Hero of the people

She spends half her time with the president in Baghdad, and half in Iraqi Kurdistan. So who exactly

If you're an Arab first lady, then chances are the British government has flown you over to London, plumped up the pillows in a Mayfair hotel room and stationed a burly bodyguard outside the door in return for a favour - that you address a Department of Trade and Industry conference called Women in Business. Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt, Asma al-Assad of Syria and Queen Rania of Jordan have all taken part. It's Davos for Arab leaders' wives, and giving a speech is a good opportunity to dazzle with economic erudition.

That is, if you are a political science graduate or have spent your productive years before marrying the president as an intern at Goldman Sachs. But, for one of the newer recruits to the Middle East's first sorority - the wife of Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani - it's not coming so naturally. Talabani and his wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, have spent most of their lives in the mountains of north Iraq as "peshmergas", the term coined by Hero's father (himself peshmerga aristocracy) to describe those Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein for independence. During this time, Hero didn't do much trading in oil shares or market speculating.

Two days after making her speech (in Kurdish, with translation - since Saddam was deposed, Kurdish has become an official language of Iraq, and speaking it is no longer punishable with torture), Hero told me: "I know nothing about businesswomen in the Arab world. I only know about simple women. I told them I don't think they will be able to find as unsuccessful a businesswoman as me."

She was, in fact, being very modest. Though she doesn't have a BlackBerry or talk about bull and bear markets, she runs a TV station in Iraqi Kurdistan, edits newspapers and leads charities. Since 1991 and the establishment by international forces of a no-fly zone over the north of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan has managed to operate the kind of government that the United States would like to see rolled out across the Middle East. In this safe haven, there is a free press, and Hero has made hay.

One cartoon in her satirical magazine Sekh urma ("nudge") depicted a woman in a burqa trying to milk a cow, and the cow being scared off. Conservative religious leaders elsewhere in Iraq rail against her TV coverage for polluting nascent Iraqi imaginations. These business endeavours seem to be exactly the sort of spirited secular stuff that distinguishes the Kurds of northern Iraq from people in the more religiously aligned south. I'm not sure we have the same definition of "simple women".

The seeds of Hero's media empire were first sown by the side of Iraq's current president, in the mountains. In the mid-1980s an Iranian friend gave her a video camera and she set about recording the everyday lives of Kurdish villagers under daily bombardment by Saddam. During the 1986-87 Anfal campaign - chemical attacks, ordered by Saddam, to cleanse northern Iraq of Kurds - the films changed from anthropology to evidence-gathering. Hero remembers her husband, on reaching the scene of one attack, saying: "OK, you said you are very important - go and take this picture." When she entered the room, she found two peshmergas lying on the floor dying. The doctor gestured to their wounds and said: "Take a picture of this body area - it is very important. People will know from this what was used." The smell of the chemical was so strong that she fainted.

Soon she was lugging hundreds of videotapes around the mountains with her. To get them to safety, she designed a special donkey saddlebag to fit bubble-wrapped videos and despatched the tapes to Europe - though not before another near-fatal bombardment. "I was lucky," she said. "Saddam attacked and I nearly lost them. They are more important than me: they are the history of a nation."

In Europe, people said her footage shook too much, to which Hero responded: "I'm taking a picture of an airplane. Of course it will shake." To her, this was simply an excuse not to use her tapes. At that time, western governments were supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war and weren't too interested in her evidence indicting their ally. Eventually some of her videos made it on to ITN, but the Iraqi ambassador sprang up quickly to damn them as "a very nice piece of Iranian fabrication".

The west has still not been forensic about crimes against the Kurds during this period, and the current charges against Saddam Hussein do not include the poison-gas attack on the town of Halabja. "There were many big companies that brought chemicals to Saddam," Hero told me. "I don't know where the pressure is coming from to leave it out. But Halabja should be included."

Hero lives half of every month in Iraqi Kurdistan, "among the people", and the other half with the president in Baghdad. From these vantage points, she has developed a critique of Iraqi and Arab economies as being too reliant on the government as an employer. "There is no way that everybody should be employed by the government. When the Ba'ath Party was in power one school had 45 cleaners for a six-room building. This is how Saddam kept his workforce employed, and they are still thinking this way. Half of the [present government's] employees are just sitting drinking tea. This will bankrupt the government for sure."

In her speech, however, Hero also warned that Iraq's levels of unemployment had "exceeded all limits" and swollen the ranks of extremists. So does she think that Iraq's main job-destruction scheme - disbanding the Iraqi army - was a good idea? "I didn't like it to be done. They [Iraqi soldiers serving under Saddam] knew one thing in the world and that thing was to serve Saddam. Then suddenly people come and tell them to go home. It was a very bad idea. Standing in the sun in long, long queues, in the middle of the street, just to get a few pennies. I told everybody this was not right. Those people fought against me all of my life, but when I saw them like this in the street, I cried for them."

Although Hero is a founder of umpteen Kurdish women's organisations, her London speech indicated that she didn't see Iraq's development as dependent on women. Perhaps her real reluctance in giving the Women in Business speech was the women bit, not the business bit. People in the west have concerns about the south of the country, where women are reportedly forced to wear the hijab and threatened with death if found playing sports; and the presence in the constitution of sharia law (albeit beside English and French law) stokes fears that the new Iraq will be more Taliban than Talabani. Yet Hero isn't so troubled. "The start of the hijab is from Saddam's time - it is not new. The return to faith started at the end of his era. I don't know if women are being forced to wear the hijab. I have never heard of this. Maybe the women themselves are afraid."

To a young Iraqi woman who said her life is worse than it was under Saddam, Hero would say: "Your life is not worse now." Perhaps she just doesn't know, living as a president's wife, mostly in the calmer north of the country? No, she counters. It isn't just a problem in the south of Iraq: she sees it in Iraqi Kurdistan, too. "In Sulaymaniyah, this also happened. A few hardline guys went through the streets throwing acid on the legs of girls. But they were captured."

These are teething problems, and Hero asks for Iraq to be given time to work things out. "The west thinks democracy is like a tablet, but it is a huge process." A lot of things need to change. In Iraq at the moment, "each boss in the smallest office of the government is thinking about himself as a dictator". Lowly ministers in Iraq's new government should take note. The latest addition to the Arab first wives' club is, at the very least, keeping an eye on things.

Allegra Stratton's "Muhajababes: meet the Middle East's next generation" will be published by Constable & Robinson on 29 June