As the Power Shuffle in Iraq Unfolds, Do Not Forget the Women

As a veteran who served in Iraq, the past few weeks have been a struggle to watch as the violence intensified. I had the fortune to get to know several Iraqis of various sects, learning about their rich culture and heritage. Even though I was a member of the American forces and carrying a weapon, they saw my humanity and showed me nothing but warmth and acceptance.

I served in Iraq to help thwart al Qaeda and the rival Shia Jaish al-Mahdi. It is beyond frustrating to see that any headway that was gained toward a stable society has been replaced by the uprising of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremists. I have been especially mortified to read about the savage sexual violence being committed against women and teenage girls and boys. While my experience among the Iraqi people helped me to see the good in them, reading about absolute barbaric acts perpetrated against the most vulnerable has rocked my core.

But what scares me the most, is that while political arrangements emerge and ideas to disrupt and dismantle militant groups are thrown around, there is an important group missing from the discussion -- the women of Iraq. Unless women are given a voice and agency soon, the social fabric in Iraq will forever be eroded and likely sectarian violence will perpetuate.

Last winter, I attended an event titled "Women for Change: Voices from the Middle East and Eurasia," hosted by the Eurasia Foundation in Washington. In thinking about the current crisis, I recalled that one panelist stated that men generally use terms such as "power sharing" to describe political arrangements, whereas women are more likely to describe "responsibility sharing." The difference is that men hone in on the prowess of concentrated power, whereas women are more concerned with working together to meet an end objective that suits all.

As I look ahead at the months and years to come in Iraq, I can see no other way to rebuild governance, security, economic livelihood, and an education system without the participation of women. When women are educated, and included in governance and budgetary processes, the whole society wins. Ritu Sharma, President of Women Thrive Worldwide, notes that, "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. But teach a woman to fish, and everyone eats for a lifetime."

Perhaps the brutal acts of forced prostitution and rape will serve to unify the women of all sects in Iraq, creating an unshakable bond and the ability to work together toward a greater future. Meanwhile, the men will still be fighting over who gets title and position -- power.

The case of Liberia over a decade ago has similarities with the situation in Iraq today. Like in Iraq, customary law and religious tradition dictated the role of women in society. The Association of Female Liberian Lawyers (AFELL) came together to prosecute cases of rape, a common practice among soldiers during the civil war. Through their advocacy, the lawyers were able to influence the drafting of new legislation that prescribed penalties for rape. AFELL continued their work through its clinic in the capital Monrovia, providing legal advice to women on a variety of topics such as inheritance rights and customary law.

Like the regional instability we see in Iraq and Syria today, regional conflict had infected Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea in the early 2000s. Seeing the need for civil action and to prevent the resumption of patriarchy following the war, West Africans came together to form the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). These courageous women met with former warlord and President Charles Taylor and the rebel forces on several occasions and brokered talks. Their efforts led to the 2003 Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Though the women were not invited to the summit, nor involved in the official disarmament process, through grassroots efforts, they convinced forces in fighter camps to relinquish their weapons.

Courageous women like Leymah Gbowee, a Christian, and Asatu Ben Kenneth, a Muslim, led sit-ins, demonstrations, and even a sex strike to protest against war. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia, the first woman head of state in Africa. Today, women lead several ministries in Liberia. The Nobel Peace committee recognized the work of Sirleaf and Gbowee in 2011. Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said, "We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women achieve the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society."

Containing and defeating the expansion of ISIS may require traditional security and military techniques. However, it will be the efforts of empowered wives, daughters, and sisters who can influence husbands, brothers, and sons to resist ISIS or similar extremist groups in the future. The work of women parliamentarians, police officers, and soldiers will be paramount to a future stable Iraq. Let the case of Liberia serve as an example and inspiration. There is no question: women are key to stability and security. Do not forget the women.