Democracy and the Women of Anbar Province

Ed. Note: Baghdad Dispatch is now written by two female Marines with local connections; Marine Capt. Mary Noyes, an attorney; and Marine Maj. Meredith Brown, an Iraqi Women’s Engagement officer. Their respective columns will appear in alternate months. Noyes moved to New Orleans in 2006; Brown is a native of Marrero. “Combat Cajun,” a Navy pilot who previously wrote this column and who, because of military rules, was not allowed to use his real name, has since been deployed.
It is truly amazing how life works out sometimes.  I grew up in a family where politics played a daily role and my parents taught me, by example and by instruction, the values of civic education by being both aware and involved with politics in general.  So as a USMC Logistics officer serving in Anbar Province in Iraq, I never thought that some of my early life lessons in civic education would help me help others halfway across the world.  
I work with Yousra, Noor and Maysoon in the office that we commonly use as our committee meeting room. These courageous and dedicated women make up the Provincial Women’s Affairs Committee in Anbar Province. We were discussing various ideas for legislative proposals for the committee to send to the Provincial Council for a vote. The three of them have great ideas for construction projects but they don’t understand the concept of writing bills and passing laws.    
When I first began working with WAC, there were only two women that would attend meetings regularly. The third one was concerned about security as her brother-in-law, who’s also her cousin and the Provincial Governor, had nine attempts made on his life by Al Qaeda. Our first few meetings were rough because they had no agenda, no by-laws for the committee, no place to hold the meeting and were too reserved, at first, to discuss issues they believed were important. The ice finally thawed when they realized I meant it when I said that I would be here for a year to work with them on issues that were important to the women of Anbar. I initially thought these problems were unique to the female Provincial Council members because of the rumblings that I had heard about their culture not allowing them to attend school past age 12 and forced them to stay at home – all false information.
My male colleagues, who were working with other committees, expressed similar concerns and frustrations that I had in having to teach their committee members the very basics about how a committee is run and what products in the form of legislation were expected from committees (think School House Rock’s “I am a Bill” cartoon). Many of the members of the Provincial Council (aka state legislature) equated democracy with the freedom to bid on U.S. contracts. In other words, they confused capitalism with democracy.
Prior to 2003, when the people of Anbar sat in their middle school civics education classes, they only learned about Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party. They learned about the man and the group of people that were in charge of the country at that time and how to keep these unscrupulous people happy so as not to become a victim of their torture chambers. The people of Anbar didn’t benefit from a classroom education that taught about the Iraqi judicial system, unless they went to law school, or how to participate in government as a common citizen, except to join the Ba’ath Party or face the consequences. It is no wonder many of Anbar’s political officials believe that the more construction projects they initiate or have control over, the more they can say they are good politicians and are doing good things for their province. Of course, bringing economic opportunity to one’s city or town is a good thing for an elected official, but it still doesn’t get the necessary laws on the books, such as compulsory education laws for all citizens and anti-corruption laws.
One of the ladies, Maysoon, asked me if I were an elected official back home because she was somewhat impressed that I understood so well how a democratic government operated. I explained to her that in our education system all children are given the opportunity to learn the basics of a democratic government. I went on to explain that as a child progresses in school, she learns about other forms of government, such as communism, socialism and dictatorship. Maysoon was visibly surprised that I knew as much as I did, and that I could apply it with them simply based on my early school years. Again, I internally thanked my parents for sharing with me much of the political lessons they had learned throughout their lifetimes.      
Maysoon then asked if all Americans were as interested in government as I was. This question troubled me a bit. The honest answer was embarrassing for me. I looked her in the eye and explained that approximately 60 percent of Americans take enough interest in their national government to vote in a Presidential election. I went on to tell her that in my home state of Louisiana, only about 45 percent of my fellow Louisianians cared enough about government to vote in the last governor elections and, often, rates of between five and 10 percent care enough about parish-wide elections.
She then asked if it were true that our government officials could tax us and then use some of the tax monies to pay their salaries, benefits and retirement. Maysoon was a quick learner. I told her that it was true that Americans pay nearly 30 percent of their income in taxes and some of it went to pay for the remunerations of our elected officials. With this answer Maysoon didn’t understand why Americans were not more interested in participating by voting. Of course, democracy isn’t a system learned quickly or easily after decades of dictatorship and it’s not always understood and embraced.  I am reminded of the famous quote by Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”   Churchill led the British to victory in World War II, but then lost the next election in July 1945.  I think I’ll just have to tell these very brave women in Anbar Province that I don’t understand everything about democracy either.

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