Is this what peace looks like?

Friday 5 September 2003, by Susan HARVIE

More than 2 months after the Pentagon announced that "major conflict in Iraq is over", the United States is calling on NATO countries to send troops to support their occupation of Iraq. Is this what peace looks like?

In the 12 years between the first and second Gulf Wars, Arab Iraqi dissidents and the Kurdish people built a dynamic civil society in Iraqi Kurdistan made up of social movements and NGOs working on a wide range of issues. One of the more impressive components of this social movement is the women’s movement. Until about a year ago, the women’s movement consisted of a series of isolated groups tightly controlled by political parties, ethnic groups and religious organizations. In 2002, these disparate women’s organizations came together to lobby for state funds to build two shelters for widows, abandoned women and women fleeing domestic violence.

Their victory was twofold. Not only were the shelters built, but 20 women’s groups established a network to represent the women’s movement and to increase its impact on society.

The Network has since coalesced into a pluralist, national women’s movement that is playing a key role in changing public thinking and public policy. For example, after a difficult campaign with impressive lobbying and mobilization, the Kurdish administration abolished the "honour" defence. Under Iraqi law, a man accused of murder or assault on a female relative may plead that he was motivated by the defence of family honour against a real or perceived breach of honour. In murder cases, this defence would reduce the minimum prison term from 8 years to 6 months. The successful campaign against the "honour defence was motivated by a massive increase in these crimes in the 1990’s as a result of years of conflict, displacement, poverty and overcrowding.

After another successful campaign by the Women’s Network, the Kurdish administration is abolishing polygamy. Although the focus of the Network is on women’s issues, they also define their role as contributing to the overall democratization of society which they understand as a necessary prerequisite for lasting peace in their country. Other civil society organizations are watching and learning from their experience.

The Women’s Network and other social organizations and NGOs in Iraqi Kurdistan have built and maintained informal networks of contacts throughout southern Iraq. As a result, they are well prepared to contribute to the rebuilding of civil society, democracy and peace in the south. The Women’s Network has already moved south into Kirkuk and Mosul and has sent representatives to Baghdad, Basra and other cities. Their strategy is to work together to build networks of pluralist civil society organizations based on the model developed by the Women’s Network in the north.

The Women’s Network and other civil society organizations from northern Iraq face an overwhelming challenge in their determination to build a strong and organized civil society, a functioning democracy and a lasting peace in a country under occupation by the most powerful military machine ever assembled on the planet. They are not discouraged. On the contrary, they see the current situation as a huge opportunity, one for which they have been waiting for decades. They know that they need help and that they have been isolated from social movements in the rest of the world for far too long.

They firmly believe that the social movements they have heard about through the World Social Forum and through the massive worldwide demonstrations against the American war on their country will not let them down and will support them in their struggle for real equality, a functioning democracy and a lasting peace in Iraq.

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