The Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) recruits the brightest and most forward thinking minds in the country who come to the United States to expand and develop their leadership and cultural diversity skills. IYLEP, a State Department funded program, facilitated by Meridian International Center brought 100 participants, selected from over 2,000 applicants this year, to the U.S. to learn and experience student life at various universities around the country. The program also entails valuable workshops during the opening conference in New York City and during the closing conference in Washington, D.C. The IYLEP participants are consistently presented with various ways that they can improve and mature their thinking to emerge as future leaders in Iraq. The students selected recognize the current challenges their country is facing and wish, through education and collaboration, to impact their country in a positive manner. One among the many struggles facing Iraq today is women’s equality and how to take positive steps for a less gender divided future.
As a young woman myself, I was particularly interested in observing the gender dynamics and interactions between participants and gauge any apparent differences in their interactions with each other. IYLEP recruits from every region in Iraq, so there was a broad cultural representation, as well as various religious practices among the participants. I had the great opportunity and honor, to Interview Zainab, “Zoey” Khalid from Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, and is in her third year studying computer engineering. Zoey’s social media presence reveals an independent young woman, who is well-spoken, genuine, honest, and informative in her answers.
After asking basic, accustoming questions about Zoey’s life in Iraq, her thoughts about America, and her feelings about her upcoming IYLEP program, we addressed gender equality and the role of women in Iraq.
Meridian: How do you think being a woman makes the IYLEP experience unique?
Zoey: Some people here are small minded, and think that women should stay at home and do only house work because they know nothing or can’t do anything, so as a woman I see this IYLEP experience as a great and unique opportunity to prove to these people that women can do a lot! They are educated and responsible to themselves, and can give the country so many things other than being a mom or a house keeper, and sometimes one woman is greater than five men together.
Meridian: How do you think the roles of women differ between the two countries?
Zoey: In America women have more freedom than we do, and there is a gender quality that helps them to do whatever they want to do without being judged, they are encouraged to do tons of different activities such as hiking, biking, volunteering, and many other things. And it is something that my people don’t really care about, and this is what I really want change in my country, tell my people that there are no differences between men and women and we should have more freedom and support to do anything we have a passion in.
Meridian: Do you have many opportunities of growth and achievement at home?
Zoey: Actually, yes we do. It just needs little hard work and teamwork spirit and belief in what we are doing, but some people are actually kind of lazy to achieve a goal or something that could be helpful to the community. Because we’ve been through lots of wars and terrible days and we’ve lost lots of souls and good people. So that has affected our people so badly. But on the other hand there are great people that helped to rebuild Iraq and made a lot of achievement like doctors, engineers, managers with building new places for fun and to learn. Also the work of young people with different campaigns and activities to help poor people and anyone in need. So we can do tons of things if we just leave the fear behind us and start doing what we have to do.
Meridian: Have you received support from home about participating in IYLEP? (mentors, family, academic mentors, friends)
Zoey: Actually at the beginning, no one ever knew that I will participate in such a program except my mom and sister. And actually yes I got a lot of support from them especially my mom, she encouraged me and she believed in my qualifications and abilities and that really helped me a lot, she is a little bit terrified now ‘cause I’ll be away from her for a whole month in a very far place for the first time but she’s also very excited for me. After my finalist acceptance I told the rest of my family and couple of my friends and they were really happy for me except one friend that was shocked about the idea of me being a girl and travel all alone and he still is. But I don’t really care as long as I’m not doing something wrong, and I have all the support that I need from my family.
Zoey is very lucky to have the support that she does and realizes that change needs to occur in her country in order for forward progression to occur. Most of the young women participating in IYLEP have Zoey’s same mentality and desire gender equality in order to ensure a better future. No one was exempt from participating in the program, including the shy students. This encouraged some of the more demure females to voice their thoughts and once their contribution was well received, they gained more confidence and willingly spoke up more. Iraq’s history has clearly divided gender roles. The IYLEP program is designed to bring leadership and communication skills out of each and every participant. By making the effort to specifically embolden the female participants, and ensuring that what they have to say is met with warm reception, we are also instilling courage to empower and contribute to positive changes among women when they return home. Our program brings about the realization that there are places in the world where women’s thoughts do in fact count, with no regard to their gender.
The male participants also learned about gender equality. The program ensured that women were given the opportunity to speak and were listened to respectfully. Most of the male IYLEP participants were in fact very receptive and treated the females as their equals during the program. It helped that IYLEP is so incredibly competitive so all of the participants knew that everyone there had outstanding credentials and deserved their spot.
IYLEP is a program that really makes a difference. It gives the participants incredible opportunities that would be impossible back home, and shows them that change is possible and they have the power to implement it. All of the participants were bright and vivacious, with incredible thirst for learning, which made the program incredibly rewarding for the facilitators. Not only did the students acquire valuable tools and skills, but I learned a great deal from them as well. Throughout the program I learned more about their culture, way of life, and I also shed some preconceived notions about their country as well. These participants were truly spectacular and it was remarkable to be a part of a program that makes such a difference in the world.