Rethinking perceptions of the mess in Iraq with radio

By Tyler Friederichs

A panel discussion, titled “Breaking Down the Wall of War: Iraqi Women’s Radio,” was recently held at the Levis Faculty Center. The featured panelist, Bushra Jamil, is the operator of Radio al Mahaba, a female-run radio station in Baghdad “that struggles to give voice to Middle Eastern women in the midst of the Iraqi War.” The radio signal reaches approximately half of the country.

Jamil’s mission is to help rebuild Iraq – to become a medium through which men, women and children can share “everything they can think of, their hopes, their views.” The radio station, which received start-up funding from the U.N., began its first broadcast on April 1, 2005 and has been in operation ever since.

After providing a brief history of Iraq and the social status of women, which deteriorated significantly during Saddam Hussein’s regime, the question and answer session revealed a complete change of tone in the panel discussion.

An Iraqi-American man, who has lived in the U.S. for 24 years, was the first to comment. Confident yet clearly upset, the man began a ten minute tirade. Although he noted that “Saddam was a brutal dictatorship and I hate him”, he later called for the impeachment of George W. Bush and the immediate return of American troops.

I think we all sympathized with him, as he mentioned that his brother was recently killed in Iraq. But he soon lost much respect with the audience after the following comments: First, he suggested that the students in the audience were not truly interested in the panel or the conflict. Second, the man shockingly and ignorantly insinuated that the radio station was a lost cause and the focus on women’s rights undermined the plight of men. His comments and Jamil’s courageous response highlight the struggle which now embodies the psychological war in Iraq and at home; it is a struggle which will define the ultimate outcome of the overall conflict.

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Jamil, clearly stricken by the man’s comments, defended her radio station. After noting that “most of the callers are men” who “talk about love” and “hope,” she reiterated that her radio station functions to serve everybody, irrespective of gender.

Her views towards the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq represented a hallmark of the evening. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, Americans are evenly divided as to whether U.S. troops should withdraw immediately. Jamil’s declaration that “we cannot ask the troops to leave” because her “staff would be slaughtered in the middle of the street” had a profound affect on the audience – it forced many to reconsider their preconceived notions that those who are against the war must also be against the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and that U.S. troop presence has actually decreased security in the area.

Jamil revealed that “thousands of people” are “tortured on a daily basis” by factions of the corrupt Iraqi government via the Interior Ministry. But it is the American troops who raid the torture cells regularly. It is the American troops who prevent the Iraqis from being “slaughtered” by Iranians and Saudis.

The debate over whether or not the war is just or moral is futile. We cannot change what happened in the past, and as Jamil noted, “we can’t look back . we need to learn from what happened” and continue to fight instead of invoking rebukes which will only deepen the ever growing rift in public opinion.

One roadblock to stabilization is the lack of American solidarity at home. While the realization that the U.S. is caught in a Catch-22 has strengthened, the perception that staying in Iraq until a sustainable democracy develops is a viable option has deteriorated. But it is now up to people like Jamil and her radio station to provide hope and motivation for Iraqis to prevail. Jamil’s radio station is “only one tool of many tools in Iraq” to aid the stabilization process.

As Jamil remarked, there is nobody “better than Iraqis themselves to rebuild Iraq” – but contrary to popular belief, it is the presence of U.S. troops which is making the rebuilding process possible.