TOPICS : Iraqis’ message of reconciliation

The actor stands on a makeshift stage at a bombed-out, dusty intersection in Baghdad. It’s an unusually cool evening in September, and a crowd that looks like most of the neighbourhood has assembled to enjoy the rare entertainment. “Sunni! Shiite!” he yells. “Whatever ethnic group — I don’t care! Spurn each other’s hand no longer. Long life and success — to both of you!” This is the message of reconciliation carried by the Al Mada street theatre troupe, led by one of Iraq’s rising female stars, Ghada Hussein Al-Almy.

While female suicide bombers in Iraq have been getting all the headlines, a very different cadre of women has emerged on the scene with the opposite goal of forging peace and paving over the sectarian differences. Above all, these activists want to take back the streets and neighbourhoods of their country.

We have spent the past several years studying how women promote conflict resolution in places such as Belfast, Sarajevo, and Damascus. But we’ve seen nothing like the women activists we encounter now in Iraq, especially given the personal risk they take to advance their message. Almy’s street theatrics are only one example of this courageous new female activism. Other women roam their local streets as self-appointed social workers, looking after displaced persons, widows, and street children. Some have set up welfare centres and education programs, persisting in the face of leaflets and letters threatening them with death.

Such activism has a long tradition in Iraq. During the civil war between warring Kurdish parties in northern Iraq in 1994, hundreds of women from both sides got together for a three-day march on Kurdish parliament. Finding the doors closed and the peace talks stalled, they broke into the building and carried out a two-week sit-in strike that forced the warring parties to reconvene and negotiate a cease-fire. Nowadays the activists are employing unconventional platforms such as Almy’s to start a grass-roots counter-revolt against war and division. Almy is a Baghdad University professor-turned-”theater resistance leader”. In the wake of some of Iraq’s worst suicide bombings, she and her troupe decided to use culture as a defensive weapon.

In their efforts to counter violent extremism, US and Iraqi authorities have overlooked Iraqi women as voices of inspiration. Both parties should refocus their resources to support these women who are already engaged — but not networked. A simple start: security for these grass-roots events, marches, and protests that stimulate the public’s role in Iraq’s reconciliation should be made a priority. Almy frowned when we suggested that other women may not want to put their own lives in peril.

“Don’t you see us? We are already on the front lines of this war for years,” she said. “We are beyond fear, beyond loss. We are not the crazy suicide bomber or the weeping widow the West portrays us to be. We are creative and courageous; we are the new women of Iraq!” —The Christian Science Monitor