were well aware of their violent patriarchal history. They often spoke of the internal conflicts that led to the execution of the king that ended the monarchy in 1958. That was quickly followed by the coup of Gen. Abdul Karim Kassem and five years later to the Baathist regime and then the overthrow of Gen. Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr by Saddam Hussein in 1979. I heard from women of all socioeconomic backgrounds that Saddam’s ascension was the beginning of the end. Although the country enjoyed prosperity on one level, the Saddam regime would also lead to hundreds of executions, the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the invasion of Kuwait, the First Gulf War, thirteen years of sanctions, and the Second Gulf War.

    For the past few decades, women in Iraq had been forced into the backdrop of Saddam’s theatrics. They were used as props when needed. Saddam’s approach on women’s issues epitomized his Machiavellian quest for power. On the one hand, Saddam was well known for his promotion of women in the workplace and the education of women. On the other hand, he was quick to use women as a negotiating chip to gain local tribal support.

    For example, Saddam promoted secular laws, but he was willing to turn a blind eye during the 1990s to honor killings in order to appease the tribes. Under the pretext of fighting prostitution in 2000, Saddam’s Fedayeen forces beheaded two hundred women “dissidents” and dumped their heads on their families’ doorsteps for public display.

    By now, Iraqi women realized they needed to take matters into their own hands. Many argued that for too long power had been left unquestionably in the hands of men. They recognized a void had been created, and many were determined to be part of whatever power structure would step up to fill it. Women were focused on the endgame. They were strategizing ways to leap forward, and they refused to be discouraged by the signs surrounding them.


  • Iraqi Women as Survivors, not Victims

    December 2010

    NCCI: What were your reasons and goals for writing your recently published book, Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity – My Own and what it Means to be a Woman in Chaos?  Who is the intended audience?

    Manal Omar: The main reason for writing the book was to be able to highlight the personal side of conflict.  For too long, Iraq has only been discussed in terms of suicide bombs and weapons of mass destruction.  We forget that the human face that is paying the price in the midst of all the conflict.  Particularly the women, who I firmly believe tend to bear the brunt of conflict.  I wanted to write the personal stories because when I returned to the US after five years of working in the Middle East, all I heard about was women as victims.  Yet in all my time working, I hardly found women who stayed victims.  They always managed to struggle to become survivors, and often grew even more than that.  For every tragedy I encountered, there were also strong Iraqi women working to survive and help those around them.

    I realized that if I were to tell these women’s stories, I would need to share my own also.  Iraq changed my life. I was able to really grow and challenge many of my absolute values.  I thought this was an equally important story to share.  It’s not as simple as coming to do humanitarian or development work – as aid workers, there is also a personal story and identity that each of us brings to the country.  My goal was to have this discussion in as easy of a format as possible.  I wanted the average American reader to be able to pick up the book and travel to Iraq through my words, to learn more about the country and about women living under Arabic and Islamic law and traditions.

    NCCI: As a woman of Palestinian descent who has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, do you feel that women’s rights can actually advance under the occupation of a foreign nation?

    Manal Omar: A window of opportunity opens during times of conflict.  I grew up with some of the strongest women surrounding me, precisely because they had grown up under occupation and conflict.  The traditional barriers were broken down, and the social contract was renegotiated.  Women in conflict are able to take on new roles that are not simply defined by their traditional gender roles.

    The challenge is trying to secure this once things begin to settle and ensure it enters into the new social contract that eventually will emerge.  This can only be done by including it in the rule of law.  Too many times, we see how war allows women to step into the forefront (this happened in America during World War II as well), and then pushed to the back once the war is over.  It is crucial that women think strategically in terms of long-term gains, as well as maximizing the window of opportunity that opens during conflict.

    NCCI: As the former Regional Coordinator for Women for Women International in Iraq, what do you feel are some of the greatest obstacles facing NGOs which operate in the sector of women’s rights?

    Manal Omar: The biggest challenge is when women become the negotiating chip.  One of the titles of my chapters in my book is “Negotiating Chip,” because I witnessed too often how women’s rights were used during political or social bargaining.

    For example, you may have high-level Kurdish representatives that believe 100% in women’s rights.  However, during political debates, or when it’s time to vote on a resolution, they will not vote pro-women.  When I would challenge them, they often would say that their primary issue is federalization, and as a result, they would strike a deal on a resolution for women if more conservative parties would vote on the resolution of federalization.

    The second challenge is what I call the “not now” argument.  This argument usually states that because of overall violence and instability, it is not an appropriate time to discuss women’s issues.  I have witnessed how the “not now” easily becomes the “not ever.”  Women must maximize the window of opportunity to push their rights forward.

    NCCI: When was the last time that you were in Iraq?  Did you notice any changes in women’s status in the country at that time?

    Manal Omar: The last time I was in Iraq was December 2010.  Unfortunately, during my trip there was the announcement of the new government ministries.  It was very sad to see that Iraqi women were not part of the list of ministries at all.  Many of the women’s organizations I have worked with for the last seven years called me and were in shock to see how Iraqi women continue to lose rights rather than gain them!  After the previous elections, there were 6 female ministers; now there are none.  Even the Ministry for Women’s Affairs has an interim male Minister.  This highlights that the challenge facing women is stronger than ever.

    NCCI: Who do you consider as the most vulnerable groups of women today in Iraq?  What special protection should NGOs and the government seek to provide them with?

    Manal Omar: The most vulnerable groups would be women heads of households; this usually means widows, divorcés, or unmarried women.  They do not have the access or mobility than men generally have.  They are often more vulnerable in times of limited security and have less access to income.  A lack of security remains the primary obstacle limiting women’s ability to attain economic self-sufficiency.  Naturally, women in that category who are either internally displaced people (IDPs) or refugees in neighbouring countries are at twice the risk.

    NGOs should focus on programs that are accessible for these women.  The best programs will not be able to succeed if women are not able to come, and that is often the case with the vulnerable women.  They have very limited mobility.  The more the program is available with limited transportation time and costs, the more accessible it will be for these groups.  Overall, the Iraqi government is still the primary duty bearer and should have programs targeting the most vulnerable groups.  These programs should be easy to access, with minimum bureaucracy and clear application steps.

    NCCI: Under the Iraqi Personal Status Law, which was passed in 1958 and came into force the following year, Iraqi women were said to have enjoyed considerable legal rights.  Many activists have criticized the Iraqi Constitution of 2005 as a step backwards for women’s rights in Iraq.   As someone who was involved in pressuring for the institutionalization of women’s constitutional rights, how do you perceive the 2004 constitution’s provisions on gender equality and its actual application in Iraqi society?

    Manal Omar: The Iraqi constitution provided some important improvements for women, including the quota and provisions of equality.  Unfortunately, there were also a lot of vague articles that could jeopardize any of the positive improvements in the constitution.

    Among the biggest challenges, there is a lack of clarity about the personal status law application.  It is unclear if there is an option to chose a civil court for marriage contracts, or if they will be forced to marry under specific jurisprudence.  This is the case in Lebanon, where many women opt to get married in Cyprus in order to avoid having to use a monolithic interpretation of Islamic law.

    The concern over the personal status law being tied to jurisprudence is that it will mean that women with the same exact circumstances will have different outcomes based on their area and their local judge.  At the same time, it could potentially bring back sectarian sensitivities, which was a leading cause of violence in Iraq from 2006 to 2008.

    NCCI: In Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s latest incomplete unveiling of ministerial appointments, only one woman, Bushra Hussein Saleh, was appointed to such a high-level post as the Minister of Women’s Affairs.  Furthermore, the required parliamentary quota of 25% female candidates, or 82 female representatives, has not been filled since it was mandated by the 2005 Iraqi Constitution.  Some female MPs call the new formation the “men’s government.” What is your general impression of the future for women’s political representation in Iraq?

    Manal Omar: The next four years is going to be a crucial timeframe for Iraqi women.  Over the last seven years, women have been working side by side with men during the conflict and occupation to create a new and stronger Iraq, despite wars and sanctions.  Now that there is a potentially stable national government, the temptation will be to leave women out of government formation and again, the social contract that needs to be developed between Iraqi citizens and their representatives.  The true battle for women begins now, because they will need to fight for a place at the decision-making table.  Women need to ensure that their rights are guaranteed by being part of the government as independent voices as well, and not just members of political parties.

    NCCI: In closing, could you please tell me about your future plans related to Iraq and advancing women’s rights in the region?

    Manal Omar: As I described in my book, Iraq was the first Arab nation I ever lived in.  As far back as 1997 when I worked with the UN, I fell in love with the country.  While in Iraq, I literally fell in love with my colleague who is Iraqi, and so I see my future tied to Iraq directly.  My husband and I constantly monitor the progress of Iraq, because our goal is to go back and live in the country once things become stable.

    I have always felt honored that Iraqi women have allowed me to work with them to promote their rights, and hope to continue to be a resource for them as they continue with their struggle.  I believe that the region is at a tipping point, with important changes being made.  The changes have to come from within, and although my heritage is from the region, I can only play a supporting role.  The main role belongs to the women who live in the environment and overcome these major challenges daily.  My job is to take my cues from them, and to help fill gaps that are identified by women’s rights defenders so that my work can have a sustainable impact.


  • A Woman's Perspective:  Three Years Later, on the Eve of the Iraqi Elections

    Dec 11, 2005
    ABC News

    Iraqi women throughout the nation have had their eyes on the events currently enveloping their nation. From the most socially and economically excluded to the more educated and well-established areas in the country, women have recognized that a potential window of opportunity is available through the nation-building process. Read full commentary.


  • In The Sea Of Nation-Building: Anchoring Women’s Rights In The Iraqi Constitution

    Summer 2005
    Critical Half

    “We did it. It is no accident that women exceeded the 25 percent quota in the elections. This is because we made it happen,” stated an enthusiastic and determined woman from Southern Iraq , echoing the sentiments of many Iraqi women across the nation. Indeed, the success in integrating women into Iraq’s newly elected National Assembly in January 2005 was the direct result of organizing and outreach efforts by Iraqi women. In the period leading up to the election, there was great concern that Iraqi women would be marginalized. Yet Iraqi women were able to quickly organize, lobby and take action, thereby earning themselves a place at the decision-making table. This has allowed Iraq to emerge as the clear leader in the region when it comes to women’s rights. Iraqi women have carried on the legacy of their foremothers, speaking up until their voices are heard on legal, social, economic, educational and cultural issues.  Access full article in Critical Half journal