Nasreen Mustafa Sideek is the first woman to hold a ministerial position in northern Iraq, where former Kurdish resistance fighters dominate administrative governments. As an only daughter with eight brothers, she is used to surviving in a man's world. "I started this struggle at home," she said.
"I was the first woman to drive a car in Dohuk," she said. "That was 1992. I was 25. The children would throw stones at me as I went by, I was such an oddity. So I took different routes through the city each day, just to push the idea."
Political activism for her is rooted in more than women's rights. She grew up in Baghdad and at the age of 14 was arrested and held in a detention center for eight months because she is Kurdish. Under Saddam Hussein Kurds are routinely rounded up. Her relatives were Kurdish resistance fighters, known as peshmerga, and the government jailed wives and children as punishment for those activities.
Ms. Sideek survived Saddam Hussein's orchestrated campaign, known as Anfal, to wipe out the Kurds, and her family was part of the uprising against the regime at the end of the Gulf War. It ended with Iraqi tanks chasing 2 million Kurds into the northern mountains, where thousands died. For two months Ms. Sideek, along with family members who were not killed, was a refugee in Turkey. After NATO forces created a safe zone inside northern Iraq, she returned to rebuild.
She took a job with the UN to help put the Kurdish region back together, got her drivers license, and soon was directing engineering teams. At the same time, she managed to complete a bachelor's degree in architecture. Later, with the help of Americans working in the region, she studied in the United States, earning a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Economic opportunity for northern Iraqis changed almost overnight when the UN enacted an Oil for Food program for the whole country in 1996. Although the program leads to constant tension with Baghdad, which controls most of the revenue, northern Iraq has received $7 billion under the plan since it went into effect. Some of that revenue is used to rebuild the thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein. Since 1999 Ms. Sideek, as minister of reconstruction, has been overseeing thousands of home starts. She has 2,000 employees for the massive construction effort.
She feels she has won the respect of male colleagues in the government-in fact, another woman recently became public works minister-but she continues to face barriers in the villages. "It's tough, but it's tough for everybody here."