How do we know we are on track when it comes to post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction? How do we know that our military, diplomatic and development interventions are working? These experts believe that one key indicator when gauging success is women’s participation and access to the political, economic and social arenas.


Women’s Struggles and Strides in Afghanistan and Iraq

As women in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle to play a more active role and participate in civil society, the United States Institute of Peace held an event to discuss the undertakings and accomplishments of Iraqi and Afghan women as key indicators of the success of stabilization and reconstruction efforts in these countries. The event also focused on sharing lessons from both conflict zones, and beginning an ongoing dialogue in which women in these countries might learn from one another.  

The September 27th panel, “Women as a Barometer of Success and Stability? Sharing “Lessons Learned” from Iraq to Afghanistan,” included Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and USIP’s director of Iraq Programs, Manal Omar. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations moderated the panel, and USIP’s Gender Adviser Kathleen Kuehnast, who introduced the panel. USIP’s Gender and Peacebuilding Initiative sponsored the event.

The women of Iraq and Afghanistan have faced many obstacles. Coleman and Omar said women are often not recognized as leaders because they are more likely to be involved in grassroots, behind-the-scenes types of leadership roles which do not garner them public attention from the international community.Both said some international actors have said “not now” when it comes to prioritizing women’s rights on the reconstruction agenda, including in the area of constitutional reforms. Women’s rights and issues of concern to women are often tabled in order to turn attentions and resources to primary concerns like stability, security and infrastructure. However, Coleman and Omar said “not now” often becomes “too late,” as it is difficult to change policies to include considerations for women’s rights after such policies have already been passed or implemented without women’s input. Backsliding on women’s rights, in addition, is often a bellwether for greater societal shifts that a country as a whole will soon have to deal with.

Coleman’s book, "Paradise Beneath Her Feet," paints a vivid picture of the status of women’s rights in the Middle East and highlights the transformative role women are playing in the region. The book looks at what Coleman calls the “most conservative” Arab nations: Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. Omar’s book "Barefoot in Baghdad" details her experiences as an American aid worker of Arab descent working in Iraq. Lemmon is author of the upcoming book, "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," which tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for her community during the Taliban years.

Coleman said she got the idea for her book after a meeting with Iraqi women leaders and activistsin Washington in summer 2005. During the meeting, she asked the women what they thought about Islamic law being included in the Iraqi Constitution. The women replied that they believed the constitution would not have Sharia law in it. However, according to Coleman, both the constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan now state that any laws passed or enforced by the government cannot contradict Sharia law.

“Most of these women were very secular women and very disconnected from the role religion was playing in the formation of the constitution,” Coleman said. “Now I think to myself, ‘how are these women dealing with Sharia?’” Faced with more conservative environments and this constitutional ambiguity, many women in the region are not rejecting Islam, but rather using it as a way to promote their rights and effect change.  In questioning whose sharia law will govern their behavior, women are beginning to work together across the religious-secular divide.

For example, in summer 2005, Coleman received a USIP grant for research on how women in Iraq and Afghanistan were pushing for their rights in environments filled with societal constraints. She met with women in Iraq and Afghanistan and interviewed religiously conservative and liberal Muslim women, as well as secular women. The conservative women she interviewed said women’s rights are often associated with the feminism of the Western world, and that many women were concerned about speaking up for themselves in a society which sees women’s rights as a western concept. The secular women she talked to were pushing for reforms which many conservative women felt were too progressive. She said it was a challenge, but that eventually thesetwo groups of women saw that they wanted the same things, and that finding a common ground over which to share lessons was crucial to realizing their goals.

“They ultimately have the same goal,” Coleman said, and that is to create more “open space” within society for women.
Omar, who lived and worked in Iraq between 2003 and 2005, said she had similar experiences with women there.

Omar said her book’s goal was to recognize the personal side of conflict, and use the story of her own experiences as an entry point to highlighting Iraqi women’s transition from survivors of conflict to active citizens. Omar said Iraqi and Afghan women are often depicted as victims in the media, but that she wants to frame these women as survivors and leaders. In her experience she has met many strong women who are working on civic reforms in their communities. When she was in Iraq in 2003, Omar said women were at the forefront of governmental and social reform.

“Many people do not realize that in 2003, the women of Iraq were some of the first ones to come together on many humanitarian issues,” Omar said.

She said, in 2003, women from all backgrounds gathered together to talk about healthcare and security as well as women’s rights in the Iraq constitution. By 2008, she said, many of the integrated Iraqi women’s groups became polarized, with religious women separating from secular women on smaller issues often dealing with the role of religion in Iraqi society. Omar said it is her hope that women can return to where they were in 2003 by finding common ground. She said women on the margins as well as urban elites must be involved in these grassroots discussions together.

In spring 2010, USIP hosted meetings in Beirut, Lebanon for Iraq women. Women from both secular and religious backgrounds gathered to talk about how they can work together for social and political reforms. They talked about the importance of women owning businesses and the education of girls. Despite their different backgrounds, after three days, the women came away with an understanding that they were working toward the same goals. Many of these women returned to Iraq and started working together in grassroots human rights organizations. Omar said as more women come together, there will be more stability because these women are invested in their communities. These meetings were highlighted as well as other work on gender and peacebuilding in USIP’s Fall 2010 edition of PeaceWatch.

According to a recent USIP Peace Brief, “Real Change for Afghan Women's Rights: Opportunities and Challenges in the Upcoming Parliamentary Elections,” written by Nina Sudhakar and Scott Worden, for the September 18th Afghanistan elections nearly 400 women were parliamentary candidates. Another Peace Brief, by Palwasha Hasan, “The Afghan Peace Jirga: Ensuring that Women are at the Peace Table,” discussed the importance of women’s involvement in the peace process through the Afghanistan peace Jirga in May.

One of USIP’s recent projects in Iraq, developed by Omar and USIP program officer Caelan McGee, is "USIP’s Toolkit for Collaborative Problem Solving- A Focus on Women’s Leadership." The toolkit provides solutions for conflict resolution and development, and leaves participants with the experience and tools to continue addressing their own needs. USIP and its network of Iraqi facilitators led a three-phase approach to building coalitions, creating space for dialogue and developing a shared vision, by providing female leaders with tangible skills. The goal of the toolkit project is to improve women’s leadership in Iraq by working with women to become active in their communities. The sessions sought to encourage women to work across ethnic, religious, political lines for women leaders throughout government, civil society- from the provincial level and beyond, for women to identify ways in which they can affect change, improve as leaders, and promote their shared vision by action-planning.

The September 27th event brought to light the struggles and strides Iraqi and Afghan women are making in their respective societies, and highlighted lessons that may be shared between women in these conflict zones, such as the importance of engaging different communities of women in collaborative efforts to bring about change. It is the hope of the speakers that as these women work together their efforts will make women’s voices more easily heard.


  • Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
    Council on Foreign Relations
  • Manal Omar
    Director of Iraq Programs
    U.S. Institute of Peace
  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Moderator
    Deputy Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
    Council on Foreign Relations
  • Kathleen Kuehnast, Welcome
    Gender Advisor, Gender and Peacebuilding Initiative
    U.S. Institute of Peace


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