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In Iraq, a different kind of drama stages a message of reconciliation

A brave band of Iraqi women are defying insurgent threats and taking back their streets.

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In September 2007, amid the wreckage of an earlier suicide bombing in Baghdad's Karraba district, Ghada Hussein Al-Almy (center) directed the Al Mada street theater troupe’s opening-night performance of “A Day in our Homeland.”

Courtesy of RAND Corporation

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The actor stands on a makeshift stage at a bombed-out, dusty intersection in Baghdad. It's an unusually cool evening in September, and a crowd that looks like most of the neighborhood has assembled to enjoy the rare entertainment.

"Sunni! Shiite!" he yells. "Whatever ethnic group – I don't care! Spurn each other's hand no longer. Long life and success – to both of you!" This is the message of reconciliation carried by the Al Mada street theater troupe, led by one of Iraq's rising female stars, Ghada Hussein Al-Almy.

While female suicide bombers in Iraq have been getting all the headlines, a very different cadre of women has emerged on the scene with the opposite goal of forging peace and paving over the sectarian differences. Above all, these activists want to take back the streets and neighborhoods of their country.

We have spent the past several years studying how women promote conflict resolution in places such as Belfast, Sarajevo, and Damascus. But we've seen nothing like the women activists we encounter now in Iraq, especially given the personal risk they take to advance their message.

Ms. Almy's street theatrics are only one example of this courageous new female activism. Other women roam their local streets as self-appointed social workers, looking after displaced persons, widows, and street children. Some have set up welfare centers and education programs, persisting in the face of leaflets and letters threatening them with death. Still others pound the doors of government offices, demanding nonsectarian help for the needy Sunni and Shiites in their neighborhoods.

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