Global Policy Forum

Bush's Failed Liberation Theology


By Parastou Hassouri *

November 14, 2006

The fact that military means do not achieve empowering ends has been clear to me ever since I witnessed my native country of Iran ravaged during an eight-year war with Iraq—a factor leading my parents to make the difficult decision to leave Iran. Now, decades later, I am witnessing firsthand the stark realities of George W. Bush's campaign to spread democracy by gunpoint throughout the Middle East. My work with a legal aid organization for refugees in Egypt frequently takes me to the waiting room of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' office in Cairo—where I have noticed an interesting change in recent months. In the past, the room was filled with sub-Saharan Africans, driven out by civil wars and oppressive regimes. But with the worsening situation in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, the demographics in the office have been changing. What has caught my ear is that there are far more people in the waiting room speaking Arabic than Amharic or Somali or Lingala.

The UNHCR recently estimated that nearly 3 million Iraqis have been displaced since the U.S. invasion of 2003. Although Egypt is not even the primary destination for most of those fleeing Iraq, they now constitute the largest number of new registrants at the UNHCR's Cairo office. Many of those in the waiting room are women: I have listened to their accounts of how violence and insecurity—so extreme that many feared leaving their homes or sending their children to school—left them with little choice but to flee.

As an Iranian-American refugee lawyer based in Egypt, I could not help but notice the irony of a war of "liberation" creating refugees. Just like past colonial powers justified their actions by claiming to save women from backwards traditions, U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and Afghanistan has also been justified in part on the grounds of promoting democratization and advancing human rights and women's rights in particular. But five years after the U.S. launched its so-called "war on terror," and as the administration contemplates military intervention in yet another country—Iran—we must ask ourselves whether women have reaped any real benefits from these actions.

In Afghanistan, women are not faring much better than they were five years ago before the fall of the Taliban, according to a report recently issued by Womankind, a British nonprofit. The report states that despite the initial, iconic images of women throwing off their burqas after the overthrow of the Taliban, women have not seen any material gains in their rights in terms of education, personal status laws or economic opportunities. And, like all Afghans, they suffer from the lack of infrastructure and the insecurity that plague daily life.

In Iraq, the new constitution has guaranteed that women hold 25 percent of the seats in parliament. But at the same time, facts on the ground have set back women's drive for greater rights and status. Islamic fundamentalist militias in some areas have imposed strict interpretations of sharia law, forcing veiling of women and gender segregation—even barring girls from going to school in some cases. And the total lack of security across the country has made day-to-day life for many women nearly impossible, hence the exodus to countries around the region.

The United States has said promoting democracy across the Middle East is one of its top policy goals, but even in countries where it has not resorted to military force to effect change there has been backsliding on democratization and on women's rights. Egypt, the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, is the prime example of this. Police intimidation and violence marred Egypt's parliamentary elections last year, thousands of political opponents were arrested, tortured and remain detained without charges, and President Hosni Mubarak's lead opponent in the presidential elections was sentenced to a five-year prison term on what is commonly perceived as a trumped-up charge.

In the arena of women's rights, things have been no better. The Ministry of Education called off, at the last minute and with no real explanation, a conference organized to mark Egyptian Women's Day, where a prominent item on the agenda was draft legislation calling for a quota system to raise the number of women in parliament. Thugs for hire harassed and assaulted women demonstrators while police watched on and women gained fewer seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections than they had in about 50 years. I have always been bothered by the nearly myopic focus of U.S. and other European feminists on women's dress in the Middle East. Still, I could not help but notice that a far higher proportion of Egyptian women now observe Islamic dress—including the full face veil—than I remember from my previous periods of residence in Egypt.

Human rights activists in Egypt nearly uniformly report that their job has become more difficult since the U.S. launched the "war on terror." Images of war dead in Iraq and elsewhere and accounts of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and at secret prisons elsewhere have made the U.S. even less popular in the region. Human rights activists perceived as touting a U.S. agenda are instantly discredited.

Given this overall picture, it's not surprising that Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi, has repeatedly stated that U.S. military intervention in Iran is the surest way to harm the cause of human rights defenders in that country. Undoubtedly, human rights and women's rights activists face challenges in Iran. However, it would be a mistake for the U.S. to make the same assumption it has made in other countries of the region—that Iranian women are passively sitting around and waiting to be "liberated" by force.

Today, 60 percent of Iranian university students are women, and a far larger percentage of women have entered the workforce than ever before. During the 2001 presidential elections, 47 women from all over Iran announced their intention to enter the race, challenging an interpretation of the Iranian Constitution that hard-liners argue precludes a woman from running for president. Female reformist parliamentarians joined their male colleagues during the Sixth Majles, the Iranian legislative session which lasted from 2000 to 20004, to form a voting bloc to push forward their agenda, which included measures aimed at expanding women's rights. The list goes on.

U.S. military intervention or the threat of it would not only discourage actions like these that improve the status of women, but undermine them. The regime in Tehran would use the external threat as a pretext to suppress reform and argue that what the country needs most is to stand united in face of a common enemy.

The disastrous results in Iraq and the difficulties in Afghanistan should put an end to talk that military action will "liberate" people—particularly women—from oppressive regimes. Rather, it will do what wars have always done: drive more women and children from their homes and into refugee limbo.

About the Author: Parastou Hassouri is an Iranian-American human rights lawyer working for Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA) .

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