IRAQ: Administration Chooses Anti-Feminist Group to Train Iraqi Women

The State Department has awarded an explicitly anti-feminist U.S. group part of a US$10 million grant to train Iraqi women in political participation and democracy.

The group, the Washington-based Independent Women's Forum (IWF), will help implement the administration's "Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative," along with a number of other groups that, unlike the IWF, have experience in international exchange and democracy-promotion activities, including the Meridian International Center, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

Recipients of the grants also include the Bangalore-based Art of Living Foundation, a volunteer organization that promotes yoga and other breathing exercises to "eliminate stress, create a sense of belonging and restore human values" and has been running classes in Tikrit and other conflicted parts of the Iraq since last September.

The participation of the IWF, which has escorted Iraqi women selected by the State Department around power and media centers around Washington, is the most controversial.

The organization was founded in 1991 by a number of prominent right-wing Republican women to act as a counterpoint to what they called the "radical feminism" of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a grassroots group with about 500,000 subscribing members nationwide.

Among the founders were Lynne Cheney, the spouse of Vice President Dick Cheney and former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; Labor Secretary Elaine Chao; Kate O'Beirne, Washington editor of the right-wing "National Review" and a former senior vice president at the Heritage Foundation; and Midge Decter, the former co-chair with Donald Rumsfeld of the Committee for the Free World and one of the founders of neo-conservatism along with her spouse, former "Commentary" editor, Norman Podhoretz.

Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, who announced the grant at a press briefing last week, has also served on IWF's board of advisers.

"Talk about an inside deal, the IWF represents a small group of right-wing wheeler-dealers inside the (Washington) beltway," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

The IWF, which, according to its mission statement was "established to combat the women-as-victim, pro-big-government ideology of radical feminism," has taken a number of controversial positions over the years in pursuit of that goal.

It has strongly opposed the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in part on the grounds that it would permit mandate governments to enforce laws guaranteeing equal pay for equal work. "This is 'comparable worth,' a system of government wage setting that Americans have rightly rejected as inefficient and antithetical to free market principles," the IWF has argued.

It has also objected to CEDAW's requirements that governments guarantee "maternity leave with pay" and child care facilities as well as its suggestions for minimum quotas to ensure that women are represented at all levels in governments. Ironically, the Bush administration adopted this suggestion for Iraq in the interim law approved by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that is supposed to guide elections currently scheduled for January.

The IWF has also opposed affirmative action and federal programs designed to prevent sexual discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal government funding. The Bush administration appointed IWF's president, Nancy Mitchell Pfotenhauer, to the National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women despite the fact that the group opposed the Violence Against Women Act.

The IWF has also been accused of partisanship for its staunch defense of the Republican Party positions and its attacks on prominent Democrats. Last May, for example, it issued a statement assailing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for demanding that Pentagon chief Rumsfeld steps down to take responsibility for the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, insisting that Kerry was using it "to raise money."

Several weeks earlier, it launched an aborted petition drive to condemn "the bitter political grandstanding" by Democratic members of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission who were accused of "working for Sen. John Kerry," instead of "all Americans."

IWF staff, meanwhile, consists primarily of former Republican activists with extensive government and lobbying experience but little or no experience in democracy promotion, international affairs, or the Middle East.

The one exception is Senior Vice President Rieva Holycross, who has a doctorate in anthropology and a 30-year career in academia and working for a multinational engineering firm as chief marketing officer in charge of strategic communication, according to the IWF website. It is not clear she will be working on the project.

Announcing the grant last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that each of the grantees "will work with Iraqi partners on the ground to prepare women to compete in Iraq's January 2005 elections, encourage women to vote, train women in media and business skills, and establish resource centers for networking and counseling."

IWF Senior Fellow Michelle Bernard, who has practiced business law and government relations in the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, said the group had already begun recruiting 150 Iraqi women to participate in a Woman Leaders Program and Democracy Information Center before the grant was officially awarded.

"(W)e'd like to train 150 pro-democracy women on the fundamentals of democracy, women's political activism in a democracy, and to exchange ideas' basically to enable Iraqi women to participate in their country and help Iraq develop a democracy that best suits the needs of that country," she was quoted as saying in a State Department press release.

She also said IWF has planned a five-day conference in December in Amman, Jordan that will be followed by future meetings on a quarterly basis. Rather than recruit women to run for office, she said, "we're just looking for people who want to participate at the community level, people who are interested in education (or) people who might want to be policy makers in the equivalent of a think tank here."

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