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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > From the Under Secretary > Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary > 2004 Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary

Building a New Iraq: Iraqi Women Step Forward in Partnership

Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs
Narmin Othman, Iraqi Minister of State for Women's Affairs; Maysoon Al-Damluji, Iraqi Deputy Minister of Culture; Zainab Al-Suwaij, Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
September 27, 2004

[4:00 P.M. EDT]  Under Secretary Dobriansky and Iraqi women leaders in discussion group

MR. MACINNES: Good afternoon. My name is Duncan MacInnes. I'm the Director of the Foreign Press Centers. I am delighted today to be able to introduce to the group four very distinguished women.

First of all, I'd like to make everybody -- ask everybody to turn their cell phones off. We're going to have a -- each of the women today will speak a little bit and then we'll have a -- then we'll have a question-and-answer session. And for those who will be here afterward, Under Secretary Dobriansky has to leave, but the Iraqi women will be available for one-on-one discussions or interviews afterward.

It's my pleasure to introduce Under Secretary for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky and we have three Iraqi women. We have the Minister of State for Women Affairs Narmin Othman and we have the Deputy Minister for Culture Maysoon al-Damluji and we have Zainab al-Suwaij, who is the founder and executive director of the American Islamic Congress.

And with much further to-do, I will just turn it over to Under Secretary Dobriansky.

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY: Thank you. Well, good afternoon. I'd like to welcome all of you here today, and let me just also welcome the Minister for Women's Affairs of Iraq Narmin Othman, Deputy Minister for Cultural Affairs Maysoon al-Damluji and also Zainab al-Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress.

Many of you have heard Prime Minister Allawi's stirring address to Congress last week. Well, we have just come from a meeting at the White House where a number of senior government officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the U.S. Agency for International Development and leading nongovernment experts and activists gathered to discuss the particular role of Iraq women in the historic transformation that the Prime Minister spoke so eloquently about.

Well, we are here to announce the start of a number of new programs in this effort. As President Bush reminded the United Nations last week, there is significant and positive work underway inside of Iraq and Iraqi women are often at the forefront of these accomplishments.

When you look at it, six of Iraq's cabinet members are women -- cabinet ministers are women. A quarter of the members of Iraq's new interim national council are women, where they represent the broad spectrum of political, ethnic and religious views. Also, women have been appointed as officers to seven of the eleven council committees. There's a broad range: the foreign affairs committee, the national relations, education and elections committee. Two of the seven election commissioners are women. Nearly a hundred women serve in Iraq's new national police force, and for the first time women are serving in the new Iraqi military.

The United States Government, this administration, is enthusiastically supporting this new era for women in Iraq. As part of our overall reconstruction effort, we are creating women's resource centers with support, vocational training, improving access to and the quality of healthcare, renovating schools, training teachers, as well as encouraging the enrollment of girls, and more.

Well, we are here specifically today, I am here today, to report that the State Department's Office of International Women's Issues, in coordination with the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, has begun to implement the $10 million Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative which Secretary of State Colin Powell had announced in March of this year on the occasion of International Women's Day.

This initiative specifically provides grants for projects to help women become full and vibrant partners in Iraq's developing democracy. Let me share with you our first grantees are: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Independent Women's Forum, the Art of Living Foundation, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Kurdish Human Rights Watch.

Several of these grantees are, in fact, partnering with other organizations that include Meridian International Center, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, the American Islamic Congress (inaudible).

Through these projects, we will be training thousands of Iraqi women in political leadership, advocacy, entrepreneurship and organizational skills in advance of Iraq's January election. We will give them the tools to manage their own associations and to build coalitions with others and to provide the information and experience they need to run for office, lobby for fair treatment and lead Iraq's emerging institutions.

I want to say and underscore that we are very grateful for the dedication of Iraq's women leaders like Ministers Othman and Al-Damluji who know better than any of us here the challenges of change and changing not just the political, social and economic structures in Iraq but tradition, misperceptions and stereotypes.

We are also extremely grateful for the continued dedication of our NGO partners like the American Islamic Congress, Zainab Al-Suwaij, who are committed to seeing through the tremendously important work that they are doing in very difficult circumstances.

Let me stop there and turn it over to Minister Othman.

MINISTER OTHMAN: Thank you. We (inaudible) and we are -- we had a good meeting with our friends (inaudible) help us before we tried to get more help and I think that Iraqi women have a power to make this power work and to continue our jobs and our mission we need help from different kind of side. We need help from monitoring capacity and how to promote new policy for democracy and election, a good election, and good education, how good law and Iraqi constitution we have different priorities but we are focusing on elections. And we thank you very much. And we had a very good meeting today. This meeting was very beneficial to us. It could change also many ideas and those ideas making us to work hard and harder. We are believing for a very light future for Iraqi people and we try very hard. Maybe the war is finished but the peace is not completed. With this -- and its process, the peace, like democracy, is a process. We have a power. We work very hard together and thanks to all of Iraqi people, which is the majority, they try to go over this situation and we hope for a better future for Iraq. And thank you again.


MINISTER AL-DAMLUJI: Thank you very much for the warm hospitality that we've received ever since we arrived here. And we also thank the people of the United States for putting their trust in the women of Iraq and the struggle of the women of Iraq to make a difference. We have been working extremely hard since the change of the regime to make sure that the new Iraq, the new laws of Iraq, will guarantee women a fair deal.

We are also unhappy that the media is not representing the total reality -- is only reflecting the war and the armies and the terrorism and the killing and the hostages and the beheadings. They are also going to show the world the human side of our relationship, which is very important. We believe that we can work together to make a difference, and thank you very much.

MS. AL-SUWAIJ: Thank you very much for being here to hear our voices and from different perspective, as I live here and I also being in Iraq in the past year and I'm intending to go back and continue working and helping the Iraqi community and Iraqi women in particular towards the upcoming challenge of elections.

It's been wonderful to have a lot of partners here in the U.S., in terms of many organizations, many individuals, and many people on the government are willing and providing the help and every day, parts of -- how they can provide Iraqi women where they are giving -- they are putting it on the ground and making it possible for the Iraqi women who have been afraid for so long, and now they are enjoying the newfound freedom inside Iraq and they are hoping, with the help of their friends, the United States, that they can be able to pass the election period and resume a normal life and enjoy democracy.

Thank you.

MR. MACINNES: Thank you very much. That was very interesting. Now, we'll go to the questions.


QUESTION: I am Bashir from Sudan. From the statistics cited by the Secretary at the beginning of her remarks, do you feel that Iraqi women's lot is much better than their counterparts in the Arab and Islamic countries? But I have more also. I have two questions.

Question number one, how does the situation compare to the Baath days and what is the improvement? The other short question is: How are the militant religious groups reacting to this American encouragement of women to get into democracy?

Thank you.

MINISTER OTHMAN: First question that talks about what is the difference between now and the Baath Party situation. Yeah, the past. One of the biggest (differences) is, you know, now we have more than 500 local NGOs especially for the women and under the Baath regime, we had only one, which belonged to the Baath Party. They didn't allow any other people to have their civil NGOs, their local NGOs.

And there are now different issues which they are working on, like they are working -- those local NGOs --, they are working on law, on the constitution, on violence against women, electricity programs, how to build capacity , the kind of (inaudible) capacity building that we lacked under the past regime.

And the other things -- now women have a voice. They are speaking. They are speaking on their rights, they are speaking about 25 percentage or more than 35 (quotas). Some women, they are saying that Now we have 35 women in the council mission. We have six ministers -- and we have many deputy ministers. Therefore, we -- now we have much better.

If I am comparing, there's many things that I am going to compare. We have it much better than before. We have now a voice and we have people in political decisions. They can decide what's the good and what's the bad for the women. And we are speaking about our law, how to change the law, how to have such a kind of constitution which is to decide for the women. Before, never we could see and we could hear anything about this kind. It was belong to those people, which also was Baath Party.

And the other thing, for security, I am thinking that, as I told in the beginning, war is finished but peace is not complete. But we can go over with our friends and with all the parties which we have now people which are believing and you can get also many answers in Dr. Allawi's speech. He spoke mainly about the security, I think.

QUESTION: Now, a question about (inaudible).

QUESTION: Another question about the reaction of the religious groups that are fighting to this American interference. They think that they are getting into something very private, very Iraqi business.

MS. AL-DAMLUJI: I didn't understand, really, what kind of -- is it about women issue, it's private? Yeah, women issues everywhere, it's the same. I'm thinking that women issues does not belong to Iraqis. It's women issues everywhere, it's issue, the same issues. Some countries (inaudible) but some other is not. Theirs is not only Iraqi, but it is -- some things belong to Iraq, keep, like Iraqi women and men decided what is good for Iraqis. But the issue for the women is -- over war is the same issue.

MR. MACINNES: Thank you. Please identify yourself.

A PARTICIPANT: Sure. I am (inaudible) Washington at first and my name is Joyce Karam from Al Hayat newspaper. I wanted to follow up a little bit on his question regarding, do you have any fears after the collapse of Saddam's secular dictatorship from extremist groups targeting women's rights, rights mostly, and who wanted to introduce the Sharia also to the constitution? So where do we stand today on that issue?

And my second question is: Are you receiving any help or any support from other fellow Arab nations, from the Arab League, or there is nothing like that right now?

Thank you.

MINISTER AL-DAMLUJI: Well, as you know, there's going to be elections in January of next year and a new general assembly will be elected in order to write the constitution.

We believe that although the majority of Iraq is Muslim, it is not fundamentalist nor is it an extremist majority. Most people are moderates and they want and aspire for a new, modern Iraq, where human rights recognized all over the world are respected.

The second question was about the Arab League?


MINISTER AL-DAMLUJI: The Sharia? I know. Well, I think everything -- see, the democracy that we advocate is that which not only protects the rights of the majority but also the right of the minorities and I think the way the new constitution will be written the minority -- when I say minority, I don't only mean ethnic minority or religious minority, I also mean ideological minority, will have to be respected to make sure that the new is the Iraq of human rights.

The second question was about the --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MINISTER AL-DAMLUJI: The Arab League. Some countries -- we do realize that most Arab countries cannot finance our projects, but quite a lot of Arab nations have shown us their goodwill and this is good enough for us. We will always be part of the Arab League, both geographically, historically and culturally. We're part of the Arab League. We do not wish to stop this kind of relationship with the Arab world and we will continue to do so.

The support -- most countries who cannot support us financially have show goodwill and a good spirit and we appreciate that as well.

MS. AL-SUWAIJ: I'd like to, if I may just add something to that, because one of the initiatives that we have supported is garnering international support and opportunities for the women of Iraq to engage other women across the globe. There was a meeting a year ago in Marrakech, which was the Global Women's Summit in which the first delegation of Iraqi women attended. They had a great opportunity to meet with many women, not only from the Middle East, but from other areas. They were able to do the same this past June. The meeting was in Seoul, Korea and it was focused on specifically economic empowerment. There was also a gathering that was hosted in Cairo also earlier this year in the summer, which was a very specific focus on the part of a number of Middle Eastern countries. It was their initiative. It involved also Iraqi women. And to have an opportunity to have a discourse and exchange.

So there have been, I think, efforts at information sharing, at trying to network and also trying to provide assistance in different ways.

MINISTER OTHMAN: We have a very good relation with Tunisia and Morocco and we are -- try to benefit their civil law. We try to exchange ideas between each other and we have discussing together about the law and how we can change the law, some law, for we had a very good law but we need also to change some of them. And that's Tunisia and Morocco that we have a very good relation with them.

QUESTION: Mahar Ramavan (ph) from Al Hurra, Iraq. I have two questions. The first one is the announcement for this initiative was made in March, if I'm correct, and we're at the end of September now and there's merely three months left for the elections. Now, why has it taken this long before the initiative could start?

And secondly, what kind of an outcome do you expect out of a three-month training program? How would it aid the elections and would the Iraqis prepared enough for what's going to come?

MS. AL-SUWAIJ: Well, two responses to that. As you know, when the United States Government provides money and when there is a grant solicitation, then you put out an announcement and NGOs come in and they provide their proposals and then there is a competitive process. So immediately, actually, this is a rather very quick turnaround time in terms of U.S. Government procedures for grant solicitation. So that was the procedure.

The monies are being disbursed so it's already in process. Secondly is I might add that a number of these organizations have already been working in Iraq and with Iraqi partners. There's been a continuum in number of cases. These resources will not only, I think, sustain the momentum, but more significantly, target it, especially in terms of women's initiatives and what the women of Iraq have specifically asked for.

Thirdly, I'd say this, but I think they should also comment on the three months: There is an attempt to really, to target, to build upon a number of training initiatives, voter education, organizational skills, as I referenced, political leadership. Some of these programs have been entrained, but they need to be much more targeted and particularly to women's needs. And that's what is -- the goal and the objective is during this period of time.

I don't know if you want to comment. She, she, you know, specifically asked about your needs.

MS. AL-DAMLUJI: Only in some ways she have right is we have a very limited. But we can do with hard work. With hard work we can do and we can reach. We can have impact, good impact for that.

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY: I might add one other point and that is, the programs that have been funded and a number are entrained, they're varied. A number of them target a grassroots level. A number of them focus on rights of women and ensuring that such information is disseminated and dispersed, particularly to those areas where women may not be as knowing or knowledgeable about their rights.

A significant number of the monies will be used for training, actual platform training, speaking, public speaking -- the ability to engage proactively in the process. So it is quite a variety of programs.


MS. AL-DAMLUJI: I don't think our only target should be the elections, although I think they are extremely important, but they are not the only target. The elections are just the beginning. The General Assembly, which will be elected is going to write the draft of the constitution. And the constitution is going to be shown to the people on a, you know, there will be a general referendum. Which means, there is going to be a continuing public debate regarding every single issue. So any person who is not part of the General Assembly does not mean that the person will not take part in what is happening.

I think our struggle will continue way beyond January 2005. We have another election in December 2005. And our version of democracy, in some countries democracy means having one election for the rest of one's life. What we intend to have is a continuous process of election. When the people do not want a government, they can elect them down and elect a new government, and so this is continuous. We mustn't have our only target the 31st of January. There's much more beyond that.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Tya Batrainy. I'm with the Kuwaiti News Agency.

I have a couple questions. I guess the first one would be to you.

How did these seven organizations, I think there were around seven, how did they get chosen for the funding? And the second question was, I guess, how many women are you anticipating to be voting and what areas are you expecting for the most or the least amount of women to come out?

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY: I'll respond to the first and then the second question was, she asked: How many women are expected to be voting and what areas in particular do you envisage turning out?

Briefly, on the first, as I mentioned, we have a process in which there's a solicitation, and so a number of organizations came and provided proposals. The proposals -- there were a significant number of organizations that provided proposals. They were all reviewed and then screened through a committee, a committee that was representative of different parts of not only the State Department but our reviewing process, and then, in turn, as a result of that, the proposals were selected.

However, I might just mention that also we were guided by the requests made by the Iraqi Women's Minister, a number of Iraqi women, the ambassador here -- a number of them had specifically indicated those areas and those kinds of proposals that would be the most meaningful and in this very limited span of time before the January elections, so criteria was also well used in screening and determining which proposals were the most time relevant and time sensitive.

And then on the other?

MS. AL-SUWAIJ: Yeah, and for the second question, I'm thinking that there's no place they can decide how many woman they can feel in the voting. But we try especially in the rural area and in (inaudible) and south and in Baghdad. The south, most, we are trying to work very hard to make woman to come to vote. Why? For those people which they -- we cannot reach them very easy, and they are in -- living in the poverty situation and they are not well educated. They don't know what's the meaning of the election and what's the meaning of the vote and their role in the society.

Therefore, we try to do our best in the south and in Baghdad, even in Baghdad we are working very hard. And we hope that we can enourage woman to vote , maybe a minimum 50 % is a target and that percentage votes, it's a success for us. But we, thatís a minimum (target), but we hope for the more than that.

MR. MACINNES: Other questions?

QUESTION: Steve Kauffman with The Washington File.

I just wanted to follow up. You said these are the first of ten grants, and I just wanted to get -- if you had any details you could provide on the allocation of the funds and when the other grants, when you anticipate the other grants might be awarded? Thank you.

MS. DOBRIANSKY: Well, two comments. First, as I mentioned, a number have already been disbursed and a few remaining ones will be disbursed. We also expect and look toward sustaining this process more broadly in the time ahead. We'd be glad to provide you, after this briefing, literally, if you want, a breakdown, we can provide that for you with our, a number of people, Charlie Ponticelli is here, the Head of the Women's Office, Susan Hovanec is our press officer who's here.

QUESTION: Hi. Suzanne Presto with VOA.

I was wondering if someone could comment how these initiatives are similar to initiatives that are going on for women right now in Afghanistan?

MS. DOBRIANSKY: Well, I will comment on that because I don't know if everyone's dealing with Afghanistan up here, except I know myself, we are.

In terms of the elections in Afghanistan, the Women's Minister had called for assistance in a number of areas. She focused on education, which we've been working on over a number of years in trying to help.

Secondly, and very specifically, we also have provided assistance to a number of radios and media to get the word out about registering. In fact, one of the highest percentage of voter registrations early on in this process was in Herat. And when women were interviewed as to how they learned and what information they got, they got it via an independent women's radio station, calling for women to come and to register.

I know that also we have rendered support for the women's ministry in terms of getting out information about the voting process. So there are different targets, but I'd say, if I had to summarize, I think the strand of commonality here is that women have a very vital and pivotal role politically in the future of Afghanistan and in the future of Iraq.

MR. MACINNES: Other questions?

QUESTION: Yes, but, you know, due to the security situation, lots of lives are being lost in Iraq every day. Women lost their husbands, yet we don't hear anything from Iraq as the women was against this. Why, may I ask? I mean, we don't hear the women reaction to the security situation in Iraq. We don't hear anything from Iraqi women.

MINISTER OTHMAN: You haven't been listening to us.


QUESTION: It's not the media - but not here in the U.S.. In the media, we don't hear anything.

QUESTION: Yes, maybe in the media, yes.

MINISTER OTHMAN: (inaudible) talking to women, talking (inaudible).

QUESTION: Why not, then, yeah - why they are not focusing?


QUESTION: Everyone's here, so I think she's asking --

MINISTER OTHMAN: Yes, I would say something about the two Italian girls. We demonstrated . We made a big demonstration. We we demonstrated, and we went out and we wrote a letter. We wrote to many letters to the people, but what we could - we couldn't - only demonstration. We did more than that.

But I think that there was not one article in any newspaper that wrote about that. And the other demonstrationin the Najaf, it was a big demonstration also was against the war, against the conflict -- demonstration, yes -- a good -- a big demonstration in the Najaf and there was no media that wrote anything about that. I really don't understand why, always, they are speaking about the negative. They never speak about the positive side.

Maybe you remember it was more than three or four thousand people on the street, but there was not any article in any newspaper wrote about that. Therefore, you cannot hear our voice.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Tsutomu Ishiai of Asahi Shimbun Japanese newspaper. I have a question. Now, there are so many (inaudible).

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY: (Inaudible) the $10 Million Women's Democracy Initiative for Iraq is specifically devoted to Iraqi women and, literally, it builds upon what we've been doing in supporting Iraqi women and democracy and it also specifically focuses on their needs prior to the elections.

The UN Democracy Fund, which President Bush announced at the UNGA, is very much linked to the whole concept of the community of democracies and support for democracy worldwide and providing for assistance for those that are in need.

And in terms of the Forum for the Future, the focus has been certainly on the Broader Middle East and North Africa. I would say what I think really unites and ties all of these is the common goal and objective of the furtherance of appeals for democracy and for assistance for democracy. Each has a specific focus, but they're united by that common goal and objective.

MR. MACINNES: Okay. I wanted to say that the speakers -- I think the Under Secretary has to leave for an appointment, but the others are all here and Charlotte Ponticelli, the senior coordinator for International Women's Affairs, is here and we have our American NGO representatives also here.

So please feel free to come and speak directly and you can do one-on-ones or whatever you would like to do.

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY: In fact, if I may just say, we not only have our Iraqi representatives, we have the head of our Women's Office. We also have back behind you, a number of organizations. In fact, I think they're like the Iraq (inaudible). I mean, there are a number here. As you were just saying, there are a number of the NGOs because questions were asked about those actually doing the work who are also present here.

Okay. Thank you.

Released on September 27, 2004

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