I paid a high price to learn about the connections between women, security, and the environment. In June of 2004, 15 months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I was appointed the country’s first minister for the environment. Shortly afterward, I survived a suicide car bombing, where four of my bodyguards died. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack, stressing that “their arrow will not miss me next time.” Moreover, Musab Al Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq at that time, called me “the leader of the infidels.” Perhaps he was overestimating my capacity, I thought. After all, I was just about as far away from dealing with security issues as would be possible for a government minister. At least, that was what I thought.
Months before, I was working as a professor at Baghdad University School of Law. The law school was highly conservative, and the male staff and students struggled to accept women. I recall as a student, when I attended my first class ever, the professor said, “What are the women doing in this class? Why don’t you go to the nursing school where you belong?”
Attitudes hadn’t changed much. I was the only woman teaching among 45 professors. I was also young—in my late twenties—when I started teaching. Most of my colleagues were in their fifties. Moreover, I was teaching human rights in international law, a topic that was not welcomed by Saddam’s regime. In November 2001, the school’s president asked me to teach a topic of my choosing to the students to help them meet their English requirement. I went home thinking of topics that students needed to study and I picked a book on human rights. I knew it was a dangerous choice, especially since I did not want to lie to my students by saying Saddam’s regime respected human rights. In the classroom, I began a discussion on the apartheid regime in South Africa. I was careful while teaching this topic; I taught the rule of law and examined cases of extrajudicial torture and execution. My objective was to give the young generation some hope for a better future, to open up their horizons, and to show them a new—and perhaps better—world. As it was, some of my students used to follow me to the parking lot just to say, “We are concerned about what you teach. Be careful.”
I was selected by the UN envoy to become the first minister for the environment in Iraq because of my expertise in administration and my educational background. One of the topics that I introduced to my class was environmental rights, such as the right to a healthy environment and clean water. The Ministry of the Environment was newly established; Iraq did not have a Ministry of the Environment under Saddam’s regime. He abused the environment just as he abused his people, building great dams to drain Iraq’s marshlands and pumping sewage and chemical waste into the rivers. The ministry lacked the fundamental aspects of a governmental agency: it had no clear mandate, no operational manual, and no information on the problems it would be tackling.
I will never forget my first day at the ministry. There were no phones, computers, or fax machines. There were not even enough chairs to seat people for a meeting. It took a lot of hard work to build the ministry from scratch. At the end of my term, the ministry was fully functioning with 15 projects funded by the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization. Moreover, the ministry produced the first report on the state of the environment in the modern history of Iraq.
My first project was a benevolent one: to provide drinking water to poor communities. Communities such as Sadr City, which lacked access to basic environmental resources such as safe drinking water, sanitation services, electricity, and trash pickup. I remember going to this city and having to step in sewer water up to my knees. I was excited about the project, in part, because many of my students came from these communities and I felt I owed them this basic human right. It would have been hypocritical of me to preach to them that safe drinking water is a universal right, while not providing it as a government official.
This project should have been free from controversy or risk. The people surrounding me assured me, “You do not need to be concerned about your security. They will go after the big fish, like the minister of interior or the minister of defense, and it will take them a long time till they get to the minister of environment.” I suppose nobody close to me understood the strong connection between basic environmental needs and security. Unfortunately for me, the insurgency did! Why did Zarqawi target me, even going so far as to call me a “leader of the infidels”? Because, by providing clean drinking water to the people, I was threatening to undermine his support among the poor and desperate.
But I wasn’t going to be deterred. As a first step to developing my plan, I had to ask who, in underserved communities, is in charge of providing water for families? Who walks miles and miles to collect water? The providers of these services are the women. So, I founded Women and the Environment Organization (WATEO) in Iraq to train rural women to manage their resources and participate in environmental decision making.
Communities in places like the marshlands did not have access to clean water. Before the war, they drank directly from the marshes. After the fall of the regime, the Marsh Arabs broke some of the dams to reflood the marshlands. The Ministry of the Environment secured funding for the rehabilitation of the marshlands and conducted meetings at the policymaking level to start the process. I raised $11 million for the project. Personally, I was keen on involving the Marsh Arabs in the rehabilitation process. Thus, as the environment minister, I invited them to participate in the meetings and we established a relationship of trust. They approached me about training their women to participate in the rehabilitation process.
After the marshlands were partially reflooded in 2003, the communities faced a new problem: salty water. Previously drained areas had collected large deposits of salt and minerals and there was not sufficient floodwater to flush the area clean. To help them respond to this problem, I reached out to a group of Iraqi professors who were originally from the marshlands area. Together, we formed a group that is dedicated to educating men and women and building their capacity to manage their resources and secure their environment.
WATEO trained 1,462 women and 2,557 children living in 43 Iraqi villages to contribute to the community decision-making process. As a result, women’s participation has increased sevenfold and communities are now purifying water and improving hygiene. In August of 2010, WATEO organized three workshops in each of the provinces where the marshlands exist: Basra, Maysan, and Dhi Qar. Women trained by WATEO participated in these workshops and recommended that women be recognized—by law—as the primary users of environmental resources. Moreover, we are seeing the gender gap bridged organically as communities experience firsthand the positive results of listening to women.
The women with whom we work are interested in community policing and security. Sometimes the connections are so familiar, we don’t notice them. For example, women walk miles to collect water and, during these walks, they see things that men do not see. For example, women often see men burying improvised explosive devices (IEDs), then running and hiding. However, they have no one to whom to report these incidents, except family members who might not believe them.
I am one of many women in Iraq who understand that security cannot be achieved through the mere use of force. We comprehend that security must be achieved by attacking the root causes of instability. We have the expertise, the knowledge, and the background to combat insecurity and terrorism. But our distinct perspective is not sufficiently reflected in decision making and we are not consulted as often as we should be on how to restore stability and prosperity to war-torn societies. Women’s influence and insight must be leveraged in the fight for stability in Iraq and elsewhere.