Helping women in Iraq

Here and Now

This story was originally reported by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

“I have worked in other conflict-torn countries, but my time in Iraq haunts me more than any place I have been,” Manal Omar, author of the memoir “Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity – My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos” told PRI’s Here and Now. Omar, who had worked in Iraq in 1997 and 1998, was one of the first aid workers to arrive in Iraq after the war started in 2003, when she went to work for Women for Women International. says, “It maddens me that so many of the mistakes that pushed Iraq into chaos were avoidable.”

Omar dedicated herself to working for women’s rights in Iraq. “Dealing with women’s issues was much more difficult than dealing with other humanitarian issues, like food security or building houses,” according to Omar. There was a profound sense of opportunity at the start of the war. At the same time, Omar says there was a “stronger desperation to hold on to more tribal or traditional customs.”

The title of Omar’s memoir refers to the Iraqi Turkmen proverb, “If you walk barefoot, the thorns will hurt you.” She said that she often heard the proverb from women to mean, “If you work on women’s issues, you will get hurt.”

Omar believed that her mixed identity could be an asset to her aid work. Born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents, her family moved to Lubbock, Texas, when she was six months old. Her status as an American from the South allowed her to move freely in the Green Zone and converse with soldiers. As a veiled woman, she believed that she would be able to move freely between cultures.

Unfortunately, that was not always the case. Some viewed her American and Arab identities as mutually exclusive. Some people saw her as an extremist because of her veil. She says, “People felt that I needed to choose sides or needed to choose one identity and stick to it.”

Eventually, Omar fell in love and got married to an Iraqi man whom she worked with. But what should have been a joyous day became possibly the saddest day of her life. She explained:

On the day of our wedding, his brother in law was killed in Iraq. And it brought the reality that now I was going to part of this society that was war-torn society that suffered such tragedies that impacted every part of their lives.

“Every year, we have the mourning of his passing away,” se says, “and our wedding anniversary just kind of slips into the background.”

In spite of the tragedies, Omar can still find hope and optimism in her experiences. She says, “The office, and a lot of the staff that I worked with in 2003, are still working very hard to make changes for Iraqi women.” Many are providing job training skills to women, especially for widows and other endangered women. The organization has helped women find a voice in Iraq, and some have even run for public office and won. She summed up the lessons for Here and Now:

My experience taught me that despite despair despite tragedy, there is a way to be cautiously optimistic. There is a way to continue to work toward the future and not allow the difficulties to drown you.

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