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Women in Iraq: New Beginnings

Charlotte Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues, Bureau of Global Affairs, U.S. Dept. of State
Iraqi Women from the Governing Council and Other Organizations
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
March 11, 2004

10:45 A.M. EST

Real Audio of Briefing Charlotte Ponticelli and Iraqi women at Foreign Press Center briefing, Wash. DC, March 11, 2004.

MR. DENIG: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. In honor of International Women's Day, which was Monday, March 8th, and which we have expanded to International Women's Week because women deserve all the honor that they can get, we're having a briefing today on "Women in Iraq: New Beginnings." And I'm very pleased to be able to introduce to you a very distinguished panel that we have with us today.

On my far right, Charlotte Ponticelli, the Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues at the Department of State, and immediately next to her, Dr. Rajaa Habib Khuzai, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and a leader of the National Council of Women. Next to her, we have Ms. Zainab Al-Suwaij, a co-founder of the Iraqi Women's Higher Council, and to my immediate right we have Dr. Shifa Hadi Husain who is from Mosul and a member of the Nineveh Council.

We also have with us a number of other distinguished women sitting in the front here of our room. We have Ms. Ala Talabani, Ms. AmiNa Mahmoud Ismaiel, Ms. Rabab Kussar, Dr. May Ali, Dr. Bahija Sa'adeldin, Dr. Amal Ma'malchi, Ms. Wisal Said and Ms. Eman Alwan.

Welcome to all of you. The panelists will have a brief opening statement to make, and you will notice that in the opening statement by Charlotte Ponticelli, there are two initiatives that are highlighted, and I'd just draw that to your attention. And then each of the other ladies will also have opening statements, and they will be glad to take your questions.


MS. PONTICELLI: Thank you so much. Good morning, everyone, and thank you, again, Paul, for your generous welcome.

We have been celebrating International Women's Day all week and we're especially grateful to have this chance to be here at the Foreign Press Center to mark this occasion. And it is with special pleasure this year that we're able to celebrate with our Iraqi women friends who are here with us today.

This delegation, as you may know, has been in New York at the United Nations meeting and speaking to important groups at the 48th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Others, like Dr. Rajaa Khuzai, just arrived in the United States. They've been, as you can imagine, very heavily engaged in the deliberations over in Iraq on the Transitional Administrative Law.

They will give their remarks, but I would like to say a few words beforehand about the remarkable achievements, particularly of the last few days, by for and of Iraqi women.

On International Women's Day, each year we really rededicate ourselves to the ideal of full equality for all, including women and girls. In the last two and a half years, it's incredible to imagine this: 50 million people, that includes 25 million women and children, have been liberated from the brutal tyranny of the Taliban in Afghanistan and from Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

Two years ago on International Women's Day, we focused on the situation and the liberation of Afghan women. Today, this week, we wanted to celebrate Iraq's progress. And we do have much to celebrate. The Iraqis have achieved so much in such a short time. The signing of the Iraqi transitional administrative law on International Women's Day is a turning point toward greatness. As Secretary Powell said on Monday, "What a marvelous day this is for liberated Iraq. The new law and its bill of rights give all Iraqis the freedom from fear, the freedom they have been yearning for for many, many years."

On Monday, Secretary Powell, to support the progress in Iraq, particularly on behalf of women of Iraq, announced two new initiatives: first, he announced the $10 million Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative; and the second initiative is a U.S.-Iraq Women's Network.

The Democracy Initiative will train Iraqi women in the skills and practices of democratic public life. Programs under this initiative will include: Education for democracy; leadership and political advocacy workshops; entrepreneurial training, because political participation and economic empowerment do, of course, go hand in hand; also, media training for women aspiring to careers in journalism; and other activities to help nongovernmental organizations, such as the one Dr. Rajaa's involved in to build their capacity and to mobilize women in Iraq, particularly as we gear up for the elections.

The initiative will be managed jointly by the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and my office, which is the Office for International Women's Issues.

The second initiative, the U.S.-Iraqi Women's Network, is already up and running. We're already making connections between the private sector here in the United States, organizations and individuals who have come to us already saying, "How can we help?"

And so we want to use this new network to mobilize and build on that support in our private sector and to link important resources here in the United States to critical needs on the ground.

On International Women's Day, we honored also, by having as a featured speaker at the State Department, Minister Nasrin Sadiq Barwari, who's Minister of Municipalities and Public Works in Iraq. She pointed to some of the recent challenges and recent correspondence with us, pointing out that our enemy is trying to stop the progress toward democracy, but our determination is stronger than their cowardly acts. "The train of positive change in Iraq," she wrote to us, "has started its journey. And it will continue until it reaches its destination where a better future for Iraqis is achieved."

Surely, these stirring words are echoed in the agreement of Iraq's Governing Council this week in their agreement on a new basic law for Iraq, one that among other great achievements enshrines equality for women.

So I'm pleased to turn the microphone now over to my distinguished friends and colleagues from Iraq.

DR. KHUZAI: Well, welcome, you all. I'm glad to tell you that I have celebrated the International Women's Day on the same day that you had the TAL signing ceremony. It was great. It was great for the women of Iraq, you know, to celebrate such two events in the same day, especially with the rights of the woman has been reserved in that TAL, you know?

And that after we have Council Resolution 137, which was, what you call -- misery or nightmare for the woman for the last two months, I'm glad about this and I'm very glad, I'm proud, for the woman to have 25 percent of the seats in government. This is what I have achieved and I'm proud. And all the Iraqis are very grateful to Mr. Bush and to U.S. for liberating us from the dictatorship regime.

We will be grateful forever. 25 million, or perhaps more, of the Iraqis are grateful, and everybody wishes that, and prays, that Mr. Bush will win this -- (laughter) -- I'm honest -- and everybody prays for Mr. Bush.

MR. DENIG: Thank you.

Ms. Al-Suwaij.

MS. Al-SUWAIJ: Thank you very much for having us here and for attending this session. I think in the past period of time, the Iraqi women have been developed and have been at the same time struggling through the period that started after the fall of the regime and up until now. And the struggle of the Iraqi women have not ended. They have achieved a good level of success by not letting Resolution 137 to pass, and also by lobbying every and each member of the Iraqi Government Council to have certain percentage for them in the parliament.

This is a great success for them in the past period of time. I think with the help of our colleagues and friends here in the United States, we achieved a big -- a certain level that we hoped for for a long time. In the upcoming period, we have a lot more to do. We have to prepare our ladies back in Iraq to develop their skills.

We have a lot of women who are capable of participating in the new government in a leadership position and taking the decision for their fellow Iraqis to develop their skills, to develop their lives, to be open to outside or the international society at the same time.

The Iraqi women proved that they are capable of reaching their goals, and the upcoming period of time is going to show not only the Iraqis inside Iraq but also the international community how Iraqis are capable of reaching their goals and their hopes soon.

The upcoming period of time is going to be very critical in terms of forming the national assembly in Iraq and also for getting ready for the elections upcoming in 2005. So we hope for the best. We hope that many international friendsand colleagues here and the international world can help us in reaching what we hope for in that coming period.

Thank you.

MR. DENIG: Thank you.

Dr. Husain.

DR. HUSSAIN: Good morning, everybody. I'd like to start by saying that the Iraq women have been the victims of the three wars and the long-term (inaudible) as well as being the prisoner in their country for 35 years. And I think it's the time to start living from this moment, starting getting outside Iraq and starting with meeting in the world outside.

Being in the UN has taught me a lot that I have the chance and everyone in Iraq has a chance to start again. And being here, I am sure that we as a kind of nation we are going to continue whatever the situation is going to be because I am sure that Iraqi people are those people who are so sensitive to peace and to democracy.

We have known democracy for so long time, but it was impossible for us to practice this democracy on the ground because of the different circumstances that all of you are aware of that has (inaudible) in Iraq.

I would like just to ask the whole world to give a hand to Iraq to just to stand on its feet and to continue those programs, which we are trying hard to continue in Iraq. We have been starting a kind of programs: Labor association programs; funding programs that are giving to women; and, I think, some anti-corruption programs. These programs are somehow new in Iraq. The NGOs they are so very new in Iraq. Training for those NGOs is needed, I mean, hardly there in Iraq. Also, the training in leadership is needed in Iraq because those people are prisoned for so long time, just be kept inside Iraq without knowing about what's going on outside Iraq it's a trouble, and we are trying just to feel this trouble for the time being, because we are aware that we are getting back 35 years and we have to work hard in order just to go on and to follow the world.

I would like you just to feel the sense of sadness and sorrow that the Iraqi people are practicing now because of the security situations, which is a fundamental issue to talk about. I would like you to feel the sorrow of those people in Iraq who cannot, for example, just wake up to see that they are living or not. It's -- to live there by chance, because of the international terrorism is a problem. And to awake to see that you are still alive it's a kind of chance that you are getting Iraq.

I'd just like you to give us hand just to protect the Iraq from the international terrorism, which has started there. I'd not like anybody from the world outside to use the Iraqi people as a card to play with anymore because the Iraqi nation deserves to live and deserves to live in peaceful circumstances.

Thank you very much.

MR. DENIG: Thank you very much, ladies. I'd like to open it up to your questions now and ask you as usual to please use the microphone and introduce yourself and your news organization.

All right. Let's start right here.

QUESTION: Hello, I'm Gohrem Kossaify from Al Hurra.

I have a question for Dr. Rajaa, please.

I still wonder why is it only 25 percent of the women population that are represented in the government. On what is it based? And do you call this equality? The women -- do women form 25 percent of the Iraqi population? Why is it only 25 percent? Aren't we ready yet to get to full equality? Thank you.

DR. RAJAA: You know, the woman in Iraq are 55 percent, not 25 percent.

QUESTION: So, (inaudible).

DR. RAJAA: The problem is that the Iraqi men, so difficult to convince them to -- for the woman to participate in government. We are only three in the Governing Council and our voice is never heard. And we put, you know, to be honest, we put 40 percent for the woman just to convince them that if we get the 40 percent, you know, there will be 40 percent seats whether they agree or not. But even the 40 percent, I fight for it, but I couldn't win because the other two women, they never supported me. That's why I -- well, myself, I felt that I have lost because, you know, I lost the 40 percent so I got this 25 percent.

Anyhow, you know, the Iraqi women are very happy. At least, you know, in the new Iraq, they can participate and we have so many highly educated woman and strong woman and they can share in government. This is a start, and I think they will prove themselves and probably the percentage will rise.

QUESTION: What about the United States, they have 14 percent?

DR. RAJAA: It is -- anyhow, it is more than -- none in the Middle East or in the Arab world has got this percentage and I heard that it's more than in United States.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

DR. RAJAA: So it is a good, you know, a good step forward.

MR. DENIG: All right. Next question, the gentleman in the middle from Kuwait.

QUESTION: Hi, Ron Baygents, Kuwait News Agency.

Ms. Al-Suwaij, can you talk about your hopes for the future in terms of Kurds and Sunnis coming to accept an election in which the Shia majority would likely prevail and that this will keep Iraq, and state together under this situation?

MS. AL-SUWAIJ: Definitely, Iraq has been and it will be a one nation. Different names or different title that each group has does not mean much for us as Iraqis. We are in Iraq under the umbrella of Iraq, and what united us is being Iraqis all in one and on this land.

Participation of the Kurd or the Sunni population, they have the right as much as the others have the right inside the country to participate. We hope for the full participation from all -- from all Iraqis, from all different ethnicity, from all different religion in Iraq because what make Iraq unique is our differences, and this has been a challenge for us in the past period of time.

When we were under Saddam regime and dictatorship, we were all Iraqis under -- suffering from the same issues and from the same dictator. And now, we are still struggling to reach -- each group or each ethnicity, we are all struggling to reach what we hope is going to be good for Iraqis to live in peace and harmony, and also for our country to be developed.

So participation from Kurd or Sunni or Shiite or Iraqi Christians or any other ethnicity is very valid. It's very important for the upcoming period of time to -- not only for Iraqis, but for the whole world to see how Iraqis, all of them from all different ethnicities come together to -- and how are -- how are they united together to reach their goal in one strong country.

MR. DENIG: Dr. Khuzai, would you like to comment on that as well?

DR. KHUZAI: Yeah. Iraqi nation is very unique. It's very unique, you know, in
every specialty, and especially in the Simi and Shia. We have inter-marriages between Simi and Shia, and Kurds and Arabs, and Turkoman Arabs and Kurds, and that, you know. And after each bombing, this terrorist act make us, you know, closely united. This is something, which is unique in Iraq.

I visited the injured, you know, men and woman and children in the hospitals after Karbala and Kalmia bombing, and you can see -- you can feel it and see the morale of these injured people. They never mentioned that I am Shia and I was bombed and he blamed Simi. No, he said, "I am injured because I'm Iraqi."

MR. DENIG: I'd like to turn now to Ms. Ala Talabani, a Kurd and a co-founder of the Iraqi Women's Higher Council, for a comment as well on that question.

MS. TALABANI: Thank you all. Just because I'm Kurdish I want to say that the day I looked at the constitution I cried, because I said for the first time in the history, for the first time for Iraq, I will feel -- I feel that I'm equal to the other Iraqi peoples and I'm going to live as an equal citizen and not second class citizen in Iraq. Because you know how much we've been suffered from the brutal treatment of Iraqi regimes. We've been gassed and the Al-Fat(ph) and Anfal campaigns which caused the disappearance of 182,000 Kurdish people.

And then when I read that the Kurdish language is going to be the second language, the main language besides Arabic, I cried as well, because I remember the days when I was in Kirkuk and we were afraid to speak in Kurdish, or a shopkeeper was not allowed to put name of his shop in Kurdish.

I've been sacked from job -- I was a teacher, secondary school teacher -- because I was Kurdish and refused to join the Arab Baath Party. And I've been displaced from Kirkuk because I was Kurdish. Now I'm back in Kirkuk and I thank Mr. President Bush last year when I met him. I say, "Thank you for letting my children to see their grandfather's home."

Thank you.

MR. DENIG: Thank you. All right, next question.

Samir, do you have a question?

QUESTION: Samir Nader with Radio Sawa.

Can, Dr. Khuzai, can you tell us like since your last visit here -- was it two months ago?

DR. KHUZAI: It was in January, yes.

QUESTION: Yes. Can you give us an update on the progress on -- in Iraq regarding the morale of Iraqi women and people and the -- regarding the rebuilding of infrastructures and institutions, and can you update us on this progress?

DR. KHUZAI: Yeah. For the Iraqi women, you know, the morale is so high that you can't expect it unless you go and see. We are doing so many conferences, women conferences, all over Iraq. I have, you know, achieved -- I've done a conference in 21st of February, and I have achieved to bring more than 2,000 women from all over Iraq, from the north to the south, from Ramadi to Tikrit.

So the women of Iraq are really united and they are looking forward in -- to playing, you know, their role in the new Iraq. This is for the women.

For the security situation, it's much more better than it was before. Still, you know, the terrorists are there. They are in underground and they are doing these bombing attacks. But really, it increase the unity of the Iraqis and the morale of the people.

And everybody now realize that the terrorists, they don't like the Iraqis to live in peace. So the Iraqis now are watching them, are, you know, giving information whenever they hear or they notice something abnormal. This is the Iraqis.

MR. DENIG: Okay, any other questions? Okay. Let me ask if any of the ladies would like to make a final statement or comment.

MS. KUSSAR: We have women from Kabala, from Najaf, Rabati --

MR. DENIG: Would you like to introduce yourself --

MS. KUSSAR: I am from Najaf. I am work as a lawyer. And now we work in a women's center. This is our work to develop and support the woman. Thank you.

MS. ISMAEL: From Mosul. I work for -- I'm council member, and I work in the Women's Society Organization.

MS. EMAN: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Second Secretary, Human Rights Department. We woman also in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are still struggle, struggle on the past. The Baath regime deprived women from working abroad. And now we still struggle because the representation of woman abroad, the number is still not enough. So we look here. We are looking for a new democratic Iraq and new future. Thank you.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Thank you.

DR. HUSSAIN: Can I comment on something?

MR. DENIG: Please, yes. Absolutely.

Dr. Hussain.

DR. HUSSAIN: Yeah. I'd like just to comment on something. The trouble of Sunni and Shia and Kurdi and Arabi, I have heard this trouble and this is statements in concert just recently in the mass media. Believe me, when I heard there are Sunni and Shia, I asked my mother, "Am I a Sunni or Shia, Mother?" She said, "I don't know, because you are Muslims. Nobody cares whether Sunni or Shia." And this concept has attracted the attention of others because it creates problems.

The Iraqi delegation here include those who are -- most of them or all of them are Muslims because the Iraqi people mostly are Muslims. Some of them are Sunni, some of them are Shia. And I don't know which one of them is the Sunni and which one of them is the Shia. And also, they include Kurdish and Arabic. For example, here, the two ladies are Kurdish. And I am sitting with one of them and I am Arabic and I am sitting with one of them and in the same room in the hotel, because I love her. She's my friend. She is in the same city council. And when I can -- see or hear these statements of Kurdi and Sunni and Shia, I just can feel that it's a matter of a game that the politicians outside of somebody else going to play with that, but has nothing to do with the Iraqi people.

Iraqi people are Iraqis and that's all. All of them are Muslims and that's all. Thank you very much.

MR. DENIG: Thank you. All right, any other final comments?

MS. KHUZAI: Okay? A comment here.

MR. DENIG: Yeah. Dr. Khuzai.

MS. KHUZAI: This is regarding the Kurdish. The Kurdish members in the Governing Council were the strongest support for me when I proposed the cancellation of the Resolution 137. They were extremely, you know, I don't know how to say it but they are, you know, very supportive, you know, for the woman, for the woman's rights.

MS. (Inaudible): (Inaudible.)


MS. PONTICELLI: Thank you so much.

MR. DENIG: All right. In that case, I would like to, first of all, thank Charlotte Ponticelli for bringing our Iraqi guests here today. It's nice to have them again. And I want to wish the Iraqi women who are here and all the other Iraqi women all the best for the future, and for all Iraqis, indeed, as you continue your efforts to build up your country. Thank you for being with us.


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