A woman's place is in the struggle: Women of the new Iraq

Issue 

A group of Iraqi women recently met the US ambassador to Iraq in an effort to push the framers of Iraq's new constitution not to limit women's rights. Many Western feminist groups and some Iraqi women activists fear Islamic law, which if enshrined as a main source of legislation will be used to restrict their rights, specifically in matters relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance. The US shares this concern; Iraqi women more generally do not. Why?

Most Iraqi women recognise, and try to sensitively cope with, the predicament of dealing with occupation and the rise of reactionary practices affecting their rights and way of life. This applies across the political and class spectrum, for the secular left as much as for moderate Islamists and nationalists.

Iraqi women believe that it is important for the people concerned to be able to think clearly, to think of the future when writing such a crucial document. In order to do this, Iraqi women must be liberated from immediate fears and be able to enjoy basic human rights, such as walking safely in the streets of their city. Iraqi women do not enjoy such conditions today.

Despite all the rhetoric about "building a new democracy", Iraqis are buckled under the burdens of abuse and plunder committed by members of the US-led occupation force and its local Iraqi sub-contractors. Daily life for most Iraqis is still a struggle for survival, with tragedies and atrocities engulfing them.

Human rights under occupation have proven to be a mirage similar to weapons of mass destruction. Torture and ill-treatment of members of political and armed groups, even the torture of children held in adult facilities, is widespread.

Iraqi women were long the most liberated in the Middle East. Occupation has confined them to their homes. A typical Iraqi woman's day begins with the struggle to get the basics — electricity, petrol or a cylinder of gas, fresh water, food and medication. It ends with a sigh of relief for surviving death threats and violent attacks.

For a majority of Iraqi women, simply venturing into the streets harbours the possibility of attack or kidnapping for profit or revenge. Young girls are sold to neighbouring countries for prostitution.

In a land rich in oil, 16 million Iraqis rely on monthly food rations for survival. They have not received any since May. Privatisation threatens all free public services. Acute malnutrition has doubled among children. Unemployment is at 70%, and is exacerbating poverty, prostitution, back-street abortions and honour killings.

Corruption and nepotism are rampant in the interim government. Gender is no obstacle. Layla Abdul-Latif, minister of transport under Iyad Allawi's regime, is under investigation for corruption. Her male colleague, Ayham al Sammarai, former minister of electricity, managed to flee the country.

Women's political participation in the interim government, National assembly and even the committee appointed to write the constitution follows a quota system imposed by Paul Bremer, the de facto ruler of Iraq in 2003.

As a result, Iraqi women's historical struggle against colonial occupation and for national unity, social justice and legal equality has been reduced to bickering among a handful of "women leaders" over nominal political posts. The quota system has widened the gap between women members of the interim government and the majority of Iraqi women.

Powerless, holed up in guarded areas or the US-fortified Green Zone, venturing out only in daylight with armed escorts and without any credibility among Iraqi women, the failure of these "leaders" is catastrophic. Like their male colleagues, they have adopted a selective approach to human rights, principally US-oriented.

The suffering of their sisters in cities showered with napalm, phosphorus and cluster bombs by US jet fighters, the death of about 100,000 Iraqis — half of them women and children — is met with rhetoric about training women for leadership and democracy.

Documents released on March 7, 2005 by the American Civil Liberties Union show 13 cases of rape and abuse of female detainees. The documents revealed that no action was taken against any soldier or civilian official involved in these crimes.

The documents also provide further evidence that US troops have destroyed evidence of abuse and torture in order to avoid a repetition of last year's Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

The silence about this by women members of the National Assembly, interim government and all US Agency for International Development-financed women's NGOs is deafening.

"Women's rights" in Iraq has become an absurd discourse chewing on meaningless words.

No wonder that US-financed women's NGOs, which publicly preach women's rights and democracy, are suspected of being vehicles for foreign manipulation and are despised and boycotted, however much they manage to recruit liberal or left personalities.

Iraqi women know that the enemy is not Islam. There is a strong antipathy to anyone trying to equate women's issues to the racist "war on terror" set up against the world of Islam.

Iraqi women also know that traditional society, exemplified by the neighbourhood and extended family, however restrictive at times, is not the enemy. In fact, it has been the mainstay and protector of women and children in both physical safety and welfare, despite lowest-common-denominator demands on dress and personal conduct.

The enemy is the collapse of the state and civil society. And the culprit for that is the foreign military invasion and occupation.

Haifa Zangana

[The author is a London-based Iraqi novelist and former political prisoner.]

From Green Left Weekly, August 31, 2005.
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