Maysoon Al Damluji MP in nina-iraq.com
Maysoon al-Damluji MP speaks to Madeleine White and Sana Bekki about the private sector, Women’s’ economic empowerment and the importance of cultural heritage.
I had first come across Maysoon al-Damluji through the magazine Noon, written for Iraqi women in Iraq, whilst we were planning the launch of Nina. An architect in a former life, Maysoon is a powerful advocate for women’s rights and freedoms and championed Noon as founder and president of the grass roots organisation the Iraqi Independent Women’s Group. Maysoon is also the former Deputy Minister of Culture with a history of political and cultural activism for Iraq when in exile in Britain.
With changes at the highest echelons of Iraqi politics just hot of the press, we were delighted to meet this outspoken female MP in person. However, as always, our meeting is reflective of an age where technology is an integral part of human connection. Maysoon is in Jordan with our Arabic Editor Sana Bekki; I join via skype.
I kick start the discussion by checking whether she is happy for me to call her Maysoon?She reassures me that she much prefers this informality… “ It keeps everything real and grounded”.
As a good journalist, I decided to work with this and ask her about what she sees as being a couple key moments in her political career.
I think the first one must be the fact that when I came back to Iraq in 2003 I had only planned on staying for 3 days. 11 years later and here I am as a Member of Parliament. More recently, our achievement as an Iraqi Parliament in changing our leadership is something that stands out. I am so proud to have been part of this peaceful, democratic transition. We now have a new Prime Minister and achieved this part without war or bloodshed –a first in our region’s 6000 years of history!
Also, the creation of the Iraqi Independent Women’s Group created in 2003 and Noon Magazine are right up there in terms of what I consider to by personal success stories. There are many of us now in the IIWG and we are very close. Essentially I believe in private enterprise and opportunities for women (both are struggling in our current climate) but the IIWG gives me strength to hold on and campaign for these deeply held beliefs.
IIWHG is defined by the powerful relationships we women have. Our ‘womanhood’ connects us and gives us strength. Women in leadership have great challenges, especially in this region. The powerful female network and bonding that we enjoy means that there is a support network that can be tapped into in a way that is less formal that some of the more typical networking organisations one may see. Female camaraderie and friendship from a variety of areas is so important, both in my work and that of other political and business leaders I know.
You touch on the challenges of leadership? Are these more intense for women, and if so why?
Absolutely! I think for female leaders everywhere there is a greater emphasis on things that have absolutely no bearing on how we do our jobs. I have so often heard female leaders called ‘ugly’ or ‘fat’. They don’t say that about men!
Another point is that here particularly, rumours will get started to discredit us. For example, the most recent one about me is that I am a member of IS. Can you imagine, even with my style of Western dress and with my views? However, it got so ridiculous and I had to issue a press statement to deny it. Another one, which actually is amusing, came from when I sat next to a male journalist at an EU reception. The next thing I knew we had married in secret. Again I had to issue a press statement!
I do feel it is very important to have press that doesn’t sensationalise or ‘rumour monger’. I find Nina’s form of citizen journalism, where the real point of interest is real stories about real people, refreshing and powerful. Especially, as you are focussed on strengthening women’s empowerment!
Every word you speak rings with passion. Where did this passion and campaigning power come from?
To understand this, we need to revisit my time in the UK. For example, I was part of the free Nelson Mandela movement. It was OK to have a different vision of the future – to have a voice that stood out. Part of my job now is to make my voice heard against the kind of nasty journalism and indeed social media I referred to above in order to raise things that matter to me. For example, something I am very keen to speak about at the moment is the wholesale destruction of our cultural heritage by IS in Northern Iraq.
I had heard some aspects of this, touched upon by the BBC in the UK, but it is very interesting to hear the clarion call of an impassioned former deputy minister of culture on this topic.
Cultural knowledge defines who we are and who we can be again. Iraq is not just an Oil field! Other than the terrible human tragedies that are taking place through the actions of IS, our very identity is being stripped away. Ancient monuments and shrines are being completely destroyed. In Mosul the essence of the city is being ‘ cleansed’.
In order to rise again as a strong nation we must have an understanding of where we come from in order to define who we are. If everything is destroyed this will be difficult. I am also a great believer in the power of international collaboration. The international focus was removed from Iraq; it is now back on it again. We must use this to protect what we were, but also to create what we will be. Iraq is an important part of the global history of humanity – in fact I would go so far as to say that its historical sites and people represent a little part of the humanity in all of us.
Humanity, what does that mean to you?
On a personal level it defines my day to day existence. Sometime when mothers who have lost their children come to see me I cry. Often they have sons or daughters who are kidnapped or dead. The stories of tragedy, of what people live with every day, are so heartrending. However, I think the tears I cry are often for the dignity I see. No matter how terrible the situation, how poor, how deprived, what I see are strong people, trying to live their life with dignity. It is that dignity that moves me so much.
Poverty, deprivation – I suppose are issues every politician wants to deal with. If you had a magic wand to help women in Iraq, what are the three key actions you would take?
- I would try to eliminate poverty. Strong inward investment, based on the foundations of a stable civic society is key here.
- I would also eliminate forced marriages; they are an affront to humanity and must not be tolerated.
- I would strive to keep the tradition of secularism in Iraq, this gives a strong foundation to build on.
You speak of inward investment, even in Iraq’s current situation. How important do you think the private sector is to Iraq?
I am a great believer in private enterprise. At the moment in Iraq the government does everything, even down to importing tomatoes! I think the issue is actually historic as Iraq is very much a socialist culture still. However, in order to face our manifold challenges we need to embrace the private sector – albeit a properly regulated version! Inward investment means pressure from outside; this supports both transparency and regulation. So you see, this kind of investment doesn’t just support pipelines full of oil, it also creates a pipeline of opportunity for Iraqis!
From this it seems you are very much advocating business as usual, despite the current situation?
Absolutely! Look, when I came back to Iraq in 2003 we were in many ways so naive. Things were so much more difficult than we had imagined. It was a very different Iraq to the one I had left, especially in terms of human rights and gender issues. We didn’t count on the strength of the rise in tribalism, and didn’t pay enough attention to it. Also issues of class are a huge – the differences between the moneyed urban classes and the rural poor are enormous and cause resentment, which can lead to violence.
Partly because we missed opportunities and made mistakes then, we are in the situation we are in now. We can’t keep having to have international support to help us get the fundamentals right. However, as that is where we are again – dependent on humanitarian and military support – I truly believe that we need to get it right this time. We need to build a society that can stand on its own two feet. Different tribes, different classes, men, women and children must work together towards a better Iraq that belongs to all of us – that must be our end game.
What a call to action – creating an environment that supports private enterprise, strong inward investment and internal collaboration! What I have taken from our time together is the passion of conviction and the power of words. Maysoon has painted a vision of a future for Iraq that is not dictated by oil or by dissent – but instead by a united people standing together, respecting the past but welcoming a future that holds opportunity and hope.
Look out for our interview with with Parwen Babaker, former Minister of Industry for the Kurdistan Regional Government and current CEO of WZA Petroleum and Nokan. Out next week.