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Public Statements

Answering the Call for Freedom

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Location: Washington, DC


ANSWERING THE CALL FOR FREEDOM -- (House of Representatives - July 11, 2005)

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Mrs. BIGGERT. Mr. Speaker, I really appreciate all that the gentlewoman from Florida (Ms. Ginny Brown-Waite) is doing with the Women's Caucus, and she has done a great job bringing these women's issues out and how important they are to all of us.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to talk a little bit first about the Afghan women, because I had an opportunity to work with them. It was before some of our women Members were even here, it was in 2002, when there were a group of women, first of all starting out with women lawyers from Afghanistan, came over to meet with the Women's Caucus and have a discussion.

Later on, Habiba Sorabi, Afghanistan's minister for women's affairs, came over to meet with us and discuss what the mission was all about. And she talked about that the mission for women was to restore and improve the rights of Afghan women and to strengthen their legal, their economic, political, and social status throughout the country.

At that time the Members of the Women's Caucus here came away convinced that the work of their women's ministry was absolutely critical to the rebuilding of a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan in which the women and girls would have full rights.

And one of the things that we did was to establish and to find funding for women's centers over in Afghanistan. As you see the picture there with the Afghan elections, wearing the burkas and the veils, and still how they go around covered. So they needed a place where women could go where they could have health care, where they called take their children for education, and where they could have job opportunities to work on their creations of rugs or chickens or whatever they were going to do to establish an economic basis.

And with that, we were able to get from the Appropriations Committee, from foreign ops, money to actually build women's centers in all of the provinces of Afghanistan. And they are being built, many of them, from Kabul to the hinterlands, have been established to give the women that.

And then after that, we also were able to not really to go into Afghanistan, but to go over early in the morning to the State Department, 7 a.m., and talk to women that were involved in writing the Constitution for Afghanistan, to make sure that they were included.

And we had to do it so early in the morning because they could not be out after dark, and with the time change, they were at the end of the day, we were at the very beginning of our day, the sunrise services.

And we were really able to talk to them and give them encouragement and advice in what to do. And they also came over here to spend some time with us really as going out on our day-to-day business to see how a democracy operates, how the House of Representatives works. We wore them out, I must say. But they were able to spend some time with us.

And then in January I traveled to Amman, Jordan, to meet with women who were on the list in Iraq, who were running for office to be elected to the national assembly. And it is a little bit different from what we were doing here.

We have our precincts and our designation, our States, but there this was a national list. There were four of us that went: the gentlewoman from Texas (Ms. Granger), the gentlewoman from California (Mrs. Tauscher), and the gentleman from Illinois (Mr. Shimkus) and myself.

We were over there to train them in the election process. Now it is a little bit different, because here were a group of women running for office who could not have their names on a list, known, who could not have their pictures on a brochure, who could not pass out any literature that they were running, because of the fear of assassination.

And as a matter of fact, many of these women were intimidated. One of them lost her 17-year-old son to an assassin as he was trying to protect her. Another one was kidnapped and held for ransom. Another one lost five members of their family.

But these women were willing to really put their lives on the line to run for national office. And I think we sometimes wonder, you know, we take so much for granted: the opportunity to run for office, the opportunity to vote. And here were women that really said, we possibly will lose our lives, and some of them have lost their lives, and some of those that were elected.

But what happened was that we met with Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Independents, and Christians. And there was a group of about 22 members. And they were from all of the different parties. And the first thing, one of the first things that they said as we were sitting at the table, why? You are from different parties? And we said, yes. And they said, well, why are you laughing and talking together? You are from different parties so you really should not be speaking together.

We said, that is one thing about a democracy. We have different parties, but we respect each other. We are friends, we are colleagues, and we laugh and talk and joke; but we do have different philosophies. And so with that, these women were able to sit around and talk together on how they were going to get over their differences, because the Sunnis were there saying no, no, we should postpone the national elections.

And the others were saying, no, we need to go forward, but we want you, being the Sunnis, to join us. They wanted all participation from all of the different groups. And so some of the Sunnis said, well, maybe that is a good idea.

So they did learn that democracy is the art of possible. And so it was that after that election, 25 percent of those elected out of the 275 were to be women. Well, 33 percent were elected and 33 percent were women. Of course, I got a call from one of them, or an e-mail, which we have e-mailed back and forth on election day. She said, I was the first to vote in my district. I cast the first vote. And it was fine. Everything was going fine.

So they were elected. Many of those that came, were elected. Then in April there were three of us that went back to Jordan: the gentlewoman from Texas (Ms. Granger), the gentlewoman from California (Mrs. Davis), and myself. And we met went back to meet with 150 Iraqi women who were chosen because of the leaders in their provinces, leaders like mayors, and were developing into the leaders in their country.

And that was to train them in democracy. And just think, suddenly you have a democracy and you have come from a dictatorship. What do you do? So we had a lot of role-playing with them and instant translation so that we could talk to them. And I have to tell you that some of them talk very loud. I think it is a cultural thing when they want to make their points.

So we would say, cannot hear you through the earphones. But we learned that this is just a cultural difference in how we differ. But one thing that they said was that they did not really want to have a quota system. They wanted to be like us where they ran as women, and they were elected. And we said, well, now you have got 33 percent. Just take it easy for a while, because we only have 14 percent in the Congress. You are way ahead of us. So keep up the good work and make sure that you stay that way, and one day you will have the same as we do.

One day you will have the brochures that you pass out. One day you will have the sponges and the combs and the pencils that you are giving out to get elected. But what they have done, I think, has been fascinating, and they have just been able to move ahead and to be able to find out how to run a democracy. I think they are way ahead of the game; they really caught on very quickly.

We had them doing some role-playing. They would pass on to the next group some of the tips that we would give them, like tell the provincial council that you are talking to what your name is, what group you represent, and why you want them to do something.

As each group, during the 2 1/2 days that we were there, came up and did some of this role-playing, they got better and better. But they loved doing it, and we loved having them.

But again they came to us at great risk. They had to drive through Iraq, and they were shot at, a group of them was held at the Jordanian border for 13 hours, and you know what they have gone through for the freedoms that we believe in, that we sometimes do not, you know, take the great care and go out to vote, that we do not do the things that they think is, you know, they are willing to give their lives for.

I think that we have to honor them and all of the other women that we see throughout these countries that are now going to vote and having the elections and making sure that they are included and their children are going to be included. I think that we honor them. I am very delighted to have the opportunity to be here tonight.

Ms. GINNY BROWN-WAITE of Florida. I appreciate the gentlewoman from Illinois (Mrs. Biggert) telling us first hand your mentoring project with some female candidates, and also some supporters who just want to make sure that women are playing an active role in both the Jordanian Government and the Iraqi Government.

Mrs. BIGGERT. Let me just say one more thing too. The message from them was, do not leave us until we have a stable government, because they want to have the freedom and the democracy that we have.

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