Global Policy Forum

Betraying Iraqi Women


By Lucinda Marshall*

Tom Paine
July 16, 2004

Remember when the Bush administration told us that American soldiers would be greeted as liberators? How about when we were told that the war would free Iraqi women? We know that the citizens throwing flowers never materialized, and now it turns out that helping Iraqi women was just a PR line too. Women in Iraq still face poverty, fear of imprisonment, rape and repressive laws. Only now, the United States is in charge of it all.

Despite the Bush administration's assurances to the contrary, conditions for women have worsened substantially as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its continuing aftermath. The contrast between the rhetoric and the reality is stunning. One year ago, in July 2003, Undersecretary of State Paula J. Dobriansky wrote, "Indeed, the commitment of the United States to the human rights of Iraq's women is unshakable and manifested clearly by our activities on the ground as well as our policy statements."

And in fact, under international law, occupying forces have an obligation to guarantee the safety of civilians and to provide food and medical care. Yet the U.S. military campaign substantially damaged the electrical and water systems of Iraq, leaving people in Baghdad with only a few hours of electricity per day and most of the country with inadequate potable water supplies. The transportation and health care systems are in shambles. These systems have yet to be substantially rebuilt. For women, the tasks of obtaining medical care, putting food on the table and sending children (especially girls) to school have become an often-impossible struggle. Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, says it's tough to quantify the situation. "There is no way to describe how much deterioration has struck the lives of millions of women in Iraq," she says.

The first critical step in meeting Iraqi women's needs is to facilitate their involvement and respect their opinions. The official line is that the United States' efforts are "appropriately guided by the Iraqi women themselves." And indeed, 25 percent of the members of the U.S.-approved National Assembly were to be female.

Yet today, only 6 out of 33 members are women. Dr. Raja Khuzai—one of three women on the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council—and many others had advocated that at least one member of the executive quartet be a woman, but this did not happen. The failure is, in large part, due to the United State's refusal to support a mandatory number of seats for women. After all, the Bush administration couldn't very well contradict its own policies against affirmative action at home. However, many women in Iraq see the new government as illegitimate because the Iraqi people didn't choose it. In their view, the number of women in the government is not so critical an issue as ending violence against women and stopping the erosion of women's rights. Both of these situations have worsened as fundamentalist Sharia doctrine has been allowed to influence the civil law when conservative Muslims came to power under the U.S. occupation.

Yanar Mohammed explains that the interim constitution is counterproductive, effectively setting women's rights back more than 50 years. "It will enshrine Islamic law, instead of separating religion and state," she says. "It means that men can marry four women, that all the rights are given to men in marriage, in divorce and in the custody of children, and that there is no minimum age for the marriage of women. Turning civil law into Sharia law would end all rights for women in Iraq." Evidence of Mohammed's predictions can be seen in the increasing number of women wearing veils in Iraq—either by force or from fear. Additionally, schools are increasingly segregated, and girls face heightened difficulty in attending classes.

In cementing her claim that the Bush administration's takeover of Iraq was in the best interests of women, Undersecretary Dobriansky pointed to the use of rape by Saddam Hussein's regime as one of the tools to repress dissent. "Hussein's machinery of repression is no more," she claimed. As we now know, there was simply a transfer of ownership, rather than a dismantling of the 'machinery'—which is apparently well oiled and continues to serve its purpose for new managers. Lack of security or a functional police force to which to report sexual violence is a huge problem for women, who are afraid to leave their houses and face increased sexual violence both inside and out of their homes.

Unquestionably, the most explicit—as well as most-discounted and least-reported—atrocities committed against Iraqi women have been at the hands of the U.S. military. The International Occupation Watch Center, Amnesty International and the International Red Cross have all documented physical and sexual abuse against women prisoners in Abu Ghraib and other prisons. The exact number of women being held is not known. But U.S. forces have acknowledged that most are being held because of their relationship to men that U.S. forces want to question or intimidate—not for crimes they themselves have committed.

Consequently, the number of honor killings is also on the rise. It is horrific enough that in U.S.-run prisons, such as Abu Ghraib, women were raped (and impregnated), sexually abused and humiliated in ways similar to the abuse committed against men. But the worst aspect is that for many people in Iraq, the abuse of a woman in any way (even the mere act of being imprisoned) is seen as an assault on the family's honor. Traditionally, the response to this has been to cleanse the honor of the family by killing the woman who has been violated (an honor killing). While the practice is officially discouraged, legal consequences are rare. As a result, the actions of our military have effectively condemned many of these women to death.

The Bush administration's claim of rescuing Iraqi women is just one more false pretense for war. It systematically ignores Iraqi women's needs, terrorizes their lives and shows an extraordinary degree of misogynistic hubris. While it would be impossible to undo the damage, we must go beyond the basics of rebuilding the infrastructure and address issues such as honor killings—as well as our own complicity in the violence committed against women as an act of ‘liberation'. Most importantly, we must listen to the voices of Iraqi women and insist on their right to fully participate in healing their country.

About the Author: Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the founder of the Feminist Peace Network . Her work has been published in Awakened Woman, Alternet, Hip Mama, Off Our Backs, Rain and Thunder, ZMag and Expository Magazine. Her interview with Yanar Mohammed was recently published in Dissident Voice.

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