eKC feature
Oct. 29, 2004


Pawns or partisans
Iraqi women bring their messages to America with government and NGO support

by Rhiannon Ross

The U.S. government is committed to bringing democracy to other parts of the world using taxpayers' dollars. But who should receive this funding may be cause for a good ol' fashioned democratic debate.

In March, on International Women's Day, the U.S. State Department announced it would issue $10 million in grants to various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for the Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative.

In late September, the first round of recipients for these monies was named. They include 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 recipients are partnering with other organizations such as the Meridian International Center, the American Islamic Congress and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).

The FDD Web site (www.defenddemocracy.org) states that it "is a tax-exempt, non-profit, non-partisan, non-ideological institution. We do not seek to advance any political party or views."

By definition, a NGO.

One of its projects, the Iraq-America Freedom Alliance (I-AFA) is touted as "a non-partisan coalition of U.S. and Iraqi organizations designed to promote good will between the two nations."

One of the I-AFA coalition members is the Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq (WAFDI). WAFDI received a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund an Iraqi women's democracy training project in the U.S.

For 10 days in early July, 13 Iraqi women chosen by WAFDI, "shadowed" members of Congress on Capitol Hill, toured the Virginia State Congress in Annapolis, and attended a city council meeting in Vienna, VA. And they chatted with President Bush in the Oval Office. The women also visited historic sites such as the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center and Arlington National Cemetery.

USAID's stated goal for the project was to offer Iraqi women a firsthand experience on "democracy in action." However, the only members of government they reportedly observed were Republicans.

I-AFA invited three of the women to remain in the U.S. and participate in a speaking tour titled, "Women and Democracy in Iraq," from July 16 to Sept. 2. The theme was in support of the War on Iraq. The women's stories now comprise the I-AFA "Untold Iraq" (www.untoldiraq.org) project.

According to FDD/I-AFA spokesman Bill McCarthy, every aspect of the tour has been funded by private contributions to the FDD.

The Women and Democracy tour visited Kansas City, MO, and other cities, some located in key battleground states including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona and Arkansas. In news story after news story, it was reported that Republicans accompanied the three women on tour.

They attended an event hosted by U.S. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN; a press conference at the South Carolina State House with US Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC), followed by a presentation at the Rotary Club in Columbia, SC; a briefing at the conservative Foreign Policy Research Institute, where they were introduced by its President Harvey Sicherman; a private meeting with Congressman Tim Murphy (R-18) in Pittsburgh, PA; lunch with Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, and the VW Veterans of Iraq in Charleston, WV; and U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL), arranged for them to speak in Naperville, IL. In addition, Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared Aug. 5, "Iraqi Freedom Day."

Figures were not available as to the cost to taxpayers, if any, for these events.

The two Iraqi women who visited the eKC online offices in Kansas City on Aug.17 arrived in a black limousine with local political consultant Cathy Nugent, president of Willis Pendleton Inc. Nugent has served as a consultant on Republican legislative issues and for Republican candidates, including the Bush/Cheney campaign.

When asked by eKC online publisher and editor Bruce Rodgers if the tour was "government-sponsored," Nugent answered, "No."

Indeed, this was a true statement.

Rodgers did not, however, ask if it was a partisan initiative. But this, too, she could have refuted. As McCarthy pointed out in a telephone conversation, the FDD, the parent of the I-AFA, is non-partisan. "Just look at our board of directors," he said.

The FDD Board is heavily Republican with a handful of token Democrats including Georgia U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, who supports Bush's reelection and spoke at the Republican National Convention, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), both support conservative pro-Israel policies and the war on Iraq. The board's two advisors are Newt Gingrich and one-time Director of the CIA R. James Woolsey.

The FDD's featured "Iraq" page lists 221 related news articles, perusing the first 10 posts found them all in favor of the war in Iraq.

In recent weeks, the I-AFA has launched two additional pro-Iraq war speaking tours: "Back to School — Iraqis Visit American Universities," from Oct. 4 to Oct. 22, and "Building Democracy in Iraq — Perspectives from Iraqi Activists Lecture Tour," Sept. 27 to Oct. 29. Again, McCarthy states that every aspect of the tours has been funded by private contributions to the FDD.

If the FDD is non-partisan and non-ideological, it appears to be in name only. It clearly supports the U.S.-led war and occupation in Iraq and has a decidedly strong preference for the Republican Party.

Speaking in KC

Surood Ahmad Falih (left) and Taghreed Al Qaragholi. (photo by Jessica Chapman)

Taghreed Al-Qaragholi and Surood Ahmad Falih, two of the women representing the I-AFC speaking tour, arrive to the eKC offices in downtown Kansas City in a flurry of laughter and spirited conversation, and more than a little out of breath. Our interview is but one of many they have scheduled for that day. There is only a 30-minute window to explore another world and a war.

Both women are young, intelligent, attractive and stylishly dressed. Al-Qaragholi, a Shiite Muslim from Baghdad, sports blue jeans and a light blue top. She has a Bachelor's degree in English Literature. Falih, a Muslim and Kurd from the city of Kirkuk, is dressed in slacks and a red blazer. She has a Bachelor's degree in Agronomics. Both women wear makeup and jewelry, and have professionally coifed hairstyles. And both have visible scarring — a thick scar is slashed across Al-Qaragholi's neck and a scar from a bullet wound pocks Falih's upper chest.

Falih retells the story behind her scars — one that is now well known but no less horrific. In response to the 1991 Kurdish uprising, Saddam's Republican Guard retaliated with mass gunfire and chemical weapons, slaughtering thousands of Kurds.

Falih fled with members of her family to the nearby mountains. In route, they were ambushed. Her sister, aunt and stepmother were killed. Only she survived.

Today, because Saddam is no longer in power, Falih says she can now safely brag that she is Kurdish. The Kurdish people have long fought for sovereignty from Iraq and they supported Iran in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war.

"For the first time in our lives, I can say I'm a Kurdish in Kirkuk," she says. "I am not afraid but I am proud. And for the first time, (we) see a Kurdish flag in the country."

Falih says she and Al-Qaragholi have come to the U.S. to bring a message.

"We are thankful for the American soldiers and to the American families for their sacrifice," she says.

She fingers a cross necklace, a gift given to her by a U.S. soldier's mother from South Carolina.

"See this," she says. "I know what this means. I wear it proudly. All religions advise you to do the good things, not to do the bad things."

Today, Falih is actively working toward women's rights in the emerging Iraqi government.

"I can do what I want to do," she says. "But I want to help my people."

Al-Qaragholi attempted to flee Iraq when Saddam, to appease religious conservatives, lifted most penalties on "honor killings" called for under Sharia.

Sharia is a religious family law that sanctions the killings of women accused, often wrongly so, of adultery or sexual relations outside of marriage. Rape victims are often subject to death at the discretion of male family members. Sharia also relegates women to the role of the home, mandates that they be covered in public and allows men to have up to four wives.

Since Al-Qaragholi wasn't a member of Saddam's ruling Baathist Party, she was denied a passport and forced instead to go into hiding for two years. She later returned to Baghdad but as a Shiite she was forbidden to work or pursue a Master's degree in Education.

Today, Al-Qaragholi is administrative director of the Iraqi Independent Women's Group and has been instrumental in the construction of the new Iraqi Constitution. In fact, it was her ten well-manicured fingers that typed the new Iraqi Constitution.

"It took me two months to do so," she admits with a smile.

Al-Qaragholi dreams of a future that will include more women in the political process, one that is best achieved, she says, through a secular government.

"The women have the ability to create the peaceful society right now," she says. "That's what we are talking about, that's what we are working for."

Iraqi women's rights have long been protected by law, including the right the vote and property ownership. However, factors such as U.N. sanctions and restrictions enforced by Saddam have significantly weakened women's rights.

"Let me tell you something," she says. "These bad guys, these bad guys like Saddam, they use Islam so they can benefit from it. Islam gave full rights to the women. The bad men, they deprived women of these rights, to control women, to control society."

Sharia, for example, says Al-Qaragholi, is not a part of the Muslim holy book, The Holy Qur'an (also called The Koran).

Al-Qaragholi and Falih are asked to respond to a statement read to them from the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) Web site (www.equalityiniraq.org).

The statement reports, in part, that conditions in Iraq one year after U.S. occupation have empowered "religious, nationalist and misogynist forces" that "use terror and violence against the entire population in particular women."

After Saddam was ousted, the women of Iraq did face yet another Sharia scare when the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council attempted to pass Resolution 137. This measure, which would have reinstated Sharia, was overwhelmingly defeated. Women staged mass public protests, most notably on International Women's Day.

But both Al-Qaragholi and Falih say that these misogynist forces represented only a small faction of the Iraqi population. They add that most Iraqis only want peace and are working toward peace.

However, strong representation in the new Iraqi government is necessary to continue to protect women's rights, says Al-Qaragholi.

"We demanded 40 percent women representatives in the new government. But we received 25 percent."

Twice, Al-Qaragholi and Falih are asked if they believe that they are being used as spokespersons for the Bush Administration to present a positive spin on the war in Iraq, especially in the absence of weapons of mass destruction.

Both Al-Qaragholi and Falih appear uncomfortable with this question. They glance at one another. Falih nods for Al-Qaragholi to answer for both of them.

Al-Qaragholi chooses to focus on WAFID's mission.

"We try to find a link," she says, referring to Iraqi-U.S. relations. "And we want to make this friendship (between us) more stronger."

The agenda

Autumn sunlight streams through the many windows of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Quaker Meetinghouse, located in a renovated bungalow in Midtown, Kansas City, MO.

Mary Trotochaud sits on a church pew. A petite woman, she wears no makeup. Heavy brows and dapples of gray at her temples frame her large dark eyes. Although not a Quaker, she is plainly dressed in black slacks and a white blouse.

An avowed pacifist, Trotochaud may be best known for her involvement with SOA Watch (SOAW), a national effort to close the School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, GA (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). SOA is a U.S. Army military training program for Latin American soldiers, alleged to train counterinsurgents (its nickname is "School of the Assassins").

In 1998, she was sentenced to approximately one year in federal prison for acts of civil disobedience she participated in at the SOA (two counts of trespassing and one count of altercation to a sign).

Today, Trotochaud and her husband, Rick McDowell, are AFSC Iraq Country Representatives. The AFSC provides mentoring and financial support to emerging Iraqi NGOs.

The couple traveled to Iraq in late March 2003 as a part of a humanitarian assessment team. They lived in Baghdad until August 2004. Due to increasing attacks on NGO staff, AFSC work in Baghdad was temporarily suspended in September. Currently, they are on a speaking tour in the U.S., sharing their experiences working with women and children's groups and the union of the unemployed. They plan to return to Jordan.

The AFSC continues to fund four different women's organizations in Iraq, reflecting diverse religious, political and ethnic backgrounds. However, Trotochaud requested eKC not mention specific organizations.

"I have a little hesitancy in this day and time identifying organizations by name because most certainly lots of different elements are watching the Internet. And any association with an American organization, even an American organization that is not in anyway attached to the government, can put people at jeopardy."

Trotochaud says sanctions are largely responsible for the erosion of women's rights in Iraq because as the country became more impoverished, women and children's rights became less critical to protect. She says this is the reason women's organizations are the strongest ones emerging in Iraqi society today.

"The majority of women are determined to make sure that in whatever government finally is in place in Iraq that the rights of women and children are protected." She adds, "And the majority of women would like to see a secular state because it insures the protections of women's rights."

Trotochaud says that she knows some of the Iraqi women who participated in the women's democracy training project and the I-AFA Iraqi Women's Tour. She and her husband encountered some of the women at airports in Baghdad and Jordan both en route to the U.S. and upon their return.

Trotochaud declines to name the women, citing her wish to protect their identities. She stresses that she in no way speaks for all of the women participating in the two events, that many diverse opinions exist among them.

"Most of the women in the (Iraqi) organizations are very open to invitations that they get from lots of different sources. Some of them probably agree with the views of the sources and some of them probably don't. The bottom line for most of them is they want to protect women's rights in Iraq."

Trotochaud also points out that saying one is better off without Saddam Hussein in power isn't necessarily the same as saying one supports the war.

"I think the women portrayed a very real view of people saying they wanted the regime gone, but they didn't necessarily want it gone in that manner (war) because they really feared what would happen. And one of the things they feared is that if you have a vacuum of power you have chaos and that's what they see (now).

Trotochaud believes negotiation is the answer, not war and occupation.

"But they've all got to come to the table," she says passionately. "And so far I've only heard it just starting to be called for and it's with the new envoy from the UN to Iraq. He has said, 'I want to bring all the parties to the table because we will not see a credible election unless all the parties have a participation and a voice.'"

With the current chaos surrounding lack of security, says Trotochaud, there are fundamentalist religious organizations that are emerging and putting a lot of pressure on women.

"And this includes in some regions of the country requiring women to be veiled when women have never been required to be veiled not even by their religion except for the most fundamentalist element."

Some of the Iraqi women showed Trotochaud and McDowell their democracy-training itinerary and asked for their opinions.

"It was an interesting agenda," says Trotochaud. "It most certainly showed a lot of the different levels of government in the U.S., including city, state and national government — it would be nice for every child in the United States to go visit these different things and have a conversation about it.

"On a personal level, we looked at the agenda and were concerned because it was most certainly all Republican. If your objective is to help promote democracy, in another country that has no basis in democracy, it needs to be very broad-based what you're showing because democracy only works when it includes an opposition."

Trotochaud says she would find the agenda just as troublesome had it only represented the Democratic Party.

"And I also would find it troubling if it didn't speak to that there is actually even more than that in this country. That we have an Independent Party, and that we have some emerging third or fourth parties, which personally, I think we need to see more of if we want to have a healthy democracy."

According to Trotochaud, one site listed on the itinerary was of particular concern to some of the women — a visit to Arlington National Cemetery.

"One Iraqi woman asked, 'Don't they already know we've been living in a cemetery?'"

Trotochaud says a couple of the women were especially concerned about the timing of this particular visit and the impact it might have on their own political process in Iraq.

"It was right before the Iraqi counsel was being voted on and they felt it was taking away from the work they needed to do to make sure that women were represented."

She says some of the Iraqi women were much more outspoken about the timing and what they believed was the true intention of the United States.

"They said that they were very aware that they were being invited by the United States at this time because of the election — not the Iraqi election but the U.S. election — and that they were being used and that they were going to say that right up front. That they just wanted the people inviting them to know that they weren't fooled."

Iraqis are well-read people, says Trotochaud. And they have a joke they like to tell.

"They are wondering about a democracy that isn't always functioning so well, bringing democracy to another part of the world."

Rhiannon Ross lives in Kansas. She can be contacted at Rhiannross@aol.com or publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.



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