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Human Rights and Women in Iraq: Voices of Women

Human Rights and Women in Iraq: Voices of Iraqi Women

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs; and Tanya
Gilly, Zainab Al-Suwaij, Maha Alattar and Esra Naama.
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
March 6, 2003


Paula Dobriansky -- on far left -- and Iraqi Women

Real Audio of Briefing

COLONEL MACHAMER: Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. We're glad to have you here, I think, for a very important briefing today, and we have some special guests with us for that.

First off, I would like to introduce, starting from the left, Paula Dobriansky, who is the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs. And with her on the stage today to talk about Human Rights in Iraq are, again, going from left to right: Tanya Gilly, Zainab Al-Suwaij, Maha Alattar and Esra Naama.

Ms. Dobriansky has an opening statement, and then so will the ladies that are with us today. And then we'll take your questions and answers. Thank you very much.

Ma'am.

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY: Okay. Thank you. Well, good afternoon, and welcome to all of you. I'm Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs. I first want to thank the Foreign Press Center for hosting today's event featuring Women for a Free Iraq, a group which is dedicated to speaking openly about the suffering of all Iraqi people under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and also manifesting their fervent desire to be free.

We have with us today: Tanya Gilly from Women for a Free Iraq, who, along with her colleagues seated here will make some remarks and then field your questions. I can tell you that earlier today they had a very good and productive meeting with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Ambassador at Large for a Free Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. And I'm pleased to share the stage with them this afternoon. But before handing over the platform, if you will, I would like to just say a few words.

We are respectful of nations that differ from our own. At the same time, we believe that democracy and human rights are not just for some people but for all people. They are universal principles that every man, woman and child is entitled to. With International Women's Day two days from now, we note in particular the struggle for women's rights around the world.

For decades, Saddam Hussein has not only terrorized his people, but he has impoverished an entire nation. He has deprived the people of Iraq the freedoms they richly deserve. He has employed rape as a brutal means of torture. He has gassed his own people. He is a threat to Iraq's neighbors and to world peace and stability.

The State Department has issued a pamphlet, Iraq, A Population Silenced, which documents these egregious human rights abuses. The repression of freedoms under Saddam Hussein cries out for a change. We want to help Iraqis take back their country and build the foundation for a better democratic society, a society based on Iraqi traditions and culture, but one founded on the universal principles of freedom and liberty.

We are at a critical point in dealing with Saddam Hussein. However this turns out, it is clear that the women of Iraq have a critical role to play in the future revival of their society. They bring skills and knowledge that will be vital to restoring Iraq to its rightful place in the region and in the world.

President Bush has stated that the United States and our coalition stand ready to help the citizens of a liberated Iraq. However, the United States will not dictate what the future Iraqi Government will look like. Those decisions are for the Iraqi people to make. It is my sincere hope that the Iraqi people will someday soon have a system of governance that respects human rights, rule of law, and has transparent and stable institutions; something that country lacks under Saddam Hussein.

Thank you and let me now present Tanya Gilly.

MS. GILLY: Thank you. First of all, I would like to thank you all for this opportunity to speak on behalf of Women for a Free Iraq. I will start off by reading our statement. "We are women who fled from Iraq to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein's regime. We have come together to speak up about the suffering of the Iraqi people under his regime and their yearning to be liberated.

We come from every ethnic and religious group[s] in Iraq. We have Arabs; we have Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Assyrians, Christian and even some who have Turkoman blood in them. And we want to make sure that the voices of Iraqis are heard as the world debates the issue of war in Iraq.

Everyone in Iraq lives in fear. There is no freedom of speech or religion. Torture, murder and ethnic cleansing are tools used by the regime to stay in power. These conditions cannot be denied. We have seen them ourselves and we share our experiences with you in the hope that you will help us to liberate the people of Iraq.

We were honored to have the opportunity today to share with Vice President Cheney, Congresswoman Price, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Dr. Wolfowitz, and Dr. Khalilzad the message that we expressed to President Bush in a letter last week.

This message offered our support to President Bush for his principled leadership and explained the condition of the people of Iraq. We also applauded the determination of the American Government to disarm Saddam, and its commitment to help liberate the people of Iraq.

Only the United States and its allies can help the people of Iraq break free from Saddam. Many Iraqi lives have been lost in the past and many more will be lost in the future if Saddam is not stopped. The cost of inaction and appeasement would be very high for the people of America and Iraq, alike; and even the Middle East.

We know from personal experience that Saddam cannot be contained and will always be a danger to the world. We also want to tell the American people that Iraqis will help to liberate their country. In 1991, they heeded America's call to rise up against Saddam after the Gulf War. But without American assistance, that uprising was crushed. Some of us here today participated in that uprising, risking our lives and losing relatives.

When the United States comes to our assistance this time, the Iraqi people will not only be grateful, we will join in. We look forward to the day when the help of Americans and others of goodwill Iraq can take its place as a free world nation, a nation that is founded on the rule of law and equal rights for all citizens, where women participate fully in society and their rights respected and protected.

We ask the American Government to remain committed to this process of creating freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people and to ensure that no neighboring powers interfere militarily with our desire to live in a free, pluralistic, democratic, and federal Iraq.

We have no doubt that the Iraqi people, like all people, are capable of governing themselves in this manner. We are grateful to all Americans who will be asked to risk both life and treasure to remove Saddam. We hope they know that the Iraqi people will eagerly contribute everything they have to the task. Our prayers are with the American people and with the Iraqi people". --Women For A Free Iraq.

COLONEL MACHAMER: Hi we're, we're ready to take your questions. Please wait for the microphone and identify yourself.

QUESTION: I'm Dr. Eden Naby from the Assyrian Star. In a future Iraq, I wonder how the situation of the ethnic minorities would be any different than it has been in the past? Since 1977, the Assyrians have been eliminated from the census in Iraq and eliminated as an identity in the country. And after that, in the Kurdish areas there has been an attempt to make the Assyrians into Christian Kurds. Is there any assurance that can be given to the Assyrian community and diaspora that this policy will not continue?

MS. GILLY: I can go ahead and answer that.

I think the Assyrian minority is not the only minority that has suffered under Saddam's regime. Again, I talk about the Shias, I talk about the Kurds, I talk about the Turkoman alongside the Assyrians who have lost their identity, who have not been able to use their cultural rights and practice their religious rights.

I think, definitely, and I believe in my heart that once Saddam is gone, we have all suffered, and I think we'll all join hands and try and build a better Iraq.

QUESTION: I have a question, please. And I think this issue was raised today for some other minorities. This issue was raised today from other people, how about minorities, because I'm from a small minority. How is going to gel the new government, the new democracy in Iraq with these minorities? And the answer was, we should, every group from Iraqi people should have their own right and to practice their religion, ethnicities, names, whatever they want to do. And what we are looking for, we are looking to have really this freedom that was absent in Iraq for long, long years. Thank you.

QUESTION: I'm Amal Chmouny from Al Anwar newspaper, Lebanon. I wonder, what is the, the role of you as woman, as women in the future of Iraq -- the real role in politics and local government? What will be your role there?

MS. AL-SUWAIJ: We were hoping that our role in Iraq will be the same as men role inside Iraq, where we are strongly committed to our country and we would like to have our people back there building a new civil society, establishing courts, policies, and building schools and hoping to have a free press and enjoy the freedom and democracy in our country

QUESTION: As social workers, not as political workers?

MS. GILLY: Actually both.

MS. NAAMA: Actually both. We can also participate in the parliament. Why not? I mean, we are half of their society there, so --

MS. GILLY: More than half. (Laughter.

MS. NAAMA: More than half. 65 percent of the Iraq population is women. But if I can just add one little thing. We actually have the example of Iraq/Kurdistan, the Kurdish Experiment, where we have women parliamentarians, we have women judges, women ministers, and we're hoping that that would carry on into the rest of Iraq, also.

And trust me and we're standing here and we're talking about all our stories, and once Iraq has been freed, we're all going to be screaming for our rights.

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY: Maybe should we -- I was going to say, should we hear a bit, would like to share anything further, any of you?

MS. GILLY: Sure. I think, I mean, in the end, it's up to the Iraqi women what they want to do with what they have. I don't think anybody can do it for them. So it's up to us ladies sitting here, it's up to the Iraqi women, and it's our duty here as women who have been able to have the privilege of learning about through democracy that has existed in Europe and the United States to take some of that back and to show our women that they could do more because Iraqi women are fairly educated. They are some the most educated women in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, because of the, of the brutality of the regime, they have not been able to contribute to the goodness of Iraq. And I think with the upcoming change, I hope that they will contribute and I think, again, that's up to us to do. It's -- nobody can do it for us. You have to step in and say, we're going to do it this time.

MS. NAAMA: May I just share a little experience? I guess you brought the role of women and so on. Saddam, right now, is terrorizing women, Iraqi women. He's using the excuse of infidelity. He's using the excuse of women being unfaithful to their husbands and the honor killing -- he's actually allowed honor killing to come back into society, where something that really, for a long time, was not in Iraqi society and I'm sure these ladies here can correct me if I'm wrong.

But, once Saddam is gone, I believe that these are all things that will disappear from our society again.

Women -- you have doctors that have been beheaded and they've had their heads put on stakes and put there for people to see. And they were accused of crimes of honor. So once Saddam is gone, I really believe that this can go away. And he's even used rape as a method of terror. You know, when he tries to get people to talk or demands to talk, he would bring their mothers, their sisters, their wives and they would rape that woman in front of their -- you know, in front of the husband. I'm sorry. It's a bit of a difficult subject to talk about.

And we have one example of that in 1991 when the uprising happened against Saddam Hussein's regime where Iraqi men and women stood together to liberate Iraq at that time. And we helped as much as we could. We carried weapons. We helped in the hospitals.

We -- I can tell you about my personal experience, that we, I went inside one of the jails in the city that we liberated. We liberated 15 out of the 18 provinces inside Iraq. And we went inside the jail and we opened the prison. The prison was full with not only men, men and women and children, as well.

The prisoner[s] were not only Iraqis but also, you know, people from various different countries in the Middle East and Europe. And we -- they took us in a tour for -- to see the torture chambers. And inside these torture chambers we saw the human meat grinders. We saw chemical pools that they dissolve people in. We saw rooms that's specially for sexual abuse.

Many women, they enter these prisons inside Iraq when they were 15-14 years old. They left when they were -- many years later, with three, four, five children because of the rape that continues every single day inside these jails.

So Iraqi men and women are waiting for the minute to be liberated, to be -- to get rid of this brutal regime, and to enjoy living in a free, democratic country.

COLONEL MACHAMER: Okay. Up front.

MS. LANGLEY: On the issue of women, in the northern part of Iraq there continues to be the abduction of young girls who are not Muslim, who are Christian, and there is no punishment for these. These cases have been documented as late as 2000 and we have documentation for them. There is no recourse for these people. These are young girls, as young as 12, who are abducted. It's something that has gone on historically but continues today, and it should not in northern Iraq. And I'm wondering what you know about this and what can be done about it?

MS. GILLY: It's addressed to me? The question on --

MS. LANGLEY: Anyone who knows about Northern Iraq.

MS. GILLY: I actually don't have any information on that and it really comes as a surprise to me that you're talking about this.

MS. LANGLEY: We need a website.

MS. GILLY: That's fine. I mean it's, yeah, it would be good, because if something like this is happening, obviously we'd like to stop it. But the Christian minority, the Assyrians actually are members of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, as I know, and I think that, you know, their role is very important in bringing freedom to Iraq and bringing democracy. And we're hoping that by having a federal system in Iraq all minorities' rights will be protected regardless of what minority you are.

MS. LANGLEY: I'd like to be able to give you this site and the specific information of this practice that continues.

MS. GILLY: Sure.

COLONEL MACHAMER: Any more? Anyone else? Yes. In the back.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Julia Sable. I'm from Radio Free Asia. In your discourse so far, the transition from deposing Saddam Hussein to democracy seems to be one easy step, and I'm just wondering, since you know a lot more about Iraqi society, how easy is that really going to be? I've heard a lot of skepticism in the press that it's going to be able to happen quickly and easily and that the society is actually fairly fractured if you could just address that question. Thank you.

MS. ALATTAR: Well, Iraqis are waiting for the minute to be free from Saddam. They have been suffering for more than 34 years now. And between torture and killing and disappearing of people inside the country, the war is going on inside the country for more than 30 years. And it's about time to stop it. And Iraqis are waiting for the minute that they have force supporting them inside their country to get rid of Saddam.

In 1991 when the uprising happened, we Iraqis rose up against the government, against the regime. We liberated 15 of the 18 provinces inside Iraq, but we needed help. Saddam came back, gathered his troops, and killed all the -- most of the people there. And so, as we have connections back in Iraq, families back in Iraq, everybody is waiting for the minute to be free.

MS. GILLY: I, too, would like to say that I know that a lot of people assume that the Iraqi people will not be able to handle democracy. I think we all heard that before. And I don't think that's an acceptable thing to believe because we're just as free-loving people, humans, as anybody else here, in this country or in Europe. And we are willing to work together amongst each other and also with the United States to establish democracy. It's not going to be easy. Nobody has said it's going to be easy.

But we don't have any other option but to proceed towards democracy. There is no other option. And there have been many instances in the world where people have started from scratch with democracy; Germany is one. Japan is one.

The United States was very implemental in terms of helping those countries in establishing democracy and I hope the United States will do the same for us. We're depending on the United States to help us move towards democracy and establish a system where people can have life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, as anybody else in this country.

So I hope that people will believe in the Iraqi people as a society. We have a long tradition and we don't have a history of civil war amongst each other. I don't see us fighting any time soon. We love each other, and I think we'll do great with democracy.

MS. DARWEESH: Can I respond also to that? My name is Tamara Darweesh and I'm a proud Iraqi American, and my background actually reflects the diversity in Iraq. I am half Kurdish and half Arab, and my mother who is Arab also has quite a bit of Turkish blood.

And I'm often faced with this question of oh, Iraq is so fragmented, there's so many different minorities. And I believe that that's to Iraq's strength and I think that will strengthen the democracy in Iraq because there are so many different voices. And as you see here today, there are many different women here from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different religious backgrounds. And we're here and we're working together.

And I think that, you know, that's really important because I think there's a misconception, especially in Western media, that just because we are not Western, we're not necessarily Christian, that we are not able to handle democracy and we're not entitled to it. And I think that that's not only wrong, I think it's racist, and I think that should be really confronted why that presumption is. I think that we're eager for democracy -- we're willing to work for it. No one's saying it's going to be an easy transition. But I think that the time has come, and that was something, which was very refreshing in speaking to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Dr. Condoleezza Rice is that they were irritated.

They emphasized that if there is going to be military action in Iraq, that there will be a change of regime and not just one from one dictator to another, but actual change for democracy. And I think that's what's needed at this time in Iraq. And I think that's what the Iraqi people are desperate for. I've nothing else to say.

MS. AL-SUWAIJ: The point here, Iraqi people they are tired enough from war and from the terrors that they have been living 30 years under Saddam Hussein's regime. So Iraqi people, they are very eager with all minorities, all ethnicities, all different religions, they are very eager to build their countries. And second, I want to say in Iraq, we have, we are the origin of civilization of the world, and we have educated people enough to build our countries, and we have high technology that we have it, we own it, our own technology that we have it in our country. So we can rule our country and we can build democracy in our country. Thank you.

COLONEL MACHAMER: Anyone else?

QUESTION: Sawaki of Tokyo Shimbun. I have a question to the lady in the middle. You have been talking about the uprising, which happened in 1981 [1991]. But the uprising did not succeed. And it has been said that the United States did not really help you, but rather let the uprising suppressed by Saddam Hussein. How did you feel about this fact at that time?

MS. AL-SUWAIJ: Well, we felt very angry, and we felt that, betrayal. And, but right now it's time for the American Government to make good on their promise. It's about time to restore this trust with the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people still have a belief in American Government and believe that America and its ally can help them to get rid of Saddam and change the regime.

MS. NAAMA: May I just add something to that?

My name is Esra, and my dad was a former general in the Iraqi army, and we lived in the south of Iraq and he was involved in the uprising against Saddam after losing two of his brothers that were executed for an unknown reason, and family members, and so on and so forth.

And we lived through many hardships and people in the south, I know we talk a lot about the people in the north, but people in Iraq, in general, have lived in hardships and I don t want to go into my story, but we, I left Iraq when I was ten years old and we fled from one city to the other and we saw people being hung on streets and brutally killed in front of their family members' eyes just because they were involved in the uprising and they didn't have the opportunity to flee.

And I'm fortunate enough to have the opportunity to flee, but we fled to a neighboring country, Saudi Arabia, and we didn't make it in time. The troops had already left, so we had to remain on the Saudi border for three days without food and shelter until a decision was made for us to be taken in Rafha Camp. Rafha Camp was a camp that was, that brought us some sort of safety but yet it also had very hardships.

And we were granted asylum to the United States in 1992, and we've been here since then, and we've lived the feeling of democracy and freedom and just having rights that we weren't able to have back home. So I think, I just want to say, we haven't said, we want to thank President Bush and the troops that are there in the desert. I'm, actually, I live in San Diego and a lot of the troops left out of San Diego, and we live very close to families of the Marines that are going to fight for us. So I just want to say thank you for helping my people and for going to liberate my country. So, thank you.

COLONEL MACHAMER: Anyone else?

MS. GILLY: I would like to say that the American people will realize this is not just a war. This is an act of liberation. This is an act of saving lives, maybe millions of lives. And I hope they see it this way rather than this is just a war of where bombs will be dropped. This is a war where people's lives will be changed tremendously and I think it's to the advantage of the American Government to have a democratic Iraq, a free Iraq. It's just -- it's one less tyrant, tyrant, tyrant, that's in the world. The world will be free of one less tyrant and it's, this is not only going to be good for the Iraqi people. Of course, we love to see, you know, I love to see my free, my Iraqi people, but I also like to see my American people be free of the danger that this horrible man poses.

And we all saw September 11. We don't want another one of those. We want to have a free world, not just a free Iraq, and I hope the American people will see themselves as part of a big, large, global village. It's not, this is not just -- we don't live, just -- everybody lives in their corner anymore. We re all connected.

And, you liberate Iraq; you're also liberating your future children. So I hope you see it that way.

QUESTION: I'm Alicia Langley with the Washington File. I wonder if maybe some of you could characterize for us a little more about your meeting today with Dr. Rice and Vice President Cheney and the others? Tell us about how long it lasted and what comments, what questions you had for them and what comments they had for you?

MS. GILLY: Our first meeting was with Dr. Condoleezza Rice. The meeting actually lasted almost an hour. We're a group of Iraqis, basically. We had a lot of questions with regard to what securities, what security guarantees do we have and, you know, and if Iraq is freed, will they help us build a democratic Iraq?

MS. GILLY: That's, this is one of the issue and also we talked about the future of Iraq and how it's -- democracy is going to be handled there and whether the several groups in Iraq, several, the minorities and ethnicities in Iraq will take share in the new government. Also, we met with Vice President Dick Cheney afterwards and that meeting lasted for about 20-25 minutes. And he listened to our concern. He shared with us the United States Government thoughts about the current regime inside Iraq and also he was talking about the, you know, the American Government concern about the Iraqi and the human rights violations in Iraq.

And we as Iraqis had many different, several questions about the humanitarian aid that's going to be delivered to the Iraqis during the war or immediately after the war and the transitional period from the war until the country is stable. So this is most of the things that we talked about.

MS. NAAMA: We also told him, each one of us told him our story, our personal story, and they were very responsive to that. They showed a lot of emotion to it, which is something that we appreciated, both the Vice President Dick Cheney and Dr. Rice. And they were very responsive to our concerns in terms of what happens after the war. They were very responsive to what happens during the war, and they were, they answered all our questions very appropriately. And I think it was a very, very fruitful meeting.

COLONEL MACHAMER: Okay. That's about all the time we have for this session. And on behalf of the Foreign Press Center, I want to thank these courageous women for coming here today to share their experiences with us and with the foreign media. Thank you very much and best of luck to you all.

[End]

Released on March 6, 2003


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