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Jim Hoagland

The Unheralded Revolution

Can the Gains Made by Iraq's Women Be Echoed Elsewhere?

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page A21

Look beyond the jockeying for jobs in Iraq's embryonic transitional government. Focus instead on the final results in that Arab country's matrix-breaking election. They reveal a little-publicized result that President Bush, feminist organizations and democracy advocates should be shouting from the rooftops.

Nearly one-third of the 140 winning candidates on the Shiite parliamentary list are women. Moreover, those 45 women from the list supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani tend to be more educated, better informed and more committed to change than are their male counterparts, who include a number of political hacks.

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Bush has been in Europe this week emphasizing the overall importance of the Jan. 30 elections and his commitment to transforming the autocracies of the Middle East and Central Asia into a zone of peaceful democracies.

But the president's failure thus far to highlight the success of women in the elections -- 31 percent of Iraq's newly elected 275 parliamentarians are women -- suggests that not even he fully appreciates the forces of change that he may have unleashed by toppling dictatorships in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nor do gender liberationists in the West seem eager to publicize this stunning result. Could they not want to accept even implicitly the notion that war can create the conditions needed for a positive social revolution?

That revolution ultimately is even more important to transforming the Middle East than is U.S. military might or European diplomacy. There will be no democracy in the greater Middle East until women break through the crippling restrictions and humiliations imposed on them by Arab cultural chauvinism and widespread, if perverse, interpretations of Islamic faith.

History suggests that social revolutions occur when frustration with the present combines with emergent hope for a better future to form a critical mass that is ignited by a spark of personal resistance. Americans saw this happen when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and African American students staged sit-ins at Woolworth's lunch counters nearly half a century ago.

Those students, W.E.B. Du Bois told an oral history interviewer then, "put their fingers on something" big by fighting back against the small daily humiliations of segregation and the spiteful shows of domination meant to demonstrate immediate white control. (A tape of this absorbing interview was broadcast this week on C-SPAN Radio.)

Is a movement similar to the American civil rights revolution imaginable for women in the Arab world today? It is a stretch, for obvious reasons of power and gender relationships. But it is certainly more imaginable after the Iraqi election results and after the breaking of the malignant political status quo that has prevailed in the region for at least three decades.

On assignments in the Middle East for The Post throughout that period, I found much to admire in the natural hospitality and intellectual achievements of Arab society. But for someone raised in the segregated American South, there is also much that is familiar -- constant reminders of small daily humiliations and spiteful shows of domination both cultural and sexual.

This was brought back to me recently as I listened to a senior Cabinet minister from an important Arab country criticize Bush's Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative to foster democracy in that Islamic belt. The official spoke candidly in return for not being identified. Other conversations with Arab officials confirm that his views are far from isolated:

Bush dared to lump the Arabs and the more primitive people of Afghanistan together in this initiative. He also brought Turkey's overly "liberal" Islamic society into the picture. The Americans had not understood that Arabs are "conservative people who have their own way of doing things," and who form the core of the Islamic world. And don't compare us to Iraqis, either, please.

All that was missing was a condemnation of Bush and his aides as "outside agitators."

Against this entrenched mind-set, the elections in Iraq -- in which political parties were required to field enough female candidates to ensure that they would make up at least one-quarter of the national assembly -- may seem like a straw in the wind.

But in telephone conversations and e-mail exchanges with Iraqis in Baghdad last weekend, frustration and hope mingled in a combustible mix, as security continued to be precarious and the final results were announced.

"The fact is, the women candidates had to be competent to get on the list. They met higher standards," said Nabil Musawa, a campaign strategist for the Iraqi National Congress. The example they have set, and will continue to provide, cannot be lost on Arab women at large.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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