A Brave New Iraq – a Moment in Time with Mais Abousy

Mais Abousy arbitration Iraq

Mais and the Iraqi Arbitration Team

Mais Abousy, an Iraqi-born US citizen and Attorney-Advisor to the U.S. Department of Commerce, shares some universal truths with Nina Magazine’s co-founder Madeleine White.

  • In order to build sustainable long-term economic growth in Iraq we need to navigate a new path for diaspora Iraqis to connect with those still living in country.
  • In order to connect Iraq’s diaspora with those still living in-country a common ground needs to be determined that respects what Iraq is now, rather than trying to sentimentally hark back to what was.
  • The voices of women and the women’s networks are the key to building this common ground, connecting diaspora and in-country communities by recognising and communicating the ties that bind.

Mais is responsible for advising governments in the Middle East and North Africa on legal reform and economic development issues through the Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP). Her professional stance therefore carries significant weight. However, that is just part of the story.  The authority of her assertions also comes from her own identity as an Iraqi American woman – one who reconciles her roles as wife and mother with her day job by connecting personal truths to practical action.

When we speak it is 9am EST. Mais has been back in her home for just a couple of hours. She has flown in from Afghanistan and is pottering in her kitchen in readiness for an evening event.  A woman of action and restless energy, she is passionately devoted to driving opportunity and progress in the country of her birth.

Mais starts by explaining her day job to me:

I am an attorney advisor and program manager for Iraq. In my work I constantly engage and interface with Iraqi officials to bridge the gap between Iraq and the US.

Essentially, our goal is to improve the business legal environment, primarily, in developing/emerging markets.  In the case of Iraq, we are supporting the country with US commercial engagement by providing consultations and capacity building programs to the Iraqi government.

50% or more of our programme participants are women. My most powerful moments of learning come when I think back, realising that their experiences could have been mine. This fundamental, shared connection in turn allows me to develop empathy – far more effective as a learning tool than a PowerPoint presentation! Once you stop and listen and let people realise you want to connect, they do connect.

Mais and more of the Iraqi arbitration team

Mais and more of the Iraqi arbitration team

I am dealing with folks who have lived the real Iraq, a generation that has grown up within sanctions and alienation. By coupling my own desire to learn (about a culture that is completely different to the one I think I should know) – with their hunger for knowledge,’ lightbulb moments’ happen.  These are profound and lead to newfound knowledge which programme participants then go on to implement. Whether in tech transfer, investment, contracts or Intellectual Property (IP), I have seen growth of intellectual capacity to engage outside Iraq despite the many challenges.

This point lends itself beautifully to the deeply held belief Mais has around the responsibility of the diaspora to support nation building

There are many diaspora who have tried to return, but not all have managed it. I think the lack of realistic expectations and also harking back sentimentally to the old days, is what causes this disconnect.

Passion for your country is important, but this must be coupled with the understanding that you return to Iraq with ‘clean hands’. The past is the past. All we have are hands to give back to this country. These hands must be held out in friendship with no expectations of reward.

How important do you think your gender is in terms of the work you do?

I come from a long line of very strong women all raised within Iraq. This background allows me to be a role model when I visit. I am able to demonstrate that I still retain fundamental values, while having western approach to business and opportunities.  This is of real value in terms of changing mind-set in both men and women, which in turn helps drive forward Iraq’s economy.  (Ed:  Female Labour force participation – just 13%  -vs regional norm of 27%).

I personally think that by focussing on economic empowerment, the aim of driving women to get empowered to begin with is more likely to be met. There is a direct return on investment for the individual, the community and the nation. People get that. I do therefore think that, within the work I do, my gender is actually an important factor in accelerating opportunity. Ultimately though, no matter what our circumstances, we make an individual choice to be empowered.

Do you think it is important to recognise women’s networks as being slightly different to men’s? What do you believe to be the particular value of this?

Wow, that’s a book!  This might serve as an example though….

Mais Abousy in Afghanistan for nina-iraq

Mais with some of the Afghan Team

I have just come back from Kabul where I was attending a national ‘moot’ (pretend court) arbitration event, which has grown out of an international programme launched in 2005. The four women I had started working with in Afghanistan have now grown into a team of twenty. I can’t emphasise enough how they have all changed. When these women say thank you, when they cry in joy at each other’s achievements … It is clear that relationships for rest of their lives will be defined by the power of the mentoring they have given and the support they have shared.

In the original team men were involved. However, this ‘living’ network the women have created goes much deeper than the male equivalent. Why is this? To my mind it comes back to my point about ‘clean hands’. There is something more altruistic in the way women knit together. When I sit in a room with a group of participants, I can actually feel these bonds developing.

In short, I believe that the real power of a woman’s network is based on the strength of the ‘collective’. As shown through the Afghan example, celebration of joint achievement catalyses individual success also. With men it tends to be the other way around. I also believe that this generosity of spirit within a female network has its roots in the strength of family relationships. This in turn can be directly linked to the building of strong communities and nations.

Family relationships, we have spoken a little bit about your children. How much of this are you doing for them and how important is your Iraqi identity within this?

I have two children. Both have Iraqi names and know that they are American with Iraqi roots and relatives in Iraq. However, my responsibilities also extend past my immediate family to a large extended family. Keeping in touch with my traditional responsibilities by linking us all together is very important to me. I am the designated organiser!

Mais with her children

Mais with her children

On a personal level I recognise that I have multiple identities.   When I am upset I am a fiery Iraqi woman, when I discipline my children I am an American helicopter Mom. These are both part of me but what combines them is that fact that I am a global citizen. This is what I pass onto my children along with my Iraqi identity. Children’s books such as ‘the Librarian of Basra’ – a real story about how the library books survived the siege of Basra help me do this. I want to pass on the good memories, for them to be proud of their roots and so able to create their own legacies.

A little anecdote to finish this on…  I run (it represents ‘me’ time) and actually ended up running the Chicago Marathon last year. When I crossed the finish line I draped the Iraqi flag over my shoulders, just as the Italian Americans did with theirs. I wanted to celebrate the Iraqi spirit. This year I will be running again in order to support the Save Iraqi Children Foundation which provides safe houses for orphans.


Maybe is it apt that this should be published near to Valentine’s Day. What I heard from Mais over the course of our conversation was a statement of love – for her family and her countries (both of them). The future of Iraq will not be determined by pain or sentimentality, but by a driving passion to create a country that is relevant, meaningful and fit to serve a global community as well as its own citizens.  To make that happen, everyone is needed – whether still living within its boundaries or in other parts of the world.  Collectively, Iraqis stand for strength, hope and a beauty of spirit that will endure.

So, as a  final universal truth  – the love for Iraq, past present and future is what will allow two diverse communities to connect and prosper once again.

To see the Arabic for this feature go to this link 

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