By Staff Sgt. Margaret C. NelsonApril 28, 2008
KIRKUK, Iraq (Army News Service, April 28, 2008) - The Inaugural Northern Iraq Women's Conference held at Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk brought close to 100 female Iraq and U.S. professionals together to discuss shared cultural issues April 20.
"There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it," American Suffragist Alice Paul once said. Little did she know that her words would take on a new meaning in Iraq at the Inaugural Northern Iraq Women's Conference.
The conference brought together female Iraq and U.S. professionals to include Peshmerga Soldiers from Sulayminiyah to the Kirkuk Province, and U.S. Army and Air Force personnel stationed at FOB Warrior. The conversations that ensued centered on common issues such as juggling careers and family, domestic violence and other topics similar to both cultures.
"We are not that different," Maj. Naheda Ahmed, 42, commander of a Peshmerga woman's Regiment in Sulayminiyah said. "It is important to start a dialogue about women's issues affecting women in Iraq with our American counterparts...we are their voices. It is our responsibility to inform as many people as possible so they can be heard."
The Kirkuk Province is home to a multi-ethnic populace to include Arab, Kurd, Turkman and Christian.
"We all face the same problems and issues only another woman can understand," Ahmed said.
Myths were debunked and appreciation for each other's differences was shared, such as how women of Islam perceived the American Soldier.
"We have always had women in our Army," Kirkuk Provincial Council Member Ramla Hameed Obedi said. "I don't see female Soldiers as much as I see your men, but what stands out the most is their awareness and respect of our customs, especially when it concerns Islamic women. They are very well trained in that area. We do notice and appreciate their efforts."
Opinions sparked friendly debate amongst those gathered at a table where ideas on how to best effect change regarding women's issues in the government process were discussed.
"While one council member thought a women's committee would be effective, another was concerned that establishing a separate committee would marginalize women's issues in the Kirkuk Province," Maj. Rose Bennett, Staff Judge Advocate, 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division said.
As this meeting was the first of its kind in the region, the dialogue remained light with more interest in getting to know one another. Soldiers brought photo albums, sharing pictures of family and friends with attendees who, in turn, shared theirs.
"I thought our guests would be more reserved and protective of their thoughts on very personal and controversial issues," Air Force Col. Helen Horn-Kingery, commander, 506th Expeditionary Medical Squadron said.
Instead, other topics discussed were the increased security in the region, Reconciliation, and Americans' perception of the Islamic women.
"Kirkuk is better off since Sahwah," Sukaine Ali Kareem, chief of the Kirkuk Net for Civil Society said. "The Iraqi Security Forces have established good relationships with the civilian population."
She noted the Sons of Iraq have also "brought a necessary ingredient" to the stabilization of this region.
"We travel freely from district to district where once we would not leave our homes," she said.
Senior Airman Margarita Escarcega, a 506th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron Force Protector received an education on the plight of the Kurdish people under Sadaam Hussein.
"The female Peshmerga Soldiers affected me the most as they told me about the struggles of the Kurdish women and how they have fought for their family's survival," she said. "They have so much pride and honor."
"The most important message I would like to convey to the American people is that the women of Iraq are educated. We are doctors, lawyers, professionals," Ramla said.
Kareem, a mother of two, wanted to convey her appreciation for U.S. Soldiers.
"It is hard for me to be away from my children for a day...you are here away from your families much longer; you are very courageous. Thank you for helping us," she said.
The need for future meetings was also discussed.
"We need conferences such as these, so as a group, we can increase the awareness of women's rights, and deal with the challenges that the women of Iraq face today," Escarcega said.
Everyone left the conference with a better understanding of each other and hope for the future of Iraq and its women.
"Overall, the event highlighted the great strides that have been made by Iraqi women in the past five years," Bennett said. "The conference also reinforced the tremendous promise the future holds for women in today's Iraq."
(Staff Sgt. Margaret C. Nelson serves with the 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)