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IN CONVERSATION

Towards a pluralist society

ADITI BHADURI

Pascale Warda, an Assyrian Chaldean Christian, knows what it feels like to be in a minority community and a woman in Iraq. As an activist it is precisely these causes that are important to her. Excerpts from a conversation…

Photo: Aditi Bhaduri

Rare courage: Pascale Warda (with the mike) at the women’s leadership summit in Jaipur.

At first glance, the small woman with streaked hair and a face that breaks into a smile easily looks just like any other woman from Kurdistan. But when she greets you in Aramaic — the language that Jesus spoke — you know there is more to Pascale Warda. “I am an Assyrian Chaldean Christian,” she says proudly. “I am the inheritor of a 2,000-year-old tradition.” And that exactly is what has shaped Warda’s identity.

A non-Arab, Assyrian native of Iraq’s northern region comprising what is known as Kurdistan and Assyria and a member of the Chaldean Christian minority in Iraq, she and her family became a natural target for repression when the drive to Arabise and Islamise Iraq began. She had to leave Iraq when in college, for refusing to join the youth wing of the Baath party. That began her political activism. She headed to France in 1981 to complete her studies in theology and philosophy and became associated with the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian Assyrian movement that represented the Christians in the Governing Council and Parliament. “I was watched, refused entry to Iraq, targeted. Even the Bishop of my church back home told me to give it up as he was afraid that the regime would do away with me. But I told him, ‘Do not worry for me. God will destroy those who destroy human dignity’.”

Plight of minorities

Many of Warda’s family disappeared during Saddam Hussein’s ANFAL operations in the Northern Areas of Iraq. “There is a propaganda that under Saddam minorities lived in peace,” she says angrily. “The Baath was truly a political party only as long as Michelle Aflaq, a Christian, was in it. Saddam Hussein was not a true Baathist, the two worst things he did for Iraq was Arabisation by force, and make Islam the religion of the State in a multi-religious society.” She moved back to Iraqi Kurdistan when it became a protected area after 1991 and later married an Assyrian colleague.

In Jaipur recently to attend a women’s leadership summit organised by the Global Women’s Peace Initiative, Warda proves what women can achieve. “Women can do it, women are free from the sickness of corruption. Whenever there is hardship, women will always come out and take the first steps to demand justice because women and children are the first sufferers.”

And she should know. She has been targeted five times; four of her bodyguards have been killed. She changed her name from Soraya to Pascale and has also changed her appearance numerous times. On the move since her student days, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has not brought respite either. “The Americans were without any direction and were badly guided. We told Bremer that disbanding the army will not be right. But big groups, the Kurds, the Sunnis, were just calculating how to capture power. The army was disbanded, the streets were without any protection, so the militias became powerful.”

Further, Christians and women began to be specifically targeted. “People think that because we are Christians, we are Western agents, as if Christianity came from America. There is so much of ignorance about West Asian history. It is natural for Iraq to have a Christian community. Christianity was the main religion of Mesopotamia, when there was no Islam. But now there are some people who want to change everything, destroy history.”

“In any case no country can have just one community or religion,” she continues. “Iraq is a multi-religious and diverse country. We have Muslims, we have Christians, we have Yezidis, who are more ancient than Christians, we have the Mandeans, who are the followers of St. John the Baptist and not Jesus. Iraq is the only country that has the community, but just a few are left now, because they have been so persecuted because they are not Muslims that most have fled the country. They are on the verge of extinction and I am working to protect their rights.”

“Inside Iraq you have one and a half million Christians, but over the world there are three million Iraqi Christians who fled Iraq out of fear.” Even as she spoke, news came in that the murdered body of Chaldean Christian Arch-Bishop Paul Faraj Rahho had been found in Mosul in Warda’s native region of Assyria.

Warda was the Minister for Migration and Displaced Persons in Iraq’s Interim Government under Eyad Allawi. And she is filled with sadness when she talks about her work. “A rich country like Iraq has such a large number of refugees and displaced…Not less than seven million refugees and migrants outside and inside Iraq and we have about two million internally displaced.”

The situation now fills her with disgust. She is appalled that the “government is so preoccupied with each group just concerned with how to keep power and how to come back to power that these issues are neglected.”

Representation of women

But it is the plight of women that remains particularly pitiful. Iraq today has one and a half million widows. “During the regime change it was we, the Iraqi women, who demonstrated, demanding representation in government. We achieved only 25 per cent in Parliament. But I feel ashamed to talk about the women who are nominated today, who say ‘yes’ to whatever those who nominated them say. And our system has a closed list so we don’t know who we are voting for. We elect in a sectarian way. The Interim Government was better — it had six women ministers. It was a small achievement for us. But now we have only three.”

Personal law remains another area of concern for Iraqi women, cutting across religious lines. “Each community has its own laws and there is an attempt to impose Islamic law. So Muslim men have the right to marry up to four wives and beat women, ‘to educate them’. The Ministry of Women wrote to the Ministry of Justice that this must change but the latter rejected it. Now in Parliament we are pushing members to sign to make the Minister change his mind. We are trying to change Article 41 of the Constitution, which says that people are free to follow whatever (religious) law they want. Women are against it, as that is a divisive law. Domestic violence has increased. Honour killing is increasing each day and we are trying to work on that.

And each day new restrictions are imposed on women, especially regarding dress. Women are targeted because their faces are not covered. Even the ministries are issuing dress codes and we are trying to dissuade them from doing so. It is a sad situation because we do not have the rule of law but the rule of militias. Even Christian women are asked to cover their faces and we are not obliged to wear Islamic dress. I will never wear a chador for any reason.”

But Christian women often cover their faces for security. “In Baghdad it is unbelievable. What you read in the papers or hear in the news is just a little of what is happening. You can be blown up anytime.”

Though no longer in government, Warda is still active in politics. A member and former President of the Assyrian Women’s Union, she today heads the Iraqi Women’s Foundation for Development and the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation, both of which she founded in Baghdad with other women two years ago. The main agenda of the first is to bring “women’s issues out in the public and ensure that the women in government do something useful for women. We network with other Iraqi women’s organisations like Amal. But our work is so hampered by security issues, which is so real for us.”

The second organisation works on human rights, refugees, displacement, migration, with the Ministry of Displacement. The organisation is also active in the fields of education and health, both of which remain dismal in Iraq. She laments that, “there is no real policy and the Health Ministry was even without a Minister for some months. And the Ministers no more have real expertise, because it is not people with expertise in the field that are brought in but fighters and loyal members of political parties without experience.”

Optimistic outlook

Perhaps it is the Easter season, symbolic of resurrection and regeneration, but it is remarkable that amidst so much of horror and suffering, Warda not only retains her smile and sense of humour, but is also optimistic. “A change is happening. I was recently in the market and I saw women selling and buying. Recently I visited the Council of Ministers and saw many women there and they said that they had had enough of fear and violence, they were not going to stay silent anymore but would live their lives.”

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