Suuad Allami in Nina Magazine
by Madeleine White
It is interesting when you interview people. Sometimes you get to meet them physically, sometimes you get to speak by skype or by phone, other times answers are returned by Email. Each interview leaves an imprint of some kind. As I sit and write this today I am overwhelmed by the sense of needing to convey in a thousand words or so the sheer force of personality, drive and compassion that has led to Suaad Allami, a leading Iraqi human rights lawyer to receive the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards Fern Holland Award in Washington last month. She was also one of just eight women globally to receive the Women of Courage Award from Hillary Clinton and Michele Obama in 2009. Still a practicing lawyer, Suaad founded Women for Progress in 2007 a “one-stop shop” for everything from legislative advocacy, vocational training, and domestic violence counselling to medical exams and literacy education and even child care and exercise opportunities.
She is known for her unwavering resolve to reintegrate women into Iraqi society and to engage them fully in reconstructing a stronger nation and of course I will tell you about this… but I also want to convey the Suaad that jumped out at me over our skype call. This was the Suaad Allami who was born and stayed in Sadr City, one of the poorest Baghdad suburbs. It was the woman shaped by the determination of illiterate parents to find her voice through education. It was the lawyer, who despite a ‘handicap’ of gender has risen to be one of Iraq’s great civil society leaders.
And there we have it, just there. The word I want to start with, that connects the themes and ideas that bind our discussion together. Leadership. We start with a bit of background.
“ You ask about my mother and her influence on me. As you know she was illiterate as indeed was my father. My mother though was very strong in her views about what this meant to her. She always told me not to be like a blind person. That’s what it meant to her to be uneducated. Both my parents were illiterate and both were determined my three sisters and I should have a good education.
As I got older I recognised that even though my parents were blind in one way, their values were incredibly strong. These values and morals underpinned our education, because they gave us the understanding of what vision means. Their desire to help us ‘see’ everything, contextualised our education in a way that inspired greater depth. Their ambition for us reached beyond the academic into the human. This shaped my learning and my work.”
I am fascinated, and come to a question about leadership and parental support I had stored for later now –
“All women leaders I have met can’t become true leaders without the support of their family.”
We discuss this statement slightly, why women leaders in particular, surely this is all leaders?
“ I am isolated much of the time, making decisions that can have far reaching consequences with little support at the fundamental, strategic level. Added to this, often my achievements go unrecognised, the little ones, my day to day successes. My parents and my sisters fill this void. My Mum is more proud of my achievements than I am! This pride is a mirror to me, giving me strength, even when I feel I have nothing left to give. I also continue to learn from them. I do think social norms mean that women leaders feel more alone than their male counterparts, this is why family support is particularly important to us. We women still need to learn to be more supportive of each other also, especially in leadership roles.”
I want to sit and ponder, absorbing and toying with every concept Suaad shares with me. But it is clear that education is something she feels incredibly strongly about, so we examine her passionate belief in the power of education more strongly.
“Formal education is the only way out for women. Maybe escape is an even better word. I live in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad and one of the poorest tribal areas of Iraq. It is taboo for women to go and work. So women are trapped by circumstances in vicious circles of domestic violence – they cannot leave, where else would they have to go? They are trapped by the fact they have no knowledge or understanding of the world beyond their four walls.
Added to this, for an estimated 1.6 million widows in Iraq – not to mention the numbers of divorcees – the picture is even bleaker. Widows have no social status and if they have no means to support themselves, they can end up starving. It is the same for women who are divorced. If she is alone, maybe returning to her family, she has no idea of how to access information and help that might be able to change her situation.
If a woman has no capacity to make money she has no security. Even if she is married her husband will value her less, she will be less willing to speak up for herself. So, I say again – education is power for women. Without education I am trapped, I stay at home. This does not just hold true for Iraq, I believe it is a consideration for the entire region.”
Suaad touches upon women as victims of circumstance time and again, particular with reference to domestic violence. Agencies across the world believe that women who are able to contribute financially, though the labour force, or as entrepreneurs are far less at risk from domestic violence. I ask Suaad if this is true in her experience.
“A woman’s status is closely linked to her ability to financially contribute to her family or community wellbeing. I therefore believe that women’s economic empowerment and incidences of domestic violence are very closely related. Just to give you an idea, Women for Progress ran a survey in 2009 in two areas in Baghdad (Shia and Sunni), to investigate levels of domestic violence. Out of the 1400 women we spoke to 82% were experiencing domestic violence as a normal occurrence. In areas of high unemployment and hardship husbands, brothers, and fathers take frustrations out on their womenfolk. It is accepted. It is routine. It is normalised.
Women don’t leave because they have no options. Women must understand that it is not the act of marriage that creates security for them; it is understanding their individual potential to create, achieve and do and then acting upon it.
Create, achieve, do – not words routinely associated with women who are marginalised and vulnerable. I ask Suaad, if she had a magic wand and three wishes what would be the three things she would put in place today to support women’s economic empowerment in Iraq?
- Education, creating a way to give everyone equal educational opportunities. This is not new – our current cultural position is not that of a generation ago. Many more women enjoyed a good education and then went on to take roles of leadership in many different sectors.
- Employment – finding an effective way to absorb the millions of unemployed in our country. The cause of much of the hardship endured by women comes from economic instability, caused by sectarian violence and war.
- International corporate governance and investment – a corporate investment model that supports and promotes equal opportunities for women, unpinned by supporting legislation and finance. In short, every international company that starts up in Iraq should support Women’s Economic Empowerment directly, with funding and business practice, for example ensuring women-owned businesses are included in the supply chain. ”
I ask Suaad how her work through Women for Progress supports these higher aims.
“My work is twofold. On one hand I must raise awareness and help women I work with understand what their rights and opportunities are. On the other hand, awareness in itself is not enough. People need to eat, need shelter, need support. The essence of a good civil society is of course creating awareness and buy in – ensuring humanitarian needs are met in the process.
I need to work with women who are trapped in the house for reasons of culture and confidence – but then also need to ensure that I am able to provide the backing and support they need when they are able to make that move out. When I started in 2007 I had a very clear idea of wanting to work towards a strong civil society by providing legal aid for women. However, as you start unpicking one thing another ten emerge!
Other than achieving my initial goal therefore, the thing I am most proud of is that I have helped give those without a voice a way of expressing themselves. We have started breaking the silence of women, access to rights and justice give the women we work with confidence. This the leads to a virtuous circle, with many of our beneficiaries finding work and opportunity in the long term – this of course supports Iraq as a nation.
Iraq as a nation -we have had requests from many people for Suaad to comment on the current crisis in Iraq. I frame the question in a slightly wider way – in Suaad’s opinion what is the greatest threat to Iraq today?
Even during the wars, I can’t recall things as being quite as bad as they are now. ISIS is a threat on so many levels. For example, if you are reading this outside Iraq, you may not be aware that when ISIS enters a territory they advocate marriage by force. Three weeks ago, we heard that rather than marrying members of ISIS, five women committed suicide.
That is the extreme level of course, moving back a step there are hundreds of thousands of disposessed families fleeing their homes. In normal circumstances this would be bad enough. But, in Iraq, where everything is in disarray to begin with, I can’t express the terrible challenges our people are facing. There is no food, there is no water, there is no shelter, there is no support. Current efforts are simply not enough.
We are not ready to absorb these extra problems of displacement, because we haven’t dealt with our last set of problems yet! Quite simply to my mind there is no direction, no crisis management or plans. This lack means there is no response in place that is able to help in any significant way. This, coupled with the sheer number of dispossessed is the most immediate threat.
You ask what the diaspora can do to help. We need you to create awareness, keeping up the momentum, insisting that all the activities of NGOs, civil society and the security services that have been frozen are allowed to engage again. “
We come to the end of our time together. I ask whether she has any advice for young women wishing to combine being a wife and mother with a career despite culture opposition from family and communities. Suaad speaks about the importance of volunteering, of being prepared to give something back as the prime motivation.
“If you want to do something it is often about so much more than money. That passion can be the incentive to move out of your comfort zone and become a fighter. I did. At one point I was earning just $300 as a professional lawyer, but it didn’t matter because I was gaining so much more than money. I believe getting support via mentors is very important for young women and should be a prime focus for NGOs and governments looking to build opportunity and leadership in our women and indeed young people as a whole.”
There’s that word again, leadership.
“I cannot stay home and wait for something to happen to me. I have to create my space. I want to instill the same ideals of opportunity and passion in the women I meet, inspiring men also to see how they can benefit, if they allow their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters to find their wings. I see my role as creating leaders of the future. In fact, that is what I believe leadership is. It is not about me, it is about what I or we can give.”
Suaad’s take on leadership also of course creates scalability….
“I believe that the only way we will be able to make lasting and systemic change is if we, as a society and as female leaders also, work together. Working collectively is something that doesn’t come naturally to us as women in leadership roles – indeed as a society a collaborative working environment has often eluded us. I would like to use Nina as a platform to build our voices and stories into a chorus. I will use it to build awareness for my work but would also strongly invite other leaders, from the diaspora and from inside Iraq to do the same.
Together we are stronger, together we can achieve change. Together we can create an Iraq we can all be proud of.”
The dictionary definition of a leader is one who ‘ inspires confidence in other people and moves them to action’.
Thank you Suaad – for bringing this definition to life for me today.
We will be launching the Nina Voices campaign shortly, a way to link diaspora strength and hope to the current crisis in Iraq. Nina Voices will allow women who have escaped from previous conflicts and have moved from being dispossessed and lost to new security within adopted countries. This is designed to created hope for those who are experiencing it currently. Suaad has promised to share her stories and those of the women she works with to support Nina Voices.