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Bush foes#039; dismiss Iraqi women making history

Ever since Safia Taleb al-Suhail triumphantly lifted her purple finger at President Bush in Congress - signaling women's right to vote in a new Iraq - the critics have wagged a finger back purporting that nothing will change.

Oh, really?

Where else in the Middle East do women make up almost a third of the parliament?

Because that's what happened in Iraq's elections. It includes 45 women among the 140 members of the Shiite party blessed by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, hardly known as a liberal. In all, 31 percent of the 275 members of Iraq's new Transitional National Assembly are women, including Kurds and those of other religious faiths. Even Sunnis who were privileged under Saddam Hussein will be represented in the new assembly.

That didn't happen by accident. It occurred because women like Taleb al-Suhail, leader of the Iraqi Women's Political Council, made a big stink when it appeared that the U.S.-appointed Governing Council in Iraq was about to deny women basic civil rights under so-called Resolution 137. Women died fighting that cause last year - and upped the ante by insisting that women make up at least 40 percent of the new assembly.

Negotiations followed. Some Iraqi men refused to compromise. But in the end, basic human rights prevailed. Iraq's Governing Council set up a complex system of candidate selection for each party with the goal that women could win at least 25 percent of the seats. They surpassed the goal.

Yet there are those who maintain nothing has changed in Iraq, that women are worse off today than when the Butcher of Baghdad ruled. They refuse to acknowledge any good coming from Bush's admittedly botched-up, no-exit-strategy, pre-emptive war on Iraq policy.

We can disagree with the president about the war. I do. But to not accept, much less praise, the results of Iraq's election smacks of stubborn myopia about the power of the human spirit and the lure of democracy.

Nor should we deny reality. Iraq is no paradise. Despite the election's success, women there continue to live in fear. As a new Amnesty International report outlines, women "remain at risk of death or injury from male relatives if they are accused of behavior determined to have brought dishonor on the family."

Women and girls are disproportionately the victims of rapes and killings by armed thugs of all persuasions. With insurgents still bombing the heck out of neighborhoods and U.S.-led forces and Iraqi forces storming homes in search of rebels, there are large swaths of Iraq that aren't safe. Abuses at Abu Ghraib prison included women detainees, too.

So, yes, there are huge challenges ahead, but let's not deny the great strides women achieved despite the violence.

The so-called Iraqi street captured by TV cameras is too often filled with raging men with no woman in sight.

"The general lack of security has forced many women out of public life, and constitutes a major obstacle to the advancement of women's rights," Amnesty notes in its Iraq report.

The one exception was during the election when the world watched smiling Iraqi women walking to the polls, coming back with a purple finger pointed in victory.

They took the first heroic steps on their journey to self-determination and true democracy. Let's not diminish what they've done. They made history and are now poised to create a real future for a free Iraq.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Write to her at 633 North Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801, or by e-mail at mmarquez@orlandosentinel.com.