Monday, March 8, 2010

Purple Fingers!

International Women's Day

I've pasted below an email I sent out to our staff today on International Women's Day.

Dear Team,

I’m writing to you today to wish you all a Happy International Women’s Day. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1975 – 35 years ago. The political and social landscape of the world we inhabit has changed dramatically in the last 35 years – old countries have disappeared and new ones have been created; the internet and other technologies have transformed the way we work and live; and the role of women has grown and changed all over the world.

This year, the United Nations selected “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities” for the International Women’s Day theme. In Iraq, this is a theme we can celebrate proudly. Article 14 of the Iraqi constitution declares that, “Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, color, religion, creed, belief or opinion, or economic and social status.” Iraqi women represent 25% of members of parliament - they vote, they work and they have found ways to survive and maintain their families during the very difficult last seven years. Iraqi women have not made these strides alone – each of these achievements was accomplished with the support of Iraqi men.

Our Women’s Awareness and Inclusion program in the south and our Protecting Women through Education programs in north and central Iraq are examples of how we are supporting equal rights and equal opportunities. Access to basic education is a constitutional right for both Iraqi men and women. It is also one of the first steps towards helping women to recognize and access other opportunities.

In my opinion, celebrating International Women’s Day is not about separating women from men. It’s about taking a moment to recognize that women all over the world frequently struggle to survive, to care for their families and to achieve equal rights and equal opportunities in environments that don’t provide them access to their basic needs and rights. It is about recognizing that the barriers women struggle against to achieve those basic needs and rights are often different from the barriers that men face. To me, it is about understanding that it will take the efforts of both men and women to level the playing field for our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.

Please, take a moment today to recognize the women you work with, the women in your families and in your communities. Also acknowledge the men who support the women in your workplace, in your families and in your communities. It is only by working together that men and women throughout the world will achieve equal opportunities and rights for all people.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Parliamentary Elections in Baghdad

This morning started for me at 6:45 am. That’s when I heard the first mortar. I laid in bed for a minute, not sure if I’d heard what I thought I’d heard. Then I heard two more. By the time I’d gotten out of bed, found my sneakers and made it downstairs I’d heard two more. After opening all the windows in the office, I headed out to watchmen shack to check on the situation – they said there’d been nine explosions so far. The polls opened at 7am. Within another half hour the smell of sulfur from the explosions hung in the air. The mortaring continued consistently for about four hours before letting up around 11 am. I heard between 30 and 50 explosions today, at least, and those were just the ones in ear shot from my location.

News reports say that at least some of the explosions were sound grenades being detonated to scare people away from polling stations. Latest reports say 38 people were killed and more than 50 wounded between the mortars and IEDs. But people still voted. Iraqis still left their homes and went to their polling stations because they can’t imagine continuing to live like this, and at least some Iraqi’s see voting as a legitimate way to change the status quo.

I don’t know if the election results will be recognized as legitimate, or if the elected politicians will be able to form a new government quickly enough to avoid a potentially disastrous power vacuum. I do know that millions of Iraqis showed incredible courage today by going out and voting, especially in Baghdad, which was the hardest hit area today.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Iraqi women learn about democracy before parliamentary elections

Living and working in Baghdad these days seems to be about waiting. People are waiting to see if there will be violence during the elections, waiting to see the results of the elections on March 7th, and waiting to see if those results will be accepted peacefully or if the country will be plunged back into conflict.

Mercy Corps is committed to staying in Iraq and helping the people who need help the most, which means working in places like Sadr City, Diyala and Kirkuk. In preparation for the elections, we launched a series of lectures in our women’s literacy centers on Democracy, Governance and Elections in nine governorates, reaching about 15,000 illiterate women. We didn’t just want to teach women how to vote - we wanted to explain to them what happens when they vote and how the Iraqi democracy is designed to function.

Yesterday, we got the results back from the pre- and post- tests that we did with a sample of women who participated in the Democracy lectures in four governorates in southern Iraq. The results are outstanding. In ThiQar province, only 39.9% of the women surveyed before the lecture thought that in a democracy more than one person is involved in decision making. After the lecture, 81.6% of the women understood that in democracy decisions should be made by the people.

In Muthana governorate, only 69% of the women thought that boys and girls had equal rights to education before the lecture, but 95.9% understood that boys and girls have the same right to education during the post test. When women understand that their daughters and sons both have the right to receive an education they are more likely to advocate for that right on behalf of their children.

While this is only a small step in encouraging women’s participation in Iraq’s democracy, I think it’s an important one. International Women’s Day is on March 8th, and I can’t think of a more fitting contribution than helping Iraqi women vote in their elections.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Home Decorating - Baghdad style

Home decorating options for an expat living in Baghdad are fairly limited. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things available in the markets – but we’re not allowed to go to the markets. And since we’re on evacuation watch (all the time) it doesn’t really make sense to invest in anything. I have a plethora of scarves that I could attempt to artistically drape around my room, but given the dust and sandstorm situation, it doesn’t really seem worthwhile. So, in a moment of white wall desperation, I demanded a corkboard from the market and have been reduced to cutting pictures and text out of magazines to decorate my three by four splash of color.

I updated my corkboard collage this evening (this is the second installment) and was wondering what my selections say about me – both my personality and my current state of mind. I’m posting some pictures of the board – I’ll be interested in any comments.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Parliamentary Elections

It seems like all of Baghdad is holding its breath as the elections approach. Originally scheduled for early January, they have been delayed until March 7th for a variety of political reasons including the current Iraqi Parliament's difficulty in passing the budget. Political parties seem to be aligning along sectarian lines and several politicians were blocked from participating in the elections because of their past affiliation with the Saddam regime. It's called "debathification". Of course, a high number of the politicians who have been excluded from the political process are Sunnis - a sectarian divide that the Iraqi political climate really doesn't need right now.

There were a series of bombings at hotels the last week of January (one of which was closer than comfort to our office). Five political party offices were targeted last week. Violence has increased in Mosul, with many Christians being targeted. The general status quo is being maintained in Baghdad, although we're all waiting for the next big bombing to take place. The pattern of bombings changed recently - it used to be mostly in the morning, between 9-10 am. The hotel attacks were in the afternoon. Mortar fire would usually happen after dark, but last week there were two early in the morning. There's a kind of comfort in thinking that these things follow a pattern; it gives you a false sense of control.

The hotel bombings blew out quite a six of our office windows, knocked an air conditioner off the concrete wall it was drilled into and the force of the blast splintered a 2 ft piece of wood off our front door. Needless to say, not an experience I want to experience again anytime soon.

A lot of international organizations are moving their expats out of Baghdad for the election and post-election period. We're starting to think that the post-election period may be worse than the lead up to the Big Ballot Day because of the feared increase in sectarian violence. My organization is "drawing down" meaning that most of the expats will be leaving the city. I'll be staying in Baghdad and I hope to blog about the events from my front row seat, so to speak.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Rock in the Air

My work requires that I travel frequently between Basra, Sulimaniyah and Baghdad. This means that I get to fly on Iraqi Air - or as I lovingly call it, A Rock in the Air - fairly often. At the end of January I flew down to Basra for a long weekend. Sadly, it was more like a long continuation of the week, rather than any kind of end. To add insult to injury, I had to fly down on my one day off, I had to leave our house at 5am and I had to drag a colleague along with me. He's relatively new to Iraq and doesn't speak Arabic, which meant that I was in charge of playing hostess as we navigated through the airport's many security checks.

We were, of course, flying on Iraqi Air which is right up there with Scariana (Ariana - Afghan Airlines) in terms of reliability and safety. I'm pretty sure that if I meet an untimely death in my line of work it will be on a sketchy ass plane. For some reason they never announced our flight on the loudspeaker, so the incredibly grumpy Iraqi man who checked us in ran up to us about 20 min after our flight was supposed to leave yelling at us to hurry up. Apparently we'd missed some invisible signal, because the three other travelers (yes, all three of them) were already in the waiting area.

Once we got settled on our itsy bitsy little plane things seemed to be going alright, if a little bumpy. Then I noticed that I could actually feel the pilot trying to accelerate the plane - in the air. Now, I've flown a lot, and I'm pretty good at noticing changes in altitude, but I have never in my life (until this trip) actually felt the pilot struggle to pick up speed while airborne. Then we kept gaining and losing altitude - to the point that my coworker and I kept glancing over at each other with raised eyebrows. I even left my seatbelt on, which I never do.

After about an hour of that we landed at lovely Basra International Airport. We got off our plane and hopped into the little bus that drives up to the terminal - where the driver dropped us off at the wrong door. One of the other passengers just walked up to a random door and opened it, which let us directly into the baggage claim area. Technically, we're supposed to go through passport control and the health inspection (they're obsessed with swine flu) before we can get to the baggage area. And we stood there for a good 10 minutes before one of the airport security guys came jogging over to tell us we had to leave the terminal and go back to the tarmac, walk around the building and enter through the correct door. By then, one of the other travelers had wandered off so they had to track him down and bring him back. Of course, once we'd exited the building, walked around it and arrived at the correct door - it was locked. Eventually someone came along and unlocked the door, at which point we had to wait for the immigration and the health inspection empoyees to arrive. Clearly, they weren't anticipating our flight - and don't even get me started on the security issues with this little charade.

Once we finished filling out paperwork and being scanned by their person size thermometer machine we met our driver and headed to the office, where I proceeded to do about a weeks worth of work in 2.5 days.

Our return flight was equally exciting. The flight was scheduled for 4pm which is never a good sign with Iraqi Air. Now I'm going to segway and tell you about how Iraqi Air schedules their flights - basically, they don't. Each week they make rough estimates of when they will fly, and then change it several times. So, if you have a meeting on Friday you should try to catch a flight at three days earlier and anticipate that it will be canceled at least once. The later in the day the flight is scheduled to depart the more likely it is to be canceled.

So, we're just about to leave for the airport when we find out our flight's been delayed by an hour. When we get to the airport it's been delayed another hour. Now it's 6pm and dark outside. Our flight finally left at 7:30 pm - but at least the plane was slightly less scary.

Upon arrival in Baghdad we again hopped on a little bus thingee and rode to the terminal. And again, the door was locked. We had to bang on the door for about 5 minutes before someone came over and unlocked it, while asking us where we had come from. Hello - air traffic control, anyone?!? Then we had to deal with immigration again. I'd like to point out that we never left Iraq, but even internal flights are required to clear immigration.

The best part of the entire trip was that I finally got to travel through Baghdad at night. I've been living here for seven months and I've never been out in the evening. It's a completely different city - lit up with colorful lights and full of families out on the streets.

*author's note: I've flown on Iraqi Air since this last post, and am happy to report it was far less eventful.