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.