In the raging headlines about Iraq’s agony, one large question is being ignored. What is happening to women, who are 65 percent of the population? In a telephone interview with Nadia Mahmoud in the London office of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), this reporter got some chilling answers. Women suffer unrelenting deprivation and are under horrific attack from the U.S. occupation, Islamic fundamentalists, and sex traffickers.
But, at the same time, Iraqi women are showing incredible bravery in organizing against all the enemies they face, and are reaching out for support.
The social wounds of past wars and U.S. sanctions. The story of how the situation of women became so dire is a textbook example of U.S. imperialism at work.
In 1959, long before Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party came to power with the help of the CIA, organizing by Iraqi women won them the most advanced family civil code in the Arab world.
Initially, because Iraq’s expanding economy needed women in the workforce, Hussein kept and even extended these rights, with policies that outlawed sex discrimination and provided free higher education and maternity leave.
But the seven-year Iran/Iraq war, provoked by the U.S., bankrupted the country and precipitated a steady decline of women’s rights. Then, Uncle Sam’s Gulf War in 1991 and 10 years of U.S./UN economic sanctions sharply worsened both the economy and the position of women. Many women became jobless, while their freedom of choice in marriage and right to travel without a male relative were revoked.
As it became harder for women to make a living, prostitution increased. During 2000-2001, the Hussein regime beheaded 350 women accused of prostitution. Some were in fact political dissidents.
Occupation entrenches misery. Since the latest U.S. war and occupation, women in Iraq have become literally an endangered majority. Violence against them abounds on several fronts.
Economically, they are hit hardest by the country’s nearly 70 percent rate of unemployment. Men are preferred for the few jobs that exist, even though huge numbers of women are widows and single heads of households. Before the war, food was rationed, but now it is every man and woman for themselves.
As casualties of war, women and children are the overwhelming majority of those wounded and killed by “precision” bombs and missiles. The number of civilian deaths has become an international scandal.
What are perhaps the most sadistic acts of the occupation have been totally covered up by the U.S. government and media. These are widespread gang rapes and other abuses of women and children detainees by U.S. and Iraqi jailers. Most of these victims, many of whom are raped repeatedly, have only been rounded up to be used as hostages to force male relatives to surrender.
Pictures of brutalized women in Abu Ghraib prison appeared briefly on the Internet and then disappeared. But this barbarism is widely known in the Middle East, and it is now being reported by International Operation Watch, the Iraqi Union of Detainees and Prisoners, OWFI, the British Guardian newspaper, and the French Agence France Press. Countless of these women have committed suicide or have been murdered by relatives to protect the “family honor.”
Also rarely reported in the USA is the prominent U.S. role in strengthening the reactionary religious elements that want Iraq to become an Islamic republic. These forces were and are strongly represented in the former governing council and the current interim government, both creations of the U.S.
In 2003, the governing council attempted to impose Sharia, the code of law based on backward, anti-woman religious precepts. Its proposed measure, Resolution 137, failed thanks to angry demonstrations in Kurdistan, Baghdad, and elsewhere in Iraq and internationally.
This narrow escape from the formal obliteration of women’s rights nationally underlines how gravely Iraqi women are threatened by a rollback to medieval mores.
Assault from within. Every day, the occupation intensifies the breakdown of society and adds more fuel to the fire of repressive Islamic fundamentalism.
Physical violence by fundamentalists against women is growing. OWFI has documented the recent murders of eight professional and working women in the city of Mosul. One was beheaded. As a warning that they could be next, the names of more women were posted in city mosques along with those of the murdered.
Meanwhile, sources including the UK Guardian and Independent report that sex traffickers are seizing women and selling them into prostitution. Some of these women are sold instead of being released after being kidnapped for ransom or raped; others are apparently taken at random. Women and girls cannot safely leave home to work, go to school or lead a normal life.
The violence provides a strong incentive for women to wear veils. Some schools are beginning to institute compulsory veiling for girls (who are also being forced to leave school after the sixth grade.)
OWFI’s Mahmoud reports that it is extremely difficult for women to organize under these conditions. Additionally, they live under three different sets of Islamic rules in the Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parts of the country. Each city can have its own rules, making travel harrowing.
The good news: female resistance. Nevertheless, women are organizing to fight back. There are reported to be hundreds of women’s organizations in Iraq today, although most of them are not openly or explicitly feminist. OWFI, which calls for an end to violence against women and a secular, egalitarian constitution, is an exception.
OWFI runs two women’s shelters, publishes the newspaper Equality in English and Arabic, and reaches out for international support. It has organized a number of demonstrations, including an International Women’s Day march and one in September 2004 calling for safe streets. It has worked with the Union of Unemployed Workers to demand housing for thousands of families displaced by the bombing, and jobs or subsistence for the unemployed. The group defended 45 women bank workers who were falsely accused of corruption, and won their freedom.
Attacks and death threats have been made against OWFI activists Yanar Mohammed and Sakar Ahmed. But, as Mohammed said recently, that will not stop them.
OWFI’s feminist organizing is desperately needed and profoundly courageous. But the Freedom Socialist Party does disagree with the organization about the armed Iraqi resistance, which the FSP critically supports and OWFI condemns in favor of UN intervention.
During the Iran/Iraq war, Iraqi women received compulsory weapons training, and some are now putting it to use by joining the armed resistance. The Mahdi Army even has recruitment videos and posters featuring women.
Antiwar movement must act. Iraqi women urgently require support. The U.S. antiwar movement was sadly sidetracked for months during the election campaigns. Now it needs to snap to life and defend the Iraqi people, especially women, from its murderous government.
Feminists especially can prod the movement into a renewed level of militancy for ending the occupation. And effective campaigns should be mobilized to break the media blackout on the rape of women prisoners.
Here are some proposed demands:
• Reparations to Iraq paid by U.S. war profiteers! Restoring the economy is essential to restoring public safety.
• Release all women in custody of the occupation or the puppet Iraqi government! Their safety cannot be guaranteed.
• Stop U.S. support of Islamic fundamentalists!
• U.S. out of Iraq now!
• For a fully democratic, secular government that guarantees complete freedom for women.
Special thanks to Nadia Mahmoud and Yanar Mohammed of OWFI for their contributions to this article. For more on OWFI or to make a donation, visit www.equalityiniraq.com.