Doha, Qatar – Twenty years after the invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi people are still dealing with the fallout from Saddam Hussein’s rule and the years of unrest since it ended in 2003. At the same time, the international community is grappling with the question of whether the intervention that took place was the right way to go.
In spite of all that, Ala Talabani told Al Jazeera, the Iraqi people love life and are excited about connecting with their “brothers and friends” in the Arab world and beyond.
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The Iraqi, Kurdish, Sufi politician heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan bloc in the Iraqi parliament and is continuing the work she began as a member of parliament 16 years ago.
With a strong focus on women, youth and changing how business has been done for the past 20 years, Talabani is looking at whether there is a new way forward for the country along with a number of other Iraqi officials who attended a conference on lessons learned and the future of Iraq held by Georgetown University in Doha.
It's important for us as Iraqis to hear from others. ... This gives me a clearer picture of what needs to be done for the next phase, to know whether I'm on the right path
‘Knowing their rights’
She was part of a team that wrote a 2023-2030 strategy for Iraqi women – approved by the cabinet – that will require all ministries to set aside a portion of their budgets and capacity for programmes benefitting women.
As the implementation of this strategy begins, Talabani is hopeful that Iraqi women will reach great heights, but she is also aware that it will not be easy.
“Women are fought, no matter who they are. There is jealousy sometimes, and sometimes people just fight them. It’s this patriarchal thinking of ‘Oh, there’s a woman and she’s excelled and exceeded me. How did she surpass me?'”
Iraqi women today, she said, need awareness of their rights and laws that protect these rights.
“Women [who lack education] must be [made] confident through education for certain sectors and … for women who are educated … through a spirit of defiance that will allow her to overcome the obstacles society puts in front of her.
“For woman in rural areas – who are usually not educated and are persecuted often, if we’re honest about it – we need them to be educated, to know what their rights are so that they can stand up and say: ‘No, these are my rights.'”
Illiteracy is still an issue in Iraq, especially in rural areas, and twice as many women as men are illiterate.
With regards to legislation that protects women’s rights, Talabani said implementation has to follow passage of such laws. “Women sit in the Iraqi parliament today through laws, through the creation of a quota for female representatives. That is what made all parties and political blocs nominate female candidates; otherwise, this would not have happened in my opinion.”
As the first female head of a political bloc in parliament, Talabani has had firsthand experience with this issue.
Whenever possible, she would nominate female politicians to sit on committees formed to address national issues. However, she noted, other blocs and parties nominated only men, even though they had many capable women in their party.
When she asked a male politician why his bloc did not nominate female parliamentarians for the committees, his response was: “I don’t have any.”
“They meant they didn’t have women in their groupings capable enough to sit on fact-finding committees. When I pointed out that they had several capable women, they said: ‘They’re not like you.’
“So we exist but as scattered individuals. One capable woman here, a politician there, a successful minister, a Yazidi victim, a woman IDP [internally displaced person] displaced by terrorism, … but to see a woman and a man on an equal footing, to truly believe that there is no difference, we need to change society’s view to understand that a woman can be a lot of things – as a person.”
Things have changed
One of the biggest questions in Iraq today is the revision of the constitution written in 2005, two years after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, and Talabani says a deep review of Iraq’s governance is due.
“I support rewriting the constitution. When we wrote it, we were very committed to it. It was the ‘mother law’ that all other laws came after. But there were implementation problems,” she said.
Politicians turned to the Federal Supreme Court to interpret certain clauses, like the ones regulating the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, or how many votes a presidential candidate needs in a second round of voting.
“Unfortunately, some of the clauses were interpreted according to the prevailing political climate at the time, and that’s not right,” Talabani said, going on to outline how various groups, fearing a return of past persecution, negotiated power-sharing with those fears foremost in their minds, trying to secure as many rights as possible.
The prevailing political climate has changed after the turbulence of the past 20 years, she added.
“You have Shia groups who suffered persecution for so long. They wanted a constitution to guarantee that this despotism would never return, so they argued against the centralisation of power, that there should be many federated provinces formed, like Kurdistan. Sunni politicians at the time were against this idea, fearing that it would splinter Iraq.”
Power had been concentrated in the hands of minority Sunnis under Saddam Hussein, but the tables have since turned.
The Shia blocs, Talabani explained, now want a more centralised system while Sunni groups are asking that Anbar, a majority Sunni province in western Iraq, be allowed self-government in the same vein as the Kurdish region in the north. They are seeking decentralisation now because they feel they are being sidelined since ISIL’s (ISIS’s) rise and fall.
“We need to look into the things that affect the running of the country, that impact relations between the centre and provinces … in a way that works after 20 years of implementing – and often violating – the constitution.”
The future is Iraqi?
Iraq’s economy has difficulty creating enough jobs for its youth, causing resentment and endangering plans for an economic recovery.
Most families want their children to attend university and study “classic” majors that qualify them for jobs like doctors, lawyers and engineers, preferably in the public sector where jobs are secure and pensioned. But this results in a glut of trained graduates that any public service would have a hard time absorbing.
A democracy-building organisation Talabani heads, Leilan, is working with Iraqi youth to “encourage them to set up small projects. Because we have unemployment, … it’s difficult to try to make it so all youth can get jobs in the public service.
“And really, [the public service] is ‘masked unemployment’, putting people in state institutions, when we have so many already. [The youth] have great ideas, but they need training, … how to enter the market, how to access loans from banks.”
A recently approved 2023-2025 government budget has set aside large sums to create jobs in the public sector, but, Talabani argues, they will not be productive and will not develop competitive skills.
Proudly wearing an ensemble made by a designer who started her own small atelier, Talabani said developing real-world skills for youth is more effective because it allows private sector growth that eventually provides real employment.
University graduates who choose the “classic” majors often find themselves moving into business anyway, Talabani added, which means that majors like IT or business administration make a lot more sense.
“A lot of the youth we train are either done with or finishing up in ‘familiar’ majors, and we help them redirect. For example, there’s a dentist we supported to set up her own business making illuminated advertising panels.”
Ideally, there would also be a lot more attention and support for training to enlarge the number of nurses, technicians, builders and more, which would expand society’s concept of what an acceptable job is, she said.
The many challenges of Iraq
“Foreign interference in Iraq, Turkish shelling, Iranian shelling, other external interference, … we don’t have one vision or one unified way of addressing the outside world. Who draws up Iraq’s foreign policy?
“The next wars will be over water for Arab countries and especially Iraq. We have a lot of climate challenges, and I’m not sure if the policies we currently have under the Ministry of Environment will be sufficient. Iraq faces desertification; which is costing thousands of jobs and livelihoods in areas like the marshes.
Iraq’s severe water shortages have led to talks with Turkey to request that its dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which start there and run through Iraq, be opened up to release more water for Iraq. Turkey, in turn, is negotiating with Iraq over the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an armed group also known as the PKK, in areas close to the border the two countries share.
Another issue between Iraq and Turkey is petroleum exports from the Kurdish region to Turkey, which had bypassed Baghdad until they were stopped when Baghdad went to international arbitration and won.
“All these things are on the negotiating table right now,” Talabani continued. “In my opinion, part of it is political but part of it is interests and can be sorted out. I think it was an important step on the part of the current prime minister to launch the Development Road project, which will benefit Turkey.”
“It links the port of Faw to Turkey to move goods and people from the East through to Turkey and Europe, a sort of replacement for the Silk Road. Turkey will benefit because this huge transport artery will allow Turkish companies and ministries to enter the Iraqi market easily – and it will make solving the water crisis easier, in my view.
“We can’t keep threatening and complaining that Turkey is not giving us enough water. We need to talk about mutual interests, and that is how things can be solved with Turkey and with other countries.”