Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Iraq War Blogswarm - The War on Women in Iraq

On March 12th 2004, George and Laura Bush gave a press conference regarding "Efforts to Globally Promote Women's Human Rights" at the White House. President Bush used this opportunity to comment upon the rights of women across the globe and, particularly, in the Middle East. During the press conference, President Bush said the following about the position of women in post-Saddam Iraq:

Iraq has a different history, and yet a different set of challenges. Only one year ago -- only one year after being liberated from an incredibly ruthless person and a ruthless regime, Iraqi women are playing an essential part in rebuilding the nation. They're part of the future of the country.

Every woman in Iraq is better off because the rape rooms and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein are forever closed. He is a barbaric person. He violated people in such a brutal way that some never thought that the spirit of Iraq could arise again. We never felt that way here in this administration. We felt that people innately love freedom and if just given a chance, if given an opportunity, they will rise to the challenge.

Three women now serve on the Iraqi Governing Council -- you just heard me praise one. The historic document that was written recently guarantees the basic rights of all Iraqis, men and women, including freedoms of worship, expression and association. The document protects unions and political parties and outlaws discrimination based on gender, ethnic class and religion. It's an amazing document that's been written.

Certainly, no-one would deny the brutality of Saddam's regime and its scant regard for the most basic human rights. However, there still remains the question of gender equality in Iraq and Bush's claims about the improvement and the protections that have been put in place for women in Iraq. Before examining the present situation for women in Iraq, it is worth examining the situation of women in Iraq before the invasion.

Life Before Invasion

In 1970, the Iraqi government enacted the Iraqi Provisional Constitution which formally guaranteed equal rights to women and enshrined the rights to vote, own property and run for political office (unless indicated via hyperlinks, all information comes from Human Rights Watch). Women in Iraq had, in actual fact, been the envy of women across the Middle East thanks to the rights that were protected by the constitution. Furthermore, unlike many Arab neighbours, the government passed a compulsory education law mandating that both sexes attend school through the primary level. Laws were also passed that ensured the protection of women within the workplace and guaranteed maternity rights as well as alterations to the divorce proceedings. When Saddam came to power in 1979, many of these laws were consolidated. In 1980, women attained the right to run for office and, in 1986, Iraq became of the first countries to ratify the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Furthermore, as a result of the national literacy campaign, approximately 75% of Iraqi women were literate, a figure favourable compared to other staes in the region. However, these improvements in gender equality diminished shortly after the first Gulf war.

After Saddam's defeat at the hands of the first Bush government, and with his grip on power weakening, attempts were made to consolidate power by seeking to attract the support of Islamic groups within the country. This courting of traditional Islamic groups within Iraq subsequently saw a marked decline in women's rights within Iraq. Many of the advancements that were made after the Iraqi Provisional Constitution, were rolled back. After massive legislative changes affecting the rights of women, the UN reported that an estimated 4,000 women and girls had been the victims of "honor killings" and, due to legislation passed in 1990, men were immune from prosecution for such killings. So, after initial progressive measures by the Ba'ath party, the situation did indeed begin to deteriorate. But has the situation really improved in Iraq after the invasion by 'coalition forces' in 2003?

Two Steps Back

The first opportunity that the 'coalition' had to distance the 'new' Iraq from the final years of the Saddam regime, was the introduction of a new constitution. This constitution was hailed as a breakthrough for equality across Iraqi society. Sadly, like much of the advances that the coalition claimed, this was nothing more than a fraud. When the constituion was hanging by a thread in 2005, the American government chose to back down over their opposition to an Islamic state and supported a group of relious conservatives who sought to destroy the talks unless Islam was the primary source of law. The American government, through it's ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, proposed that Islam be named a primary source and supported a wording which would give clerics authority in civil matters such as divorce, marriage and inheritance. As a result of these developments, "dozens of women gathered in central Baghdad to protest against what the organiser, Yanar Mohammad, feared would be a 'fascist, nationalist and Islamist' constitution. 'We are fighting to avoid becoming second class citizens,' she said'. The constitution effectively imposed religious restrictions on women's rights and individual rights, which gave the document a decidedly conservative bent on personal and social matters. Despite it's high ideals for the people of Iraq, the American government had failed the Iraqi women who longed for a progressive Iraqi society. In fact, life has become increasingly dangerous for women in Iraq.

Women Burnt to Death

Peter Beaumont, of The Observer, recently exposed the reality of life in Iraq for the majority of women:

Iraqis do not like to talk about it much, but there is an understanding of what is going on these days. If a young woman is abducted and murdered without a ransom demand, she has been kidnapped to be raped. Even those raped and released are not necessarily safe: the response of some families to finding that a woman has been raped has been to kill her.

Iraq's women are living with a fear that is increasing in line with the numbers dying violently every month. They die for being a member of the wrong sect and for helping their fellow women. They die for doing jobs that the militants have decreed that they cannot do: for working in hospitals and ministries and universities. They are murdered, too, because they are the softest targets for Iraq's criminal gangs.

Iraq's women live in terror of speaking their opinions; of going out to work; or defying the strict new prohibitions on dress and behaviour applied across Iraq by Islamist militants, both Sunni and Shia. They live in fear of their husbands, too, as women's rights have been undermined by the country's postwar constitution that has taken power from the family courts and given it to clerics.

He adds:

After a month-long investigation, The Observer has established that in almost every major area of human rights, women are being seriously discriminated against, in some cases seeing their conditions return to those of females in the Middle Ages. In areas such as the Shia militia stronghold of Sadr City in east Baghdad, women have been beaten for not wearing socks. Even the headscarf and juba - the ankle-length, flared coat that buttons to the collar - are not enough for the zealots. Some women have been threatened with death unless they wear the full abbaya, the black, all-encompassing veil.

Similar reports are emerging from Mosul, where it is Sunni extremists who are laying down the law, and Kirkuk. Women from Karbala, Hilla, Basra and Nassariyah have all told The Observer similar stories. Of the insidious spread of militia and religious party control - and how members of those same groups are, paradoxically, increasingly responsible for the rape and murder of women outside their sects and communities.

There have also been reports of women being burnt to death as punishment for adultery or other offences relating to marriage. From The Guardian:

They lie in the Sulaimaniyah hospital morgue in Iraqi Kurdistan, set out on white-tiled slabs. A few have been shot or strangled, some beaten to death, but most have been burned. One girl, a lock of hair falling across her half-closed eyes, could almost be on the point of falling asleep. Burns have stretched the skin on another young woman's face into a fixed look of surprise.
These women are not casualties of battle. In fact, the cause of death is generally recorded as "accidental", although their bodies often lie unclaimed by their families.

"It is getting worse, especially the burnings," says Khanim Rahim Latif, the manager of Asuda, an Iraqi organisation based in Kurdistan that works to combat violence against women. "Just here in Sulaimaniyah, there were 400 cases of the burning of women last year." Lack of electricity means that every house has a plentiful supply of oil, and she accepts that some cases may be accidents. But the nature and scale of the injuries suggest that most were deliberate, she says, handing me the morgue photographs of one young woman after another. Many of the bodies bear the unmistakable signs of having been subjected to intense heat.

"In many cases the woman is accused of adultery, or of a relationship before she is married, or the marriage is not sanctioned by the family," Khanim says. Her husband, brother or another relative will kill her to restore their "honour". "If he is poor the man might be arrested; if he is important, he won't be. And in most cases, it is hidden. The body might be dumped miles away and when it is found the family says, 'We don't have a daughter.'" In other cases, disputes over such murders are resolved between families or tribes by the payment of a forfeit, or the gift of another woman. "The authorities say such agreements are necessary for social stability, to prevent revenge killings," says Khanim.

In October the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (Unami) expressed serious concern over the rising incidence of so-called honour crimes in Iraqi Kurdistan, confirming that 255 women had been killed in just the first six months of 2007, three-quarters of them by burning. An earlier Unami report cited 366 burns cases in Dohuk in 2006, up from 289 the year before, although most were not fatal. In Irbil, the emergency management centre had reported 576 burns cases since 2003, resulting in 358 deaths.

In fact, since the invasion in 2003, honour killings have increased year upon year.

Iraqi Women Feel Threatened

Women for Women recently published their report entitled 'Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: 2008 Iraq Report'. Their survey of women in Iraq produced some interesting results:

Hope for the Future

• 85.0% of respondents described the situation in Iraq as bad or very bad, and 88.8% expressed a great deal of concern that they or someone living in their households would become a victim of violence.
• Only 26.9% of respondents expressed optimism for the future, saying they thought the overall situation would get better in the year ahead. While there continue to be pockets of optimism throughout the country, and the overall situation may be on a slow ascent, the situation remains volatile, and the long-term sustainability of any improvements still remains to be seen.

• 71.2% of respondents said they do not feel protected by U.S./U.K. soldiers and 65.3% of
respondents said that, overall, the presence of U.S./U.K. security forces in Iraq is
making security in the country worse.
• 67.9% of respondents stated that their ability to walk down the street as they please has gotten worse since the U.S. invasion.

Violence Against Women
• 63.9% of respondents stated that violence against women is increasing. When asked why,
respondents most commonly said that there is less respect for women’s rights than before,
that women are thought of as possessions, and that the economy has gotten worse.

Economy and Infrastructure
• 68.3% of respondents describe the availability of jobs as bad and 70.5% said that their families are unable to earn enough money to pay for daily necessities.

Social Services
• 76.2% of respondents said that girls in their families are not allowed to attend school, and 56.7% said that girls’ ability to attend school has gotten worse since the U.S. invasion.

Political Participation
• 70.2% of respondents thought that the citizens of Iraq have not been given a chance to contribute their input on the future of Iraq, and 52.0% did not know if Iraqis had the right to participate in the political process.
• 43.6% of respondents did not think that the circumstances of women were being considered by those making decisions about Iraq’s future. However, in the Central Iraq cities of Fallujah, Samarra and Rawa, the number jumps to 75.1% of respondents saying they did not think women’s circumstances were being considered.
• 72.7% of respondents said that in the future there should be one unified Iraq with a central government in Baghdad, and 88.6% of women thought that the separation of people along ethnic/religious/sectarian lines was a bad thing. However, only 32.3% of respondents thought there would in fact be one unified Iraq with a central government in Baghdad in five years. This is another indication that women do not feel as though their opinions are being considered in decisions about their country’s future.

Compare this to the recent poll conducted by the BBC. Despite the above statistics, a poll recently conducted by the BBC (alongside other media outlets) proudly proclaimed that Poll suggests Iraqis 'optimistic'. The evidence for this perceived optimism? According to the poll, 62% of those polled claimed that security in the local area is good. This contrasts starkly with the findings of the report published by Women for Women. And yet, in the run-up to the anniversary of the disastrous invasion, the BBC sees fit to put a positive spin on the situation in Iraq. This should really come as no surprise given the situation the BBC has found itself in post-Hutton. The government has clearly put the BBC back in its place and the organisation is playing the role of government propagandist.

Government Complicit in Abuses

The Iraqi government, alongside coalition forces, has also played a massive role in endangering women in Iraq. Prime Minister al-Maliki’s response to one twenty year old woman’s allegations of rape by Iraqi Special Forces, underlines the lack of respect shown for women in this new Iraq. After initially calling for an investigation into the allegations, Maliki’s government reversed its position, labelling the woman a liar and wanted criminal and stating it would instead “reward” the officers involved. Maliki accused the woman of fabricating the rape in order to undermine the ‘security sweep’ in Baghdad. He then released her name (which gave away her religious identity - Sunni), which had profound implications for her given that the Iraqi police force is dominated by Shiites. In behaving in such an irresponsible manner, Maliki showed that this new government was not concerned with women’s rights and that, although the ‘rape rooms’ no longer officially existed, sexual assault was still part of the make-up of Iraq. So much so, that a US State Department assessment conducted during 2005 and 2006, found that brutality was “rampant in Iraq's police force, with abuses including the rape of female prisoners”. The report added:

“…female detainees are often sexually assaulted. According to the documents, the commander of a detention centre in the Karkh neighborhood of the capital raped a woman who was an alleged insurgent in August. That same month, two lieutenants tortured and raped two other female detainees.”

[article here: – source is subscription only but referred to here:]

And yet, Bush claims that women in Iraq are better off than ever before. Can you see the difference?

A Better Iraq?

So, here we are, five years on from the illegal invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation. An invasion that was supposed to bring greater freedom and a new sense of equality for women in Iraq and what have we now? A situation far more dangerous than people previously imagined. Women are being persecuted and murdered as a matter of course. In a country where women were equal partners in Iraqi society, now they are treated as second class citizens. Over 60% of Iraqi women feel that violence against them is increasing and, with increasing numbers of women burnt to death or victims of honour killing, it is not hard to see why. It is hard to see how anyone can seriously claim that women are better off in Iraq after the invasion of 2003. Clearly they are not. And they are not alone in Iraq. Homosexual men and women have also seen increased persecution in Iraq since the fall of Saddam.

The United Nations has recently taken the opportunity to remind the Iraqi government and the United States of their obligations regarding the persecution of women in Iraq. In particular, the report points out the rise in women being burnt to death as well as the increase in female circumcision, particularly in areas of Kurdistan. After five years of occupation, it seems hard to believe that such practices are continuing when promises of increased gender equlaity were being made in the run-up to the invasion.

There is no doubt that women in Iraq have seen a massive assault on their liberty and freedom over the last five years. Violence and oppression have become regular features of their continued struggle in Iraq. There are many other disturbing consequences of the illegal invasion in 2003, the Iraq Oil Law to name but one, but there is a real danger that the plight of women in Iraq will be forgotten in amongst the propaganda from the 'coalition'. They may talk of the massive improvements for women in Iraq, the reality is quite different.

For more information see the following:

MADRE - Sister organisation to The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq

Act Together - A group of UK-based Iraqi and non-Iraqi women. Formed in 2000 to campaign against the economic sanctions on Iraq and, since late 2001, also campaigned against the US/US invasion of Iraq. Focus is on the occupation and the support of independent grassroots women’s initiatives in Iraq.

WAFDI - The Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq - an international non-partisan and not-for-profit women's rights organization.

Read other Blogswarm posts on the anniversary of the Iraq War via March 19 Iraq War Blogswarm