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Interview: Safety in Post-War Iraq

Layla Shaikley is an architect, designer, and entrepreneur with extensive experience working in post-war Iraq. She is the founder of crowdSOS, a startup that was founded out of the development ventures course at the MIT Media Lab, which aims to democratize safety and security through accessible smartphone technologies. Layla has worked on several efforts to help rebuild Iraqi society, including work with the US Institute of Peace and UN-Habitat. She was a also co-founder TEDx Baghdad. I had the pleasure of talking to Layla and was inspired by her passion for making the world a better place. Her insights to the Iraqi experience offered me an eye-opening perspective that I hope will be helpful to others as well.

Photo of Jason Rissman
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Women & girls are relatively empowered in Iraq
With an effort to modernize Iraq decades ago there was a strong and successful women’s movement. As a result, the quality of education and literacy rates are quite high and there isn’t a taboo against women in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is still a problem
I presented HarassMap to a group in Baghdad, and they were blown away. Street harassment is a problem virtually everywhere in the middle east.

Political violence is the main obstacle for empowerment in Iraq
People are so ridden with anxiety, they don’t think about having careers or the big picture. And they’re totally justified. The biggest danger is being blown up by a bomb while sitting in traffic, and it happens once or twice a day. A lot of the women that I grew up with ended up getting married and having children very early. They chose not to work because leaving the house is too dangerous.

TEDx Baghdad was a big success
TEDx was the first time after the war that we pushed the limits of culture and hobbies. Rather than stay home to be safe, we got people to come out and talk about ideas. It became very popular, very quickly. Technology-focused speakers were impossible to find so the event really focused on culture.

Technology startups are something to be optimistic about...
I believe entrepreneurship is the most grassroots, democratizing answer to any problem. Just now there are positive signs like startup weekends and new groups to support entrepreneurship that are emerging. This is very important.

But lack of infrastructure is a serious hurdle.
People are just doing their startups for fun. They don’t take seriously the possibility of building a real business because the infrastructure isn’t there. For instance, there’s no mechanism for online payments.

Mental health services are needed
Mental health is huge problem in Iraq and it’s untouched. It’s particularly huge for women and children. We need media campaigns and childrens’ programs to help people cope and learn to talk about mental health. It’s something that everyone is dealing with but it’s stigmatized and so it goes undiscussed.

Read more about crowdSOS


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Photo of Meena Kadri

Great insights, Jason + Layla! FYI: I've sued my Community Manager super powers to add a link for crowdSOS to the end of your post in case folks want to check out more :^)

Photo of Jason Rissman

Awesome! I knew you had super powers!!

Photo of Meena Kadri

Clearly not as many as you, you interviewing-pro!