Listen to Iraqi Women

Listen to Iraqi Women

By Yifat Susskind

Human rights, feminism, literature and science are all aspects of our common human heritage. Women in the Middle East have a centuries-long history of political struggle, popular organizing, jurisprudence and scholarship aimed at securing rights within their societies. Those rights have been virtually eradicated by the reactionary forces that the U.S. has brought to power in Iraq.

Rightwing intellectuals like to talk about a “clash of civilizations” dividing the United States from the Middle East. But the real clash is not between “Western” democracies and “Eastern” theocracies; it is between those who uphold the full range of human rights–including women’s right to a life free of violence–and those who pursue economic and political power for a privileged few at the expense of the world’s majority.

Standing in defense of human rights in Iraq means listening to progressive Iraqis, including the thousands of Iraqi women who are struggling for women’s rights within their country and for their country’s right to freedom from U.S. domination.

In Iraq, a formidable women’s movement came of age in tandem with the movement against British colonialism in the early part of the last century. In 1959 (before the U.S. helped Saddam Hussein overthrow the left-leaning government of Abd Al Karim Qasim), Iraqi women won one of the region’s most progressive family status laws.

According to Huibin Amee Chew, “Aspects of the progressive family law persisted until the eve of the U.S. invasion when Iraq still remained exceptional in the region. Divorce cases were to be heard only in civil courts, polygamy was outlawed unless the first wife consented, and women divorcees had an equal right to custody over their children. Women’s income was recognized as independent from their husbands’.” The law also restricted child marriage and granted women and menequal shares of inheritance.

Since the U.S. entry into Iraq six years ago and the continuing occupation of the country, things have devolved. Gender-based violence has risen sharply.

A survey released in March 2009 by Oxfam International and the Iraqi women’s organization al-Amal, reported devastating conditions for women in Iraq, something already observable to a network of women’s shelters operated by MADRE and the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). The survey of 1700 women in five Iraqi provinces conducted in 2008 found that women are suffering from continuing insecurity, damaged well being and restricted lives. Fifty-five percent said that they were directly or indirectly victims of violence since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Half the women had difficulties getting quality healthcare and were facing poverty and marginalization in their own country.

The Iraqi government’s minister of women’s affairs, Nawal al-Samaraie, resigned in protest in February, saying that women were in dire need of assistance but had a lack of resources.

Yet, in the U.S., public conversation often continues as if Iraqi women are somehow better off under U.S. occupation. As Iraqi author and activist Haifa Zangana said, “The main misconception is to perceive Iraqi women as silent, powerless victims in a malecontrolled society in urgent need of ‘liberation.’ This image fits conveniently into the big picture of the Iraqi people being passive victims who would welcome the occupation of their country. The reality is different.”

The U.S. occupation is illegal and unjust — and so is the ongoing violence against Iraqi women. Iraqi women need to be brought into U.S. conversations about how to truly end this war.Iraqi women are the voices that will chart the way forward.

June 16, 2009