Andrea Buffa is the Campaigns Director at the human rights group Global Exchange, www.globalexchange.org.
Remember how the U.S. invasion of Iraq was supposed to liberate the women?
Normally not the subject of news stories, Iraqi women made headlines in three sensational stories last month. First there was the Sunni woman who accused Iraqi police officers of raping her. Since most of the Iraqi police are Shia, the issue became a sectarian row, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki firing a top Sunni official who had the audacity to say the rape charge should be investigated.
In the same month, a woman suicide bomber killed more than 41 people at a college in Baghdad, one of the largest attacks by a woman suicide bomber since the war began. And finally, there is the ongoing story of four women who face the death penalty in Iraq, at least one of whom could be executed any day now. Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have questioned these women’s trials for their lack of transparency and fairness, as well as a potential absence of legal representation.
Rapes, bombings, death sentences, and a discriminatory legal system; it is one of the unspoken facts of militarism that women often become the spoils of war. The Iraq war has been a disaster in many ways, but none so extreme as what it’s done to Iraqi women.
Women not only suffer what everyone in Iraqi society suffers—the absence of security, collapse of the country’s infrastructure, a health care system in tatters, and high levels of poverty and unemployment. They also suffer gender-based violence and increased social conservatism. The constant violence—looting, assault, kidnapping, rape or death at the hands of suicide bombers, militias, foreign troops, Iraqi police, and local thugs—has trapped women and children in their homes. Many women who’d formerly worked outside the home or attended school now stay indoors.
In an attempt to describe women’s lives in Iraq today, Yanar Mohammad, a leading Iraqi women’s rights advocate says: “It is heartbreaking to me to see the return of extreme, anti-women practices that we had not seen for many decades. When I grew up in Iraq, women went to school; educated, professional, working women were a part of our society. Today, a woman risks her life simply by going to the grocery store. Our lives have been ripped from us.”
Prior to the Iraq War, Iraqi women were not living beneath burqas and without rights. For decades, Iraq was one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East in its treatment of women. Saddam Hussein certainly brutally violated women’s human rights just as he did those of men. But the country also had a Personal Status Law that kept civil matters like marriage, divorce, and child custody in civil instead of religious court; and there were many labor and employment laws that were beneficial to women.
Since the invasion, the extremist Shia groups who have gained power in Iraq can openly harass women who defy their interpretation of Islamic law. Many women who formerly wore Western clothes now cannot leave their home without wearing a hijab or abaya. This includes Christian women as well as Muslims. And some women who, despite the violence, have continued to go out of their homes for work or other reasons have been warned that they shouldn’t drive, and have received death threats for working.
In late 2003, these religious extremists tried unsuccessfully to change Iraqi law to eliminate the Personal Status law and put family issues in the hands of religious, instead of civil courts.
The one bright spot for Iraqi women has been the new constitution. It guarantees women 25 percent of the seats in Iraq’s National Assembly, one of the highest levels of representation in the world. In fact, after the December 2005 elections, women held 85 out of 275 National Assembly seats. But what good is political office if it doesn’t come with any real power to protect Iraqi women’s rights? Even an investigation into the well-publicized rape allegations or the trials of the Iraqi women who are facing the death penalty would be a start.
In a talk on the "Efforts to Globally Promote Women's Human Rights” on March 12, 2004, President Bush remarked: “Every woman in Iraq is better off because the rape rooms and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein are forever closed…The momentum of freedom in the Middle East is beginning to benefit women.” It is one of the cruelest ironies of the Iraq War that, in the name of such ideals as democracy, freedom and liberation, Iraqi women are undeniably less free than before.