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April 3, 2006 Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 4, No. 1

  Iraqi women: Confused, maybe, but clear nevertheless
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

There is such a thing as being too “American,” too sure of how easy it is to be part of a democratic society. I proved it to myself last week.

The Women’s Global Peace Initiative, the U.N. partnership organization of which I am a member, met in New York City for the first of what is intended to be a series of conferences between Iraqi and American women. The hope is to be able to create alliances between U.S. and Iraqi women in order to respond as women to the circumstances in Iraq together while the politicians go on doing political things and the military goes on shooting. But don’t be misled by the word “conference.” This was not a conversation ala U.S.A.

This was, in part, a shouting match. It was, furthermore, always a confusion of positions. The Iraqi delegates contradicted themselves and argued with one another at the same time. There were, we discovered, as many Iraqs in the room as there were Iraqis.

Someplace along the way, I began to realize that if there were ever a metaphor for what is really going on in Iraq, this firestorm of shouting, accusing, pleading, gratitude, threats and resentment had to be it.

It was an exercise in democracy for people who are just learning what democracy means -- and do not like all of its implications or understand all of its demands.

“Maelstrom” is too mild a word for what happened in the session -- and yet, in the end, there was no doubt that what is really going on in Iraq became far clearer in this room than it was in the morning papers.

The delegation itself posed a problem. Of the 40 Iraqi names forwarded to the U.S. State Department for approval, only 17 were finally issued visas. The remaining representatives to the 24-member delegation were Iraqi-Americans who are more or less involved in the present situation either from afar or as periodic on-site consultants. As a result, the hundred or more U.S. participants in the conference heard from a number of women involved in the new government but heard very little from women who were not speaking in some official or civil capacity. We heard about the problems facing the country but we did not hear from internal refugees, for instance, of from those who are unemployed, homeless or wounded.

But even at that, the information was chilling. After years and years of sanctions and more years of war, Iraq is a hobbled country.

Thousands and thousands of Iraqis have died in this war or as a result of this war.

Electricity is lacking.

Water systems are polluted and unsafe.

Medical services are limited.

Therapeutic drugs and chemotherapy are unavailable.

Unemployment is over 50 percent.

The list is legion. Every area of life has been affected, limited, or destroyed.

But most severe of all, underlying all other problems, central to the breakdown of society in Iraq is, ironically, the breakdown in security. Regardless of the fact that there are 130,000 U.S. soldiers in the territory, the women say, no one is safe on the streets.

Despite the careful coaching of a U.S. State Department official overheard telling the Iraqi women that they should be careful to call the U.S. invasion of Iraq “liberation” -- not “occupation” -- the tensions about the U.S. presence in Iraq erupted from the delegation over and over again.

Lawlessness has broken out. Civil stability is at an all-time low. Civilians fear being shot by nervous U.S. soldiers who are operating checkpoints but not policing the streets or guarding the Iraqi borders. “You completely disbanded our million-man army and left us powerless and vulnerable. You didn’t even do that in Kosovo or Japan,” another delegate said.

“Your government is running our government,” a third woman told us. “We are not free and independent.”

“You removed the One Dictator,” one woman said, “but now you have left us with many” -- meaning no one is in charge and everyone is in charge at the same time.

And yet, at the same time, even though the U.S. military is acting neither as border guards nor as police, they pleaded for American troops to stay. Otherwise, they say, they will simply be prey. To whom? To everyone. Border nations, insurgents, al- Queda. Everyone.

And while they pleaded for help, they argued with one another about just how bad was bad and how liberating the liberation had really been. “The tyrant is gone,” some said. But others said, “You had no plan. That’s why all this has happened.”

“Mission accomplished” the president called it?

It sounded more like “Mission not yet begun” to me. “You destroyed the country,” one woman said; “you should fix it.”

But there is another side of the issue, too. What will be the final effect of all of this on the United States itself?

More national debt, of course.

More political bitterness, for sure.

More electoral spin, for certain. U.S. political candidates claim victory and Iraq teeters on the edge of total collapse.

So what will be the end of all these war games?

While the Iraqis are struggling to learn how to talk without screaming at one another as they did in New York, we will find ourselves consumed by the political realities of our own election.

While the Iraqis try to understand that democracy does not mean the consent of the majority to repress minority opinions or experiences, as some of these women attempted to do to other women in the meeting in New York, we will be trying to chart our own future regardless of theirs.

While the Iraqis are learning that the democratic process is meant to gather all the ideas of a group and then test each of them for their wisdom and their justice rather than silence any of them, we will be trying to decide ourselves what direction we want for our own country.

In the midst of it, I figure, someone somewhere will suddenly decide on election eve that if it’s not “mission accomplished,” it had better be “mission aborted.” The troops, like the Iranian embassy hostages in 1981, will suddenly be brought home. Iraqi women will be left to find their own way through the dangerous streets. The United States will be neither a protective military presence there nor a needed humanitarian presence.

From where I stand, I figure I have just heard what the Iraqi women will call that. Some will call it “abandonment;” others will call it “independence”; all of them will call it “a disaster” if we don’t somehow save them from what we saved them from -- and soon.

Four major themes emerged in the conversation: security, children, women and civil society. I will be telling you what they said about each of the other three in the weeks to come.

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