Thursday, June 08, 2006

The War Against Women in Iraq

Is just beginning. Yes, Zarqawi may have been killed and it's good news, assuming that they don't have others ready to take up the lead. But there is another war brewing, one which affects women and which will go on for a long time. The same war is beginning in Somalia and we see a kinder and gentler version of it here in the good old U.S. of A.. It's the war against modern roles for women, and in Iraq it is winning:

The women of Basra have disappeared. Three years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, women's secular freedoms - once the envy of women across the Middle East - have been snatched away because militant Islam is rising across the country.

Across Iraq, a bloody and relentless oppression of women has taken hold. Many women had their heads shaved for refusing to wear a scarf or have been stoned in the street for wearing make-up. Others have been kidnapped and murdered for crimes that are being labelled simply as "inappropriate behaviour". The insurrection against the fragile and barely functioning state has left the country prey to extremists whose notion of freedom does not extend to women.

In the British-occupied south, where Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army retains a stranglehold, women insist the situation is at its worst. Here they are forced to live behind closed doors only to emerge, concealed behind scarves, hidden behind husbands and fathers. Even wearing a pair of trousers is considered an act of defiance, punishable by death.

May I say again that this was one of my main reasons for opposing the war, superceded only by the desire to save people from needless death? Whenever something called "democracy" is born the first thing that happens is that powerful groups, those who feel very strongly, decide that democracy means their values should rule the country and not the values of whoever the silverback chimpanzees were in the previous power structure. We may hear beautiful thoughts about the wonders of democracy, but the truth is that democracy is hard work and every additional person's rights to belong to it are won only with a lot of work and in many cases of blood.

And it is almost the norm that whenever a government somewhere falls the first thing to do (after thanking the female revolutionaries for their contribution to the fall) is to lock women up in one way or another. In Iraq the groups rising in power are the fundamentalists and their idea of women's proper place is a very dismal one. For women, at least. They are not supposed to exist in the public sphere. You can get the other details by looking up the definition of the term "Taliban". Or you could scan the following quotes from the Independent article I link to:

One Basra woman, known only as Dr Kefaya, was working in the women and children's hospital unit at the city university when she started receiving threats from extremists. She defied them. Then, one day a man walked into the building and murdered her.

Eman Aziz, one of the first women to speak publicly about the dangers, said:"There were five people on the death list with Dr Kefaya. They were threatened 'If you continue working, you will be killed'."


A television producer Arij Al-Soltan, 27, now exiled, said: "It is much worse for women in the south. I blame the British for not taking a strong stand."

Sajeda Hanoon Alebadi, 37, who - like Mrs Aziz - has now taken to wearing a headscarf, said: "Women are being assassinated. We know the people behind it are saying we have a fatwa, these are not good women, they should be killed."

Behind the wave of insurgent attacks, the violence against women who dare to challenge the Islamic orthodoxy is growing. Fatwas banning women from driving or being seen out alone are regularly issued.

Infiltrated by militia, the police are unwilling or unable to crack down on the fundamentalists.

Ms Alebadi said: "After the fall of the regime, the religious extremist parties came out on to the streets and threatened women. Although the extremists are in the minority, they control powerful positions, so they control Basra."

To venture on the streets today without a male relative is to risk attack, humiliation or kidnap.


A journalist, Shatta Kareem, said: "I was driving my car one day when someone just crashed into me and drove me off the road. If a woman is seen driving these days it is considered a violation of men's rights."

There is a fear that Islamic law will become enshrined in the new legislation. Ms Aziz said: "In the Muslim religion, if a man dies his money goes to a male member of the family. After the Iran-Iraq war, there were so many widows that Saddam changed the law so it would go to the women and children. Now it has been changed back."


Optimists say the very fact that 25 per cent of Iraq's Provincial Council is composed of women proves women have been empowered since the invasion. But the people of Basra say it is a smokescreen. Any woman who becomes a part of the system, they say, is incapable of engineering any change for the better. Posters around the city promoting the constitution graphically illustrate that view. The faces of the women candidates have been blacked out, the accompanying slogan, "No women in politics," a stark reminder of the opposition they face.

So. The new democracy is not going to help women to have more rights. Most likely it will help to take away the rights that used to exist in the last twenty years or so. It is true that these rights only helped the minority of educated women with jobs and the desire for some autonomy, and I've heard that we shouldn't really worry about the women in Iraq as they are used to their traditions and their culture and most are not going to be affected by this return to "traditional family values".

I disagree. Aren't we supposed to be in Iraq now for the creation of a modern democracy? A modern democracy which refuses to let the majority of its citizens to hold jobs, go out alone, to participate in politics, to wear trousers? That would be some victory for the Western civilization. Should the Western civilization care about Iraqi women, of course.