Elements of American society starkly contrast Iraqi society. A UC Davis student shared her perspective with the Davis community about women’s gains and setbacks during the last 100 years in Iraq.
Wednesday evening, Soroptimist International of Greater Davis hosted UC Davis student Dalya Al-Wattar, a native Iraqi. Al-Wattar focused on life and culture for women in Iraq.
Al-Wattar is a Fulbright Scholar and worked as a Cultural Affairs Officer, working with diplomatic agencies, such as the Iraq Ministry of Defense. She is currently a teaching assistant in the Middle Eastern Studies department.
Outlining the history of women in Iraq through history, Al-Wattar described how women have progressed in certain respects, like their position in the workplace, school, voting, choosing a husband and speaking their minds.
Al-Wattar also addressed Iraqi women’s clothing – mainly the hijab. The hijab is a traditional piece of Arab clothing, similar to a cloak, which covers the entire body from head to toe. Al-Wattar, who does not dress in a hijab, said that women who do wear one are not forced, but chose to.
“Those who make this decision are restricted to traditional religious beliefs,” she said. “Because I chose a secular style of dress it doesn’t mean I don’t love, or respect God as much as the women who wear a hijab.”
Whether restricted or secular, both types of women live, learn and work together in peace in Iraq, she said.
“The difference is in the way the two types think,” Al-Wattar said. “The secular type, like myself, are moving away from the classic notion of women being fragile, delicate people. These differences do not require separation between the two groups since they are based on a woman’s individual belief.”
Challenging these old conventions has caused tension among other social and political groups in Iraq.
Al-Wattar believes extremists who attack innocent citizens try to convince people they are defending sacred traditions, but actually want power.
The fall of Saddam Hussein has given rise to the large number of extremist political parties, Al-Wattar said. This has been an impediment on the progress for women and society as a whole in Iraq.
“The U.S. is helping rebuild the infrastructure of human beings in Iraq,” she said. “With a common interest each country can take advantage of the situation. Iraq helps with what we have in abundance – oil. America can share and spread their abundance of freedom for some of this oil.”
Although Al-Wattar believes the U.S. is helpful toward Iraq, she also supported aspects of Hussein’s long-time regime.
“He wasn’t a devil, and he wasn’t an angel,” she said. “Some goals of his regime, like his education campaign, were great for the country. I received a great education under this policy. He also gave Iraqis free and reliable health care. Other parts bothered me, like I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone.”
Still, Al-Wattar understands the freedoms women have today would have been impossible under Hussein’s strict social constraints.
“Tolerance for western ideas is an issue directly related to the role of women in society,” Al-Wattar said. “The removal of Saddam gave women access to the outside world and the opportunity for life-education, like learning about politics and pregnancy.”
Davis resident Gregg Gibbs attended Al-Wattar’s presentation because of his interest in the U.S. occupation of Iraq over the last five years.
Gibbs said he was surprised by the amount of praise Al-Wattar gave Hussein.
“We were constantly told how horrible [Hussein] was, but Al-Wattar seemed highly positive about the things he did for the country,” Gibbs said. “I guess it doesn’t matter who was offering free education and health care. At least someone was offering it.”
Al-Wattar believes Iraq, where her family resides, is now going through a transitional period. She plans to return home next year to begin a new job as head of the English department at an educational academy, which is in the process of being funded along with the U.S.’s assistance.
Soroptimist International, a worldwide organization, aims to find ways for women to help other women and collects resources to donate in times of crisis and disasters.
Marietta Hamilton, president of the Davis branch, said Al-Wattar’s willingness to address the situation of Iraqi women was positive.
“Our community has a large interest in the special perspective she was able to share, especially at this point in history,” Hamilton said. “Many of us were curious about the conditions faced for women living in Iraq. Dalia gave us a first-hand account that shows them doing pretty well.”
MICHAEL STEPANOV can be reached at email@example.com.