Monday, August 22, 2005

Women And the Iraq Constitution

A recent post by Digby on the possible consequences of theocracy in Iraq contains this:

I got an e-mail from someone I respect asking me why I made such a big deal out of women's rights being denied when there are so many other freedoms at stake. It's a legitimate question I suppose, but I think the question answers itself. The fact is that under Saddam, in their everyday lives, one half of the population had more real, tangible freedom than they have now and that they will have under some form of Shar'ia. The sheer numbers of people whose freedom are affected make it the most glaring and tragic symbol of our failed "noble cause."

Iraqi women have enjoyed secular, western-style equality for more than 40 years. Most females have no memory of living any other way. In order to meet an arbitrary deadline for domestic political reasons, we have capitulated to theocrats on the single most important constitutional issue facing the average Iraqi woman --- which means that we have now officially failed more than half of the Iraqis we supposedly came to help. We have "liberated" millions of people from rights they have had all their lives.

That Digby felt a need to justify focusing on the rights of women that would be lost if the Shariah law became constitutionally mandated in Iraq is noteworthy in a sad and murky way. Women's social rights indeed appear unnecessary for the evolution of democracy for many. Including such rights as the right to take a job without a permission from a husband or a father, the right to seek and possibly gain custody of your children in the case of a divorce, the right to seek a divorce in the first place, and the right to be an equal heir with your brothers. Including such rights as the right to travel out of the country without a father's or a husband's permission, the right to become a judge if one is otherwise qualified, the right to study anything your brother may legally study. Including such rights as the right to choose whom you marry and whether you marry at all. Including such rights as having your testimony count equally with that of your brother in a court of law rather than as being worth only one half of his testimony. And so on. Depending on the specific form of Shariah, all or some of these rights for women could be deleted in Iraq, and it is hard to see how women could see such deletions as democratic progress.

The usually unspoken argument of those who find women's social rights unimportant for democracy is that democracy in places like Iraq can take a different form: one limited to men only, because democracy elsewhere, including in the United States, once assigned equal rights to only some people, such as white men. Yet over time these rights were extended to others, including women. In other words, Iraq and other countries such as Afghanistan are viewed as outdated forms of our own country. Medieval, perhaps. But with the passage of time surely these countries will emulate what took place in the West? And if not, well, the men who are making the U.S. decisions right now are unlikely to suffer. And maybe the people "over there" are really different. Maybe they don't want democracy, after all. At least for the women. After all, we let the women vote, too, and look how they voted! Mostly they voted for their religion so they must want to be oppressed.

There it is, all neatly typed up in one paragraph, the true nasty subtext of what is going on with respect to some Americans' thinking about women and the Iraqi constitution. It's pragmatism at its most disgusting, because women and their rights were used as a smokescreen when it suited the Bushboys. But only as long as it suited them. Deep under the skin the Bush administration has a certain type of brotherhood with the Talibanites, and deep under the same skin, I strongly suspect, most of the Bushites are not too upset over the possible creation of another fundamentalist theocracy.

Though they may have some public relations problems with selling the outcome to the American public, especially given the many Americans who have died to bring this outcome about. But I am sure that some suitable scheme will be invented, probably along the lines that democracy has happened, even if it created a nondemocratic state. You know, the majority has spoken in Iraq. Never mind that democracy is a little bit more complicated than unbridled majority rule without any constitutional protection of the weak or without a good judicial system or any of the institutions that democracies rely on.

The second possible story line, that of a gradual progress towards a more equal society, doesn't play terribly well, either. For one thing, why invade a country and kill so many of its inhabitants if we are now willing to wait for a gradual process to take place? We could have left Saddam in power and waited for his death instead. For another thing, how is gradual progress going to change a constitution which denies women equal rights if the constitution will be declared as unmendable? This is what is included in the much lauded Afghanistan constitution. More generally, how can a theocracy ever change any of its basic principles?

It is indeed true that the Iraqis are not, on average, eager feminists. But surely the Bush administration was aware of this and of the dangers of unleashing a fundamentalist government on the women of Iraq before the invasion? Surely someone, somewhere in the administration knew that invading Iraq wouldn't exactly warm the Iraqis towards the values of equality and modernity; values associated with the corrupt West? And didn't this someone, somewhere in the administration also mention, perhaps even aloud, that democracy cannot be forced upon a country from the outside?

What the United States has created in Iraq is a mess of historical proportions. It is also a mess that could easily have been predicted by anyone even superficially informed about the area and its history. That this mess was not prevented tells us more than I really want to learn.