Iraq: Top UNIFEM Official Warns Women In Iraq Are Intimidated

UN Wire
Fearful for their safety and unnerved by last weekend's attack on a high-ranking female official, Iraqi women activists are retreating from the public sphere and choosing to keep their work low-profile.
U.N. Development Fund for Women Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer says that women had high hopes that their lives would improve with the ouster of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but now they face new threats: a pervasive lack of security and the emergence of religious extremism fostered by jihadist infiltrators from other countries.
Last Saturday's shooting of Akila al-Hashimi, one of three women on the Governing Council, was read by many women as a cautionary tale.

"They do not want to be featured because they have seen what has happened to Akila al-Hashimi," Heyzer said, adding that she and al-Hashimi had been working together on the role of civil society in the new Iraq.

A key group of Iraqi women had already decided to cancel a national symposium for 450 women scheduled for last month, Heyzer said, following the death of U.N. special envoy to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was to open the conference. UNIFEM, which organized the meeting, asked the women in the wake of the bombing that claimed Vieira de Mello's life how they wanted to proceed with their work.

"They said they want to be under the radar right now, but they want to be working at the local level," Heyzer said.

Security, which Heyzer described as so poor that women are reluctant to send their daughters to school unaccompanied, has prompted some people to take the drastic measure, given Iraq's recent history as a secular government in which women enjoyed many rights, of donning the veil.

"Many women are forced by their husbands to go under the veil for their safety," Heyzer said.

The situation for women in Iraq, not to mention in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor and Liberia, among many other places, illustrates why UNIFEM and other U.N. agencies must stop "running from crisis to crisis" and establish a long-term presence in countries emerging from conflict, Heyzer said. It is not fair, she told reporters, to urge women to take risks in dangerous situations and then abandon them.

"We have to be there for them in the long run," she said.