Assault On Iraqi Women
(Swans - February 2, 2004) Women in Iraq are under siege. Hopes for a brighter future after the fall of Saddam Hussein have been rudely dashed and smothered by a climate of fear and repression. Far from the promised "liberation," women in Iraq find themselves increasingly imprisoned by lawlessness and medieval attitudes, while recent events portend calamitous developments for women.
Daily life in Iraq has become a grim ordeal for women. Rampant crime has become the order of the day since the fall from power of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. There are no reliable statistics, but kidnappings and rape are now so commonplace that many women have become virtual prisoners in their own homes. Women walking alone or in small groups are ripe for the picking by criminal gangs, compelling many to stay at home with the curtains drawn, never to venture outside. Abductions are so widespread as to become routine, yet few cases are reported to the police, for to do so would in many cases invite death. A victim "cannot say anything or come to tell us," says Iraqi policeman Ahmad Assimil. "When they grab her, you know what they do with her. For the Iraqi people, it's shameful, so she keeps silent." "In some cases," points out Leila Mohammed of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, "a woman is 'only' raped, then quietly killed by the family to 'clear' its sullied honor. We receive horrifying accounts. Some victims are left naked in the street after being held for several days. They no longer have any choice but to live as recluses, in shame and silence. A young woman was kidnapped at the hairdresser's where she was preparing for her wedding. It is chaos here." Not all victims are released after being raped or held for ransom. The less fortunate are sold as slaves into the booming prostitution trade. According to Iraqi police, the going price for an abducted woman is reported to be around $90.
A young Baghdad resident named Najwa reports, "We can no longer walk about freely, or drive cars. Even going to the market has become dangerous." Many professional women are no longer able to travel to their jobs, while others can safely do so only when accompanied by male relatives. "Many families are afraid to send their daughters to school because people will kidnap them," said one father of four daughters. Shortly after the war, a Save the Children survey found that over half of the students no longer attended girls' schools, fearing abduction. And the situation has only worsened since then. "Under Saddam, things were not good, but they were better than now," explains a young Baghdad woman named Zubaida. "Under Saddam, we kept close to the walls, but now we do not go out at all. I want to live somewhere else. Anywhere. I think that anywhere else on the planet is better than Iraq."
Increasingly, women feel pressured to don veils, both because bareheaded women are favorite targets for rapists, but also to avoid harassment from religious extremists. More and more mosques are turning away women not garbed in a head-to-toe abaya, and the Al Mustansirriye University in Baghdad has posted a sign ordering female students to wear full hijab head scarves and forbidding the wearing of pants, jeans or culottes.
At one time, women in Iraq held an enviable status in the Middle East. In 1979, the Constitution of Iraq declared the equality of men and women. Compulsory education through age 16 led to greater opportunities for women, and in 1980, women were given the vote and the right to run for electoral office. By the early 1980s, women comprised 40 percent of the workforce and the Unified Labor Code mandated equal pay and benefits for men and women. Then began the erosion of women's rights, starting at around the time of the invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War of 1991. Hoping to broaden his support among the most retrograde elements in society, Saddam Hussein decided to permit tribal leaders to implement traditional tribal codes, invariably at the expense of women. In 1990, a new penal code was enacted which permitted honor killings of women. Under Article 409, men could murder with impunity female relatives who were suspected of engaging in adultery or premarital sex. Victims of rape could be -- and often were -- killed in order to clear a family's reputation. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, by 2002, over 4,000 Iraqi women had become victims of so-called honor killings. Men were allowed up to four wives, and women were disadvantaged in divorce and inheritance. Article 41 of the code permitted husbands to commit violence against their wives, and Article 427 declared that a rapist would not be guilty of the crime if he married the victim. In the years following 1994, high schools were segregated by sex, and women up to the age of 45 were forbidden from traveling abroad unless accompanied by a male relative. Sanctions imposed against Iraq drove millions into dire poverty. For the most destitute women, there was no other means of survival and support for their families than to resort to prostitution. The Hussein regime was monstrously unforgiving when it came to prostitution, beheading women arrested on such charges. Only days before my journey to Iraq in 2000, it was reported that several prostitutes were arrested and then beheaded. Despite such appalling ruthlessness, it was apparent to me that prostitution was still continuing, a testament to the sheer desperate poverty of these women's lives.
Baghdad resident Fuha Ahmad recalls better days. "We lived like people in Europe. I went alone on summer vacation with my children to Cyprus. In Baghdad, I went to the swimming pool and the movies; I played bingo. I went to dance clubs. It was the golden age. It was that yokel Saddam who transformed our society. He and his family, people without education or culture, have destroyed this country."
Expectations for an improvement in the lot of women were cruelly shattered. The fall of Saddam Hussein instead energized the most retrograde elements in society, those seeking to bring about an Iraq that would be ruled according to the precepts of political Islam. Houzan Mahmoud, of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, warns, "Right from the first days of the collapse of the Ba'ath regime, Islamic groups emerged from Iran highly equipped with the dangerous ideology of political Islam, to use against the secular and radical forces in our society... They imposed veiling on women; they are not allowing them to go to work, universities, and even in the streets if they are not veiled. They have killed women who were involved in prostitution. Islamic courts have been setup in Al-Najaf; men who have killed their female relatives under the pretext of these women being prostitutes have received the full support of these courts. Women have also been banned from working in certain professions such as being judges, because the Mullahs are refusing any nominations for female solicitors to work as judges. They clearly want to establish an Iranian or Taliban-style Islamic government, treating women as second class citizens, and they are applying sexual apartheid everywhere against women."
Unfortunately, the lot of women in Iraq only promises to worsen, if the behavior of the US-installed Iraqi Governing Council is any indication. US occupation authorities chose the members of this puppet government; no one voted for them. Religious extremists and nationalists are among those who sit on the council, and they have not been shy about imposing their values on the rest of society. Among its first acts, the council replaced International Women's Day (March 8) with that of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed's daughter, and it also voted to reintroduce the death penalty.
In a secret vote on December 29, 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council narrowly passed Law Number 137, which in effect eliminated the Personal Status Code of 1958 that had provided some measure of legal protection for women. In its place, the council decreed that in domestic concerns, individuals would have the "option" of disregarding the civil code and could instead ask a religious court to rule on such matters as marriage, divorce and inheritance. In an environment increasingly dominated by aggressive religious extremists, this was tantamount to expunging whatever rights women still retained. The law must be signed by US occupation administrator Paul Bremer in order to take effect, a highly improbable outcome. Even so, the measure is a disturbing harbinger of the future place of women in Iraqi society, once the reins of governance are officially turned over to the Iraqi Governing Council.
Women's groups reacted immediately to the threat, organizing a demonstration in downtown Baghdad. The rally only drew hundreds, an indication of the climate of pervasive fear stalking the land. "This will send us home and shut the door, just like what happened to women in Afghanistan," warned Kurdish lawyer Amira Hassan Abdullah. "The old law wasn't perfect, but this one would make Iraq a jungle. Iraqi women will accept it over their dead bodies." Zakia Ismael Hakki, a retired judge, declared, "This new law will send Iraqi families back to the Middle Ages. It will allow men to have four or five or six wives. It will take away children from their mothers. It will allow anyone who calls himself a cleric to open an Islamic court in his house and decide about who can marry and divorce and have rights. We have to stop it."
The United States, says Houzan Mahmoud, of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, "brought to power the most right wing forces in Iraq in its medieval style government... This imposed ruling council is a group of religious leaders, tribal leaders, and nationalists who have no interest in improving people's lives, freedom, equality, security or the welfare of people. They could only get to power by being imposed on Iraqi people by America, because few people would have voted for them if there were elections to give the people choice. So these are the American democratic values for Iraqi people. They divide the Iraqi people on the basis of religious sects and tribes, as if we are living in the dark ages." Women, and indeed, all those who care about democracy in Iraq, face a daunting struggle if they are to overcome foreign occupation and domination by repressive obscurantism. As long as the flow of profits for Western investors is ensured, US leaders are unlikely to be troubled by the declining status of women. An Iraq ruled by religious extremists would pose less risk to Western corporate profits than a society which respected the rights of its citizens.
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