Iraqi exile offers solace to women from afar
Doctor sees work as extension of mother's unfinished business
By Jeordan Legon
(CNN) -- During the month-long fight to depose Saddam Hussein, Dr. Shatha Besarani longed to be back in Iraq helping battle-scarred women survive the destruction of yet another war -- their third since 1980.
But Besarani, 39, a gynecologist whose parents were forced into exile by Saddam's regime, could not return for fear of landing in prison. So the mother of three did what she could from afar.
She helped organize public demonstrations in Britain demanding that coalition forces spare women and children. She set up dozens of meetings at London's Iraqi Community Association, offering exiled women a place to share their fears and find comfort.
And even before Saddam's dictatorship was toppled, Besarani was calling aid groups around the world urging that women be included in the leadership of the new Iraq.
"She's a very good lady. Very helpful," said Awatif Alibadi, 51, of London, an Iraqi immigrant who took part in Besarani's meetings. "Because of her, we would talk about the war and help each other feel less scared."
Besarani said she sees her involvement with Iraqi women as an extension of her mother's unfinished work.
Her mother, Sabina Al Khatib, a leader of Iraq's Communist Party, spent most of her life fighting to give Iraqi women a voice in that country's government. When Saddam came to power in 1979, Al Katib was forced to flee the country, taking her family with her. She was never able to return and died five years ago in London.
"She wanted to make women aware of their rights and demanded that they be treated better in [Iraqi] society," said Besarani, who studied medicine in Russia before settling in London 13 years ago. "I do hear her inside of me. I too want to see Iraqi women laughing and living in a good world, where they are respected and valued."
Though she said she is not part of the Communist Party and doesn't want to run for political office, Besarani plans to move to Iraq as soon as possible. She said her goal is to organize a conference in Baghdad to discuss women's issues and mobilize women in the country.
Her task won't be easy. Though Iraq has a long tradition of women's education and employment, those gains have been eroded by decades of tyranny, poverty and war.
And Besarani said she fears many Iraqi men would prefer women stay out of professional and civic life. For example, at an anti-Saddam Shiite demonstration recently in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya, a reporter asked a man why there were no women in the protest.
"Under Islamic law, they cannot be here," Kazem Alssafi told London's Daily Telegraph. "They should remain in the home."
If Besarani has her way, such attitudes will change, and women will savor the fruits of democracy in the new Iraq.
"But the first thing, the immediate need, is to show them that they are secure," she said. "Give them something to drink, to eat. Give them shelter. After three wars, they deserve to hurt no more."
Note: In every war there are acts of extraordinary courage where an individual, military or civilian, goes beyond what is expected to avert conflict, save lives or otherwise achieve an extraordinary mission. This special section highlights the acts of a few individuals who -- through feats of courage, nobility of purpose or life-risking situations -- have become "Heroes of War."