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The WNBA Should Support Women Athletes in Iraq

Few Iraqis know any American diplomats. While they say it is relatively easy to spot Turkish, Iranian, and European diplomats out and about in Baghdad or in the capital city’s myriad restaurants, American diplomats remain locked within their billion-dollar embassy, isolated from both city and society. 

When asked what the embassy does, Iraqis said they meet with a very small number of senior government leaders and they speak about women. The ambassador’s tweets, however, mean little, and not only because Iraq is a society where Facebook and other platforms trump Twitter. The reality is that virtue signaling may please Foggy Bottom and create the illusion of activity, but it does little other than suggest to Iraqis that the embassy is tone-deaf and out-of-touch. 

Demonstrate a Difference

Twenty years after the war, the greatest complaint today’s Iraqis have about American behavior today is that the United States is absent. If the embassy is unable to reverse that because of its own self-imposed security regimen, then it should find other organizations that can help.

Simply put, if the Biden administration cares about empowering women in Iraq, it should encourage private partnerships with high-profile American organizations to empower women and girls in a way diplomats or USAID-sponsored conferences will never do.

In October 2022, I traveled to Jammu and Kashmir to assess society three years after India’s revocation of Article 370 of the Constitution and the end of the autonomy that conservative religious forces used to limit education and recreational opportunities for girls and women. I met 15- and 16-year-old girls who embraced martial arts, joined soccer teams, or began rock climbing. Some had gone on to compete internationally. They described how an older generation chided them or their parents, and insinuated that such activities would make them unmarriable. 

They persisted, and soon their school peers, daughters of the critical conservatives, joined in. Within the space of three years, girls achieved more equality than they had in the decades that preceded the constitutional revision. 

Back to Iraq: Iraqis, be they Arab or Kurd, are vitally aware of the “woman, life, freedom” protests in Iran. Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose murder sparked the uprising, was an Iranian Kurd. From Zakho to Fao, Iraqi society tends to be more conservative socially than Iranian society. Even if Iraqis are freer politically, women suffer more severe family-imposed social constraints inside Iraq. 

Even the Barzanis, who project a relative pro-Western face to their American interlocutors, have a sorry history of honor killings against women in their family. The Iraqi government meanwhile remains dominated by men who in practice refuse to build or fund clubs and opportunities for girls and women. 

Build Those Clubs for Women

It is against this backdrop that the Biden administration might turn to organizations like the WNBA to suggest they become the face of American outreach for Iraqi girls and women. Just as the NBA sponsors a tournament for African basketball teams in Rwanda, why should the WNBA not do something similar for female athletes in Iraq? The 2023 Gulf Cup in Basra showed that Iraq can successfully manage the logistics for large, international tournaments. 

The celebrity factor of WNBA sponsorship or participation would inject enthusiasm among Iraqis about America’s role. Even members of pro-Iranian political groups like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq or Kataib Hezbollah crave American products. By filling an investment gap, the WNBA might substantively help Iraqi girls and women. While the benefits of conferences evaporate as soon as they conclude, the Kashmir example shows the lasting impact of sports.

President Joe Biden entered office declaring, “diplomacy is back.” The most effective diplomacy, though, involves no embassies, meetings, or the occasional tweet. Rather, it involves finding the most effective way to achieve goals and change societies. 

If Biden wants to improve opportunities for girls and women in Iraq, it is time to think outside the box. Bringing the NBA and WNBA to Baghdad for clinics or demonstration games could be a slam dunk.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).



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