A Discussion with Manal Omar, Director of Iraq Programs, United States Institute of Peace
Background: This June 2010 exchange between Manal Omar and Susan Hayward highlights Omar’s experiences and insights into religion and its intersection with women's empowerment, development, and peacemaking, particularly with respect to Muslim women in the Middle East. She speaks to the challenges she herself faces as a spiritually devout Muslim woman operating in an often secular-biased development field, and she emphasizes the need to build relationships between secular and religious women.
Interview Conducted on June 5, 2010
Tell me a bit about your background & where you grew up, what drew you to work in the arena of international conflict resolution?
I was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and grew up in South Carolina and Northern Virgina. I’m originally Palestinian, so conflict was always part of the backdrop of my upbringing and childhood. I became involved in this work in part because of this awareness of the conflict in Palestine. It’s been going 50 years, and it always seemed like this cycle that was doomed to repeat itself. I wondered why events kept repeating themselves, and how to break this cycle, how things could be done differently. My early activism focused on the need to talk about this more.
Every summer I visited Palestine, and when we went across the borders as Americans, we got through fairly easily. As a result, I was rather flippant about the difficulties of Palestinians who don’t have the luxury of an American passport & “It’s not so bad, I don’t see what the big deal is” I’d tell my mother. She knew we weren’t quite getting it. So one time my mother had us cross as Jordanians. We were strip searched, harassed, our shampoo was poured out, it took nearly twenty-three hours to get through, rather than the usual two. I experienced the humiliation that comes for some in conflict, and finally understood the effects of the large imbalance of power. There is a whole element of human experience of injustice that is not captured at the negotiation table, or in peace processes. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to bring to the table. My mother wanted to ensure we understood that experience.
I excelled in Model UN, and eventually studied International Relations at George Mason University. I had to fight to study International Relations, because in our culture children are expected to become engineers and doctors. So my parents were not encouraging & they saw this as a hobby, not a career path. But I took stock in what Edward Said has said: that we need to sacrifice our greatest minds to social sciences, for the benefit of our people.
What was your experience of religion growing up?
I grew up in a very patriotic and nationalistic society. We were “Ramadan Muslims” -- religion was a nice little side thing we did once a year. We never went to the mosque. In fact, I went to Bible school, which my mother saw as free babysitting!
I went to the Islamic Saudi Academy when I moved to Virginia. I never became spiritual when I was there. The religion that was taught there was very dry. In class, they would teach us how to determine direction for prayer in a desert, etc. It meant nothing to me, just jurisprudence. If anything, it reinforced my parents’ mentality toward religion & it’s dry and irrelevant.
What led me to become more spiritual was questioning & what is my identity, who am I? I began reading a lot of books by Sufi authors, or with Sufi influence, in high school and college. It was very fulfilling to find these spiritual Sufi teachers. This Islam resonated for me a lot.
I decided to wear the hijab, the headscarf, at 16. At the time, I didn’t consider all the implications that would come from that. My mom treated it as a rebellion. She said to me, “I sacrificed everything to come to the land of opportunity, and you are doing this.” But for me, my decision was a turn towards feminism. I was turned off by how women were portrayed in advertising & the way the female body was being used for marketing. Some girls at my school who felt similarly were shaving their heads, trying to be less feminine. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to preserve my femininity. The more I read about the hijab, the more I became convinced that this was the right choice for me.
It wasn’t until I began working in the Middle East that I understood my mom’s concerns. For a lot of women, they do not choose to wear the hijab. It is forced because of culture, or out of necessity & for mobility purposes, and to have freedom of movement in public places. I hadn’t understood the hijab in this way.
It bothers me the way the hijab has become a mascot. There is truth in what’s being said about hijab being a symbol of political Islam and oppression. But not enough time has been spent to deconstruct that image.
The West & particularly Europe -- often portrays the hijab as a symbol of oppression.
And I hear this from Arab women elite a lot too. In Yemen, they would say to me: “We had to work hard to have the choice not to wear the hijab. And now here you are, choosing to take it on. You set our cause back, because as soon as the men see you, they say to us, Look at this woman who is from America. She is feisty, and she wears the hijab. Why can’t you?’”
Men debate me on it as well. I was in a bar in Turkey one night where some men debated me for hours, challenged me. And this is the problem & I fear women are being forced to chose between extremes. Either you are fully secular or fully religious. Women aren’t allowed to exist between the two extremes. If I were forced to choose between the two extremes, I would choose religion. A lot of secularists lose the people, lose women, when they try to force them between the extremes, when they don’t allow them a modicum of religious identity and practice.
In our project with women in Iraq, there were secular and religious women who were involved. One woman came wearing niqab. She came into the room, took one look around, and said “Who invited the infidels”? Because I had spoken with the secular women beforehand, because they had seen me as a woman who is a feminist and wears hijab, I think they had more tolerance upon hearing this. It could have blown up and it didn’t. They turned to me -- they saw me as someone who could negotiate between these two worlds, help these women speak to each other.
What led you to become involved in work that targets women?
I was involved in Forensics & a form of public rhetoric analysis. I won third place looking at Hanan Ashrawi’s speeches, and exploring how a woman was articulating the Palestinian cause. This was the beginning of recognizing the particular role that women could play. Hanan would show a different and more human face of the Palestinian cause to the international community, which was in contrast to the bearded men who were often the spokespersons. When Arafat would speak, for example, he always focused on politics, portrayed things as black and white. Hanan was eloquent, educated, and she would talk about her children. She would speak about having to pull her children through a car filled with blood. When people heard this, rather than the dry political rants, they were stirred. At GMU, people were reading her books; she was a lead negotiator in the peace process at the time. People weren’t embarrassed by the Palestinian cause, and there was a stronger willingness to support it. She also used imagery & speaking about her house & a prison outside the front door, and a garden in back. She equated this to the reality of Palestine & it’s two possible futures. It was a feminine style of speaking, one that was successful in gaining sympathy. And it wasn’t just a Middle Eastern style; I looked at Anne Richardson’s rhetoric as well, and others, and found similar themes. I termed this a feminist style.
Edward Said was also a popular Palestinian voice that shifted perceptions at this time, so women or Hanan was not the only one.
And how has religion intersected with your work overseas?
If you want numbers for your cause, and if you want to work in the grassroots, you need to be able to use the religious framework & both to understand people and to recruit. For example, in Yemen we designed a program for training midwives and traditional birth attendants. But no one was coming & we were outside the cities in Hadarmout, a very remote area. In Yemen, women will wear the niqab even amongst other women. The idea of women coming to stay in a dorm for our training was unacceptable. So we went to the religious leaders -- to the male ulema and tribal leaders -- and asked them what to do. They came out very strong supporting the initiative. With that endorsement, we went to the heads of household and spoke to them, and they suggested we hire the brothers’ of the female participants to serve as guards. So we did. If you look on paper, it looks like a failure because it took a year to implement due to the extensive negotiations & and this is where donor education is important, to help them understand the process, the need for engaging these leaders, working within and with respect for religious culture and traditions, which requires a little more time and energy. Unfortunately, the donors’ patience or support for the religious sensitivity component is all over the place. The Europeans can be the best and worst. Sometimes they will tell us not to negotiate with religious leaders as they see it as compromising to the project integrity.
I was asked to lead a women’s delegation to Afghanistan while I was working for the World Bank. This experience may have been the first time the whole religion and women thing fell together. Up until then it was women’s rights and economic development exclusively, without drawing in religion. I went to prisons and orphanages in Afghanistan, one year after the fall of the Taliban, in March 2003. Aghan women were coming up and hugging me and saying we are so glad you’re here & but where have you been? Our Arab and Muslim sisters have not shown up to help us. These women were simple and illiterate, but they understood something it has taken years for me to understand & the difference between the use or application of religion and the spirituality of Islam. They knew the ulema and Taliban were getting it wrong, getting Islam wrong. They interpreted the tradition amongst themselves, focusing on the lives of the prophet’s wives. They trusted this was the truth of Islam, and so they did not resent the tradition, despite the way the men with power were interpreting and applying Islam in ways that held them back.
In Sudan, where I did some work for Women for Women, I encountered Christian women who were using Islamic passages that affirm women to argue for constitutional rights for women.
In Iraq, however, the women won’t even talk about religion. They are very resistant and bitter about Islam. But by shooting down religion, they are allowing the other extreme & the monolithic interpretations of religion -- to put women down. They are beginning to see that they need to address religion. They are using passages of Islam that affirm women, but it’s political rhetoric & a means for mobilization. This is with the women. With the men, in Sistani’s office, it’s always been different. In late 2003, there was a female judge who was appointed in Najaf by the CPA. It was not new, but it hadn’t happened in a long time. People took the streets to protest her appointment. She went to the CPA, to Bremer’s office, and said are you guys going to appoint me? They backtracked, said Islam doesn’t permit women judges, and that they did not want to upset the religious authorities. And she said to them & “Look, if you tell me you don’t want to upset your allies, fine. But don’t tell me what my religion says. What do you know about Islam?” And then she went to Sistani and told him how these people who don’t even know Islam told her what the religion teaches. So Sistani issued a written fatwa that said judge must have masculine traits, but could be a woman. She took this back to the CPA as proof to them that Islam does not teach what they said it taught. But they never let her take her place as judge.
Tell me more about your professional trajectory & the path to your current position as Director of Iraq Programs at USIP:
My first real job was journalism. I went to orphanages and prisons to meet with women & mostly in Jordan. During this time, in 1997, I met a UN recruiter and he recruited me to go to Iraq. I didn’t know much about Iraq at that point. But within twenty-four hours, I was there. I fell in love the place. I fell in love in particular with the Iraqi women & and their role in art, culture, the university. I used to hang out in a women’s art center. This was the first Arab country I had lived in, so I was able to connect to my roots. I spent a year working with the UN, but I couldn’t stay there. Because of the oil-to-food program, I knew instinctively something was wrong. Something made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t where I wanted to be. The UN had been my dream, so I was deflated upon leaving Iraq.
The next place I worked was the International Center for Research on Women, led and founded by three South Asian women. The organization said advocating for women’s rights is important, but really we ought to look at research that gets deeper into economic development and what’s successful for empowering women. The belief of ICRW was that economic development would not happen without the full participation of women. It was a spin on who was serving who, and in this case focusing on women was just the right thing to do, it was the smart and strategic thing as well. Working with these women & women from developing countries & had a great influence on me. So much so that when I decided to do my master’s degree. I did it in economics because I saw how powerful it is.
So I went to Georgetown and did Arab world studies, but my focus was on economic development. During this time, my ideas on Palestine began to change & I began to see how the conflict is not about religion and identity, but about economic disputes over land, water, etc. The former is used to fuel the conflict, but how much do the foot soldiers know that really they are fighting economic issues?
I worked in the World Bank during grad school I helped support the foundations for the establishment of the global development network, which provided a network of multidisciplinary researchers to enhance knowledge sharing. Part of my job was to work towards establishing regional networks to increase the number of researchers from developing countries. This expanded my travel, so I was able to travel Latin America and other countries that I hadn’t been to before, such as Kenya and Japan. Lyn Squire was the director of the project, and he was a great mentor. I was able to look at statistics related to women, and continue to study these things, for my own purposes, not the World Bank’s.
In Afghanistan, I came across Women for Women, and they recruited me to go to Iraq to open an office. It was the hardest decision of my life. WB was a great job, a great salary. I was going through a divorce, and it is harder to travel and live in the Middle East as a divorced woman than as a single woman. Widowed women have this same problem.
But I took the job, and I set up an office and programs that supported job skills training and livelihood for women & the idea was to get them enough financial support that they would be better able to push for women’s rights (you can’t afford the time to do advocacy if you’re struggling to survive financially).
I began in 2003. At this time, religion was not addressed or talked about. But it was still fresh in my mind because I had just come from Afghanistan. December 2003 was when they introduced Resolution 161 by al-Jafaari & what is today Article 41. It blew everyone away & women, men, CPA & Jafaari had been portrayed as secular shia. When he hit where women are the most proud, personal status laws, laws that had been the best in the Middle East, it blew everyone away. Women’s rights were now going backwards. There were public demonstrations and organizing around the issue. Grassroots women were in the streets, and elite women leaders were handing petitions to Jafaari. Women were lobbying CPA and international leaders. Eventually IGC repealed it. This all was a display of the power of women when they unite to a degree across all sorts of different divisions.
After this, women were on the radars of the political parties. They were seen as an untapped resource. So from 2003, you saw women in abayas bused in from the South to attend rallies. These women were bused in to show support for Article 41, or for particular policies. As the political parties began tapping women, they became more and more fragmented as a sector. None of the women in Baghdad thought to say& let’s talk to these women wearing the abayas. They were seen as the enemies. As the divide and bias grew, women who had been wearing hijab started taking it off to join the elite women. And some of the women who fell in the middle of the secular/religious divide just fell off the radar.
For Women for Women, I began doing work in Sudan and Afghanistan. I set up an office in Rumbek in rural Sudan. Men were not open to an Arab Muslim woman coming to speak to them about women’s rights.
And then I went to work for Oxfam. It was a great experience, but very secular. For our work in Yemen, one of the indicators in the minds of some of the program officers of success for a public health program was how many women would take off the niqab! We had these amazing photos of women who had graduated from midwife training up in the office, but they were wearing niqab and so people lobbied to take them down. This was really my first exposure to the very secular development world. We had one project that worked on adjusting the marriage law to the age of 18. It was called the anti-early marriage project. But the religious leaders resisted the project, and we weren’t getting anywhere. So finally we engaged the religious leaders, who told us that way we were framing the project & its title & rubbed them the wrong way, although they were supportive of the objective of the project. They suggested we change the name to “safe marriage project.” We did, and the project took off. The process of approaching, taking seriously, or asking permission from the religious leadership was a huge shift for the organization. But they continue to do it now.
Have you perceived any differences in style in how women address problem-solving, conflict resolution? Any concrete examples?
In Iraq, women were the first to reach out across ethnic/religious divides. They did it instinctively. And it wasn’t the case that it was safe for them to do so -- it increased their vulnerability.
When women get into political power & MPs, they tended to reach across these divides less often. And women become very efficient at being bureaucrats when they get into power. I have had them say to me -- I am in competition with these powerful men, and I have to focus on not tripping in front of them. That takes all my energy. Their position is tenuous, they don’t have as much status or power, and so they have to master the system and operate perfectly.
I think there is a natural desire for inclusiveness amongst women. When I meet with male politicians, their modus operandi is to tell me how it is. When I meet with women, they tend to like to meet as groups of 2 or 3, and they seek validation from each other as they speak; they check what they are saying against each other. Men will just tell you what’s red or black. Women are saying & you can see shades of pink. There is recognition of other viewpoints.
What issues do you think our gathering in July should address? What questions do you bring to the intersection of women, religion, conflict, and peace?
I’d be most interested in hearing from others about what has worked successfully in terms of building bridges. Here I mean bridges between several different divides. The first is secular/religious. For me that’s the biggest issue & and finding ways to protect that middle ground as a viable place for women. And developing shared common values between women at both extremes and in the middle. If I were to challenge a secular women about how she was dressed, why she was wearing shorts, in the same way people challenge me about my hijab, it wouldn’t go over well. How do we develop mutual respect & we give a lot of leeway to the secular women in development and women’s rights, while the religious women have to prove their dedication.
Almost always I am the only covered woman in the room. I am becoming more and more conscious of this. If I weren’t American, I probably wouldn’t even be in the room, because of the hijab, because of my religious commitment.
Also building bridges between the different fields & for example women in academia and conflict resolution or women’s empowerment, which I think is particularly important for religion. You have great women Muslim legal scholars at Harvard, Yale, American University in Cairo, and organizations like Women Living Under Muslim Law. It could be powerful if the academics could work with us, the practitioners, to address the role of women.
In the international NGO realm, we need to better triangulate information. We need to go to secular women’s organizations, religious women’s organizations, go to everyone & and check assumptions.