A mere 13 years ago, Iraqi women were among the most liberated in the Middle East. Their social standing far exceeded that of women in Saudi Arabia, for example, the closest U.S. crony in the region.
Today, however, writes journalist and anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz, “Iraqi women have … been forced into social contracts which they thought ended a century ago…. [Y]ears of sanctions have desiccated more than bombs could. The casualties include not only Iraq’s modern, secular society, with its advanced medical and educational systems … but also the progressive lives of eight million Iraqi women.”
Life before sanctions. Iraq, like the U.S., is a capitalist state. So there, as in the U.S., social conditions and job opportunities for women and other disfavored groups rise and fall with the economy.
In power since 1968, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party is an authoritarian, nationalist regime that has ruthlessly repressed Kurds, other ethnic minorities, labor leaders, communists, and dissidents within the party itself.
Nevertheless, many conditions of life have improved during its 35 years of rule — thanks in large part to an economic boom since 1973 based on Iraq’s huge oil reserves. Before the Gulf War in 1991, the UN graded Iraq’s standard of living equal to that of Greece. And the status of Iraqi women reflected this.
Within two decades of Ba’ath Party control, literacy for women was 88 percent, up from 23 percent in 1970. In the 1970s and ’80s, facing a labor shortage, the government actively encouraged women to join the work force. In 1974, it decreed that all university graduates would automatically be employed.
New laws prohibited sex discrimination on the job and sexual harassment. Much-needed reforms were begun regarding divorce and inheritance. Abortion was not legalized, but contraception and family-planning information were widely available.
Iraq’s educational system was legendary for its accessibility and efficiency. The government built new schools, trained teachers and doctors and scientists. More than half the university student population was female. Working women typically got six months fully paid maternity leave and an additional six months at half pay. Equal pay for equal work was common.
It was unimaginable that Iraqi women would be molested for not wearing the facial veil or for walking down the street unaccompanied by a male, as in Saudi Arabia. They were not segregated at work or in the mosques, and of course they drove cars and voted — both illegal in Saudi Arabia. Women were notably active in public life and commonly in positions of management over male employees.
Fortunes reversed.Today, 13 years of U.S./UN sanctions have turned the clock way back. Seventy percent of Iraqis survive on government food rations. Much of the educational, medical and transportation system has disintegrated. Four million have fled the country. Hunger is pervasive, and nearly 5,000 deprived infants die every month.
As mothers and household managers, women’s lives are profoundly affected by this deterioration. Electricity outages and water shortages make labor on the home front a heavy burden. Unemployment is high, wages fixed, inflation massive. State-funded nurseries and kindergartens and public transportation are no more. Female literacy has dived to 45 percent. Prostitution has skyrocketed. Polygamy has revived because so many men have emigrated to find work, causing a huge gender imbalance.
Support from the extended family and friendly neighbors has also drastically eroded in a society now beset with desperate need, distrust and violent crime. Finding the means to feed their families, one way or another, has become full-time work for most women.
Women’s lives have been destroyed not only by economic siege, but by a reactionary turn at the top of Iraqi society, including Hussein’s growing nods to Islamic fundamentalism.
Writes Professor Nadje Al-Ali of the University of Exeter in Britain, “Iraq has done what governments all over the world have done whenever there’s an economic crisis — they turn socially conservative.”
Laments one teenager:
“My father used to be so open and believe in women’s freedom…. Some years ago, he started to change his attitude to many things…. I am now not even allowed to go out with trousers outside our home…. All fathers in Iraq are doing the same in order to protect their daughters from the risks of becoming victims of bad rumors.”
That risk is very real. “Honor killings” are now legal. This horrific practice, eliminated decades ago in Iraq, allows men to kill women relatives for sexual “misconduct” in order to preserve the “honor” of the family.
In November of 2000, paramilitary thugs led by Hussein’s son Uday publicly beheaded more than two hundred alleged prostitutes, some of them known to be dissidents.
The Committee in Defence of Iraqi Women’s Rights (CDIWR) and the Worker Communist Party of Iraq notably stand up for women. Primarily made up of expatriates, they coordinated a worldwide campaign to expose and protest these state-sanctioned honor killings.
Liberation: a job for Iraqis, not the U.S. war machine. Hussein counts on brutality to contain revolt. But instead, leftists, Islamists, Kurdish rebels and ex-Ba’athists are all building up their bases of resistance and underground organizations.
With mind-boggling hypocrisy, the U.S. purports to be invading Iraq, in part, to liberate its people. But that can only be the task of Iraqis themselves.
The best thing that feminists and other sympathizers around the world can do is organize to stop the war and end the sanctions! That would do more than anything else to make it possible for the people of Iraq to set about their liberation.