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A Decade After Invasion, Are Iraqi Women 'Lucky'?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Catholics in the developing world are growing in number. Their concerns are often very different from those of Catholics in the West. We will talk about that in just a few minutes. That's our weekly Faith Matters conversation.

But first, today is International Women's Day, and also later this month will be the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq. So we thought this would be a good time to talk about women in Iraq who've been on the frontlines of all that their country has experienced in recent years, including sectarian violence, deprivation, and ongoing conflicts for other reasons.

Iqbal al-Juboori knows all of this firsthand, both professionally and personally. She is an Iraqi citizen who's worked for more than 15 years to help stabilize Iraq's rural areas, bringing job training and life skills to women and their families there. She's worked with the United Nation's World Food program and as a professor in Bagdad, she's currently with an NGO - a non-governmental organization - called International Relief and Development. And she's with us in our Washington D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us.

IQBAL AL-JUBOORI: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I want to talk to about your personal story in a minute, if you don't mind, but I wanted to ask - you know, obviously people understand that due to the invasion, and also for other reasons, Iraq has experienced a lot of conflict in recent years. But I wanted to ask if you could focus a little bit on how this has particularly affected women.

AL-JUBOORI: Of course. In any setting of conflict they are affected because they are the vulnerable groups. But specifically in Iraq, the women have a long history of facing conflict and war. The war started in Iraq - in modern Iraq - in 1980 with the Iraqi-Iranian War. They took all the jobs that was male-dominated and they had a lot of power. They had a lot of rights, compared to a lot of women in other countries.

And then when the 1991 Gulf War happened, the government of Iraq embraced all the tribal religious leaders, you know, to sustain their powers, and that made the general understanding that a woman's role is back at home. And then when the 2003 war happened, because of a lot of issues that were related to the conflict and the militant movement in Iraq, the women were in a dilemma, facing two things.

They were being victims, but at the same time they became supporting of their family because the males were killed or taken to prisons and all that stuff.

MARTIN: How are women able to - as you pointed out, you know, when men go off to war somebody has to maintain the household. Somebody has to feed the kids. Somebody has to maintain family life, take care of children, take care of the elders. How have women been able to manage through all that?

AL-JUBOORI: Well, you know, with all this history of all the previous wars, they developed their own adaptation skills, tolerance to a lot of suffering. A lot of services are not really provided to those women. I mean, you must think you'll not receive the national general electricity four to six hours a day. That's in the best scenarios.

So you can imagine, like, a woman who's working, who has a job - if she is lucky to have a job - she has to take care of her children. And she has to cook. And she has to teach her children when she goes back from that. They do not have a choice and when you don't have a choice you simply create your own ways of adapting to what you're facing.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit, if you would, about your own work. I understand that a lot of your work in Iraq had been focused in rural areas. Could you talk about some of the work that you did there?

AL-JUBOORI: We've done a lot of work with women in rural areas who used to have, like, farms and, you know, big lands. And because the internal conflict, they moved from their homes; they lose everything. We also dealt with women who lost their sons, they lost their husbands, they lost their fathers. And because most of them are not really literate, they had to find a way to look for a job.

And most of the jobs that they are trying to find is like serving in homes. They are not in the traditional, even, private sector. And we've done a lot of work providing vocational training and toolkits that can start up their home business. And we try to support that with the knowledge of simple bookkeeping to continue that business and be sustainable.

MARTIN: I'm going back to the phrase continually having to start over with nothing. And that's an experience that you've had. You've had a lot to contend with in your own life, if you don't mind my asking about that.

AL-JUBOORI: No, I don't mind. I've been lucky. I've been lucky because I'm sitting here and I'm voicing out what I have seen. I was born in Kuwait and I lived in Kuwait until I was 24. And I got my bachelor degree from Kuwait University. And then because of the invasion of Kuwait, my family had to move back to Iraq. We literally left everything behind us.

We had to start from scratch. And that didn't stop me, and with my family's support, I wanted to continue my education. And I got my master's degree and my PhD from Bagdad University. But that was a very tough time. It was a struggle because of the U.N. sanctions and the economic situation back in Iraq.

And then when the 2003 war happened, because I'm living in Bagdad and I was part of the conflict, my house was attacked in 2005. And my brother was taken by forces that were wearing government clothes, military clothes. They were not accompanied by any U.S. coalition forces. It was not only targeting my brother, but they took approximately 11 men from the neighborhood.

And up till this day we don't know what happened to him. And he left four children, four daughters, and a wife. And...

MARTIN: You haven't seen him since?

AL-JUBOORI: I haven't seen him. We don't know where he is. Neither he or the 11 men that were taken. And this is like a similar story that you'll hear everywhere in Iraq. It's not only me. And then after one year of this, in 2006, five armed men came to my house. We were only females in that house. And they said we'll give you 24 hours to leave the house, and if not, then we're going to kill every one of you.

MARTIN: Why? I mean what was the stated reason? They wanted the house or...

AL-JUBOORI: There was no stated - there were no stated reasons. You are Sunnis. You leave the house. That's it. And immediately I took my family and we left the neighborhood and we went to another safer place, but all that feeling inside you, like, bitterness, being violated and just was translated through my work. I feel very passionate about it, because nobody deserves to be faced with such an issue - the trauma, the stress.

MARTIN: At this point in the - there were just you, your sister, their four children?

AL-JUBOORI: It was only me and my mother, my sister-in-law, and four girls. The youngest is five years old. She has diabetes right now. She was sleeping in his - my brother's - arm when they took him away and she never got over it. I'm a grown up. I can translate that. I can deal with it better than a child who doesn't understand why.

MARTIN: And, as you were saying, that this isn't just your family. I mean, you, kind of, do the math. It's a matter of...

AL-JUBOORI: There are a lot of...

MARTIN: ...you know, multiplying this...

AL-JUBOORI: There are a lot of us. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...over the hundreds of thousands of people over more than 10 years of war.

AL-JUBOORI: And I've seen it. I've seen it through my work. I've met with a lot of ladies who have similar stories. And even worse ones. Like three men would be taken from the same family and they don't know where they are. Can you imagine that every month you have to go to the morgue to look at the pictures of the bodies that are found?

So the women in Iraq are facing this every day, especially with what's happening in Iraq right now.

MARTIN: Well, talk a little bit more, if you would, about what's happening in Iraq right now. I think it is fair to say that the attention of Americans has very much moved to Afghanistan. There's a lot of interest now in having troops leave Afghanistan. It's still very intensely debated about whether Americans should have ever been in Iraq to begin with, but there's still the ongoing issue in Iraq, then.

Is there something that you would particularly want Americans to be thinking about Iraq right now?

AL-JUBOORI: I mean, I do believe, as an Iraqi, and what I've seen and what I've worked and in the programs that we implemented in Iraq, there are a lot of good stuff that happened, in spite of all the negative stuff that people might mention. We managed to reach out to the widows. We managed to reach out to the youth. We built roads. We rehabbed schools. We rehabbed clinics. The impact of those programs on the communities was great because, if there was no intervention at that time, the community wouldn't have been developed the way it is right now.

If it wasn't for the intervention of the international community and the USG funding, we would not have reached to a state where there is a strategy dedicated, drafted - dedicated for women empowerment now in Iraq and that's what we have right now.

Now, it's critical time in Iraq's history. The conflict is back again on the scene, and in my opinion, part of it is because the U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, President Obama and through his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who just finished her term of service, highlighted very much and talked about equality for women and gender equality, the advancement of women as a critical part of U.S. diplomacy. Have you felt that you've seen any concrete benefit from that initiative in Iraq?

AL-JUBOORI: I have seen that in multiple places, but it can be improved a lot better - this is what I'm going to say - because the Iraqi government did adopt that strategy for women; but because of the conflict and because of the political instability in Iraq, they keep on pushing this because it's like, OK. We can delay that. We can delay that. We have more urgent issues on the ground.

If they seriously took it, then - yes - the women will play a very active role in Iraq.

MARTIN: I don't think it's controversial to say that a lot of Americans are, kind of weary of this country's overseas involvements and would very much wish for our national leaders to focus on matters here in the United States. And so I just wondered, in the time that we have here, do you have any message for them about - speaking from just from your own personal vantage point, about what you've seen and what you're trying to accomplish there.

AL-JUBOORI: I would like to say that I understand all the good intentions and the good heart of everything that was done for the Iraqi people. And I understand that, like in anything in life, there is always negative aspects of any good thing that you want to do. But I would like the Americans to take the heart and remember that there are a lot of people in need, still, in the country. They don't have a voice, but they are still in conflict. They are still suffering and there is still a lot to be done. So I would like their patience and their continued support to support the Iraqi government in enhancing and in achieving their stability objectives.

MARTIN: Iqbal Al-Juboori is an expert on development, with a particular focus on rural development and women, and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Iqbal Al-Juboori, thank you so much for joining us.

AL-JUBOORI: Thank you for having me.


MARTIN: Just ahead, the Catholic Church has believers in all corners of the world, so what does it take to lead a flock that lives in Africa, Asia and the Americas? We'll talk with a roundtable of Catholic faith leaders and thinkers. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.