Suaad Allami has a shy smile. A silk scarf frames her face, and is tucked around the thick coil of hair at her neck. Even wearing high heels, she looks short. But she seems in no way small. If Iraq is to recover from the disaster of our war, people like Suaad Allami will be why.
Suaad Allami is a women’s rights lawyer in Sadr City, the poorest section of Baghdad. She directs the Women for Progress Center and has served on the Regional Council. In 2009, the U.S. State Department recognized her as an International Woman of Courage. A fellowship at the Humphrey Institute brought her to the University of Minnesota.
She made the following remarks on the “Effects of the Iraq War” during a panel discussion March 4. The session marked the close of “Navigating the Aftermath” an exhibit of Iraqi and American war art. It was held at the Regis Center for the Arts at the U of M.
I was living under the three wars, 1980, 1991 and 2003. I know what it means for the people. The worst impact of all the wars is on poor people. Since 2003, we had the Sectarian Violence – how that has displaced people! They leave their homes, structures fall, corruption, violence, many diseases. Cancers are increasing because of the prohibited weapons they used during the war.
I live in east Baghdad. Sadr City has 40 percent of the population, close to 2 million, mostly poor. Fifteen or twenty people, living in a small area, these are small houses, many members of an extended family living in one house. In 2003 we didn’t have any civil society. I have a legal background, 17 years practicing family law. I had become very in touch with the poor people.
Local governments and the American State Department wanted to establish civil institutions in the neighborhood where I was living. But in the neighborhood they were missing everything, (electricity, clean water, sanitary facilities, jobs, training). From 2003 to 2007 frankly, I didn’t want to engage with any American people, I didn’t want to put myself in this risk.
In 2007, when Bush changed the strategy, making these new ‘teams’, they called me. “How can we help people?” the officials asked.
“They don’t need human rights or women’s rights,” I told the Americans, “they need other things.” Other things are more important than this, vocational training, health services.
Sadr City is a Shiite community. I wanted to show I was independent so I established four centers in Sunni areas. It doesn’t matter to me where the women were coming from. The centers have a health clinic at the front because women feel more comfortable seeking health services than legal services.
Corruption is a very big problem. The Americans (who are in charge of getting municipal services running) must stay in secured areas to be safe, so they hire local people. Often the work is not good, or not done at all. This corruption holds Iraq back.
I have heard that today in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square-we have one, too-in Tahrir Square the people came together after prayer, peacefully. They are not against the government. Our government was just elected. They are against corruption and want better services. This makes me hopeful. Yes I am hopeful.