By Marjorie P. Lasky
Because of Hussein’s alliances with mostly Sunni and some Shi’a religious and tribal leaders, particularly after the war with Iran, many Sunni women with money and Ba’athist affiliation and some Shi’a women with resources enjoyed privileges of mobility and status that were denied to most women in Iraq. During the 1991 Gulf War and under sanctions, women remained a pub¬lic presence in urban areas. When the government replaced professional women in the work force with men because of the shrinking economy, large numbers of these women set up small businesses in their homes. Low¬income women frequently were central in the informal economy, oftentimes in street commerce. In rural areas, women farm workers were praised for their productivity. Social class, place of residence, political orientation and religious affiliation all played a role in determining women’s status under the Ba’athist regime.
War, Occupation, and Female Insecurity
The atrocities perpetrated by Hussein’s government con¬sistently denied security to its internal opponents or per¬ceived enemies. However, despite the government’s brutishness and butchery and the debilitating effects of the sanctions, some rule of law, wherein violence and its targets were somewhat predictable, existed. With the collapse of Hussein’s government, that rule of law disap¬peared. Few English¬language sources detail the deaths and destruction caused by the invasion, but much has been written about the widespread looting and chaos that followed and the failure of the coalition forces to establish a stable government. The repressive and sometimes abu¬sive behavior of the occupation forces and their Iraqi allies along with the armed resistance of local groups, militias, and individual insurgents, Iraqi and non¬Iraqi, create the carnage that Iraqis experience today.
Thus, currently, the most important determinant of women’s lives in Iraq is insecurity. Everyday life is chaotic. Just to walk the streets, particularly in urban areas, exposes women daily to the possibility of random violence, assault, kidnapping or death at the hands of suicide bombers, occupying forces and contractors, Iraqi police and National Guard or local thugs. As a consequence, women’s mobility has become more restricted than during the period of sanctions, and their options have narrowed, particularly compared to what many middle class urban women had before the war and occupation.
Coalition Forces as a Source of Insecurity
Numerous witnesses and victims have testified and inves¬tigators have confirmed that coalition forces and U.S. contractors have committed horrific crimes of sexual abuse, torture, and physical assault. There is copious reportage about rapes, including gang rapes, and routine sexual humiliation as well as accounts of women falling prey to honor killings after leaving U.S. detention cen¬ters. Amal Kadhim Swadi, an Iraqi lawyer who represent¬ed women detainees at Abu Ghraib, claimed that sexual¬ized violence by U.S. forces was “happening all across Iraq” and was not confined to a few isolated cases.
Mithal Al¬Hassan, a 55 years old engineer, who was arrested by U.S. forces and held in a detention center for 80 days, recalled hearing “a young woman crying out from her cell, telling an American soldier to leave her alone. She said, ‘I am a Muslim woman.’ Her voice was high¬pitched and shaky. Her husband, who was in a cell down the hall, called out, ‘She is my wife. She has nothing to do with this.’ He hit the bars of his cell with his fists until he fainted. The Americans poured water over his face to wake him up. When her screams became louder, the soldiers played music over the speakers. Finally, they took her to another room. I couldn’t hear anything more.” Even Major General Antonio Taguba’s report in 2004 confirmed that a military policeman had raped at least one female prisoner at Abu Ghraib and that guards had videotaped and pho¬tographed naked female detainees.
American assaults on Iraqi women have not been con¬fined to sexual abuse. U.S. forces have used Iraqi women as “bargaining chips” to get Iraqi men to turn themselves in or to confess to aiding the resistance. And U.S. personnel have physically assaulted female detainees. Huda Hafez Amad, one of the last female prisoners released from Abu Ghraib, testified that U.S. interrogators hit her in the face and made her stand for twelve hours with her face against a wall. In 2003, an Iraqi woman in her 70s was harnessed and ridden like a donkey after being arrested. Selwa (a pseudonym), a female detainee in Abu Ghraib, claimed, “’Once I saw the guards hit a woman, probably 30 years old. They put her in an open area’” and asked everyone to come out and see her. “’They pulled her by the hair and poured ice water on her. She was screaming and shout¬ing and crying as they poured water into her mouth. They left her there all night. There was another girl; the soldiers said she wasn’t honest with them. They said she gave them wrong information. When I saw her, she had electric burns all over her body.’” Young girls have not been spared. An Iraqi TV reporter, Suhaib Badr¬Addin al¬Baz, saw the Abu Ghraib chil¬dren’s wing after Americans arrested him. Al¬Baz recalled one night when guards came into the cell of a 12¬year¬old girl who called out“ ‘They have undressed me. They have poured water over me.’” He claims that she cried and whimpered daily. Regardless of who is perpetrating sexual violence—U.S. forces, contractors, or even Iraqi men—it is particularly difficult to remediate in Iraq because many women and girls will not report their experiences. The reasons vary: the “long¬standing cultural stigma and shame attached to rape…positions victims as the wrongdoer and too frequently excuses or treats leniently the perpetrator;” obstacles to filing police reports or obtaining a forensic examinations; fear of retaliation in the form of “honor” killings or social stigmatization; and tales about women who sought assistance but were either denied or treated poorly, sometimes by an overwhelmed hospital staff who gave sexual assault a low priority.
Local Thugs as a Source of Insecurity
Coalition forces and foreign contractors are not the only perpetrators of violence against women. In 2003, Human Rights Watch reported that mafia¬like Iraqi gangs roam Baghdad and other urban areas, particular¬ly at night, preying upon Iraqi citizens. An Iraqi police inspector testified that “’Some gangs specialize in kid¬napping girls, they sell them to Gulf countries. This happened before the war too, but now it is worse, they can get them in and out without passports.’” Other interviewees argued that abductions never occurred before the invasion.
Continuing Warfare and Deprivation as a Source of Insecurity
Let us first look at current conditions in Iraq that affect all Iraqis; violence, insecurity, all manner of physical deprivation—medicine, nutrition, shelter, electricity— and a Pandora’s box of psychological deprivation and dislocation. Then we will attempt to parse out the spe¬cific implications for women.
The deadly remnants of warfare riddle the countryside —unexploded ordinances, including land mines and cluster bombs and soil and water systems polluted by depleted uranium, a health hazard that generations of Iraqis will face. In April 2005, doctors in Baghdad reported a significant increase in the number of babies born with deformities, particularly in the south, and hypothesized that depleted uranium from the 1991 Gulf War might account for the increase. A stepped¬up U.S. campaign of aerial war has led and will lead tomore civilian deaths and unexploded ordinance, while suicide bombers and other insurgent attacks contribute to the rising numbers of dead and maimed. U.S. tactics in fighting the insurgency continue to dis¬place Iraqi families. In Anbar governate in western Iraq U.S. offensives have displaced tens of thousands of fam¬ilies. Thousands of people have sought refuge in refugee camps, abandoned buildings, or the homes of friends. Doctors have noted an increase in the prevalence of diar¬rhea and pulmonary infections among children and the elderly, even after they returned home. Throughout the occupation, similar offensives, notably in Fallujah, have probably killed thousands of Iraqis and forced many more into refugee camps or abandoned buildings.
The Iraqi infrastructure, already disintegrating because of wars and sanctions, is further damaged by frequently malfunctioning sanitation and water systems, destroyed and vandalized institutions, and electricity shortages. In January 2006, residents of Baghdad were getting less than four hours of electricity per day whereas pre¬war they had 16¬24 hours. It’s a little better in the rest of the country. However, less than 1/3 of the Iraqi population has access to potable water, compared to 50% before the war. And 20% of the population has sewerage access; 24% had access pre¬war. As one Baghdadi resident noted, “During Saddam’s time, we always had power, clean water and better food than we have now.”
Poverty has exploded across Iraq. A recent study by the United Nations Development Program and International Monetary Fund shows that 20 percent of the population has fallen below the international pover¬ty line of $1 per day per person.
Iraqis also suffer from food shortages and malnutrition. In 2004, surveys reported that acute malnutrition among young children in Iraq had nearly doubled since the invasion of the country. It is more prevalent in southern Iraq than in the north. Roughly 400,000 Iraqi children were suffering from “wasting,” characterized by chronic diarrhea and dangerous protein deficiencies.
Continuing a trend that began under sanctions, most Iraqis are dependent on food aid. The government’s pro¬gram to distribute food is disastrously inadequate, so peo¬ple rely more on the mosques and churches to fill their needs. In some neighborhoods, religious personnel who control the local government are in charge of the govern¬ment distribution. Many Iraqis perceive that only the religious authorities, especially local imams, have provid¬ed security or basic necessities in a systematic way. The collapsed economy has resulted in widespread unemploy¬ment, high inflation, steep housing costs, inadequate housing, and a shrunken health care system.
Daily deprivation and insecurity have also affected fam¬ily and gender relations. In interviews with Iraqi women Professor Nadje Al¬Ali discovered that the close¬knit relationships within Iraqi families are being sundered by envy and competition in the struggle for survival. Nuclear families are becoming more important than extended families. Some women have stopped visiting relatives to avoid embarrassing families too poor to offer visitors food, an important aspect of Iraqi culture.
Married couples respond to the current situation in dif¬ferent ways. Some couples worry about bearing chil¬dren with congenital diseases or birth defects in a socie¬ty where abortion is illegal and contraception not wide¬ly accessible. The divorce rate is rising, and the impov¬erishment of the middle classes has led many to “’marry below their class.”
Often witnesses to violent house arrests, women need to track down their imprisoned male relatives, a task requiring endless forbearance with frequently unyield¬ing authorities. These women must also provide for the basic necessities of the family while those who are detained or “disappeared” are absent for weeks or even months, if they return at all. For widows, life has become increasingly harsh. During Hussein’s presidency, the government often compensat¬ed widows of men killed in battle — particularly during the Iran¬Iraq war. Sometimes a widow received land and free education for her children. This compensation began to dry up during the period of sanctions and now, according to women’s groups, rampant corruption and Iraq’s general chaos have pushed widows’ concerns to the back burner.
And it is women, more frequently than men, who hold their households together as they try to cope with the psychological consequences of the continuing war. There are countless men, women, and children in Iraq with missing limbs, hands, and eyes. Children beg in the marketplace and orphans are ubiquitous. These are the external wounds of war. Much less visible are the inner wounds that give rise to alcoholism, increased domestic violence, and psychological illness. A socie¬ty that has faced years of war and deprivation must con¬tain thousands of traumatized individuals and few resources to deal with them. As the source of strength within the household, women are at the forefront of nurturing these troubled individuals and themselves back to health.
Participation in Economic and Political Reconstruction
Those Iraqis who had hoped that the Coalition would increase women’s participation in the reconstruction process have been sadly disappointed. Generally, the Coalition forces in charge of reconstruction have ignored women in doling out reconstruction money. One pro¬gram, Women’s Initiatives, originally intended to award some of its $700,000 to women contractors seeking to repair the water infrastructure. However, in February 2006, the program’s director noted that the program’s goals have scarcely been reached. Indeed, of the 260,000 reconstruction contracts awarded in Iraq, less than 1,000 have gone to women. And, according to the director, the individuals responsible for this negligence are “our own [U.S.] guys...It’s just not high on their priority list. It’s just like in the U.S. When you want to hire someone, you want to hire someone like you.”
The Coalition’s record in incorporating women into the political reconstruction of Iraq is equally dismal. According to Lt.. Col. Carl E. Mundy who handled post¬conflict operations in southern Iraq, “’We didn’t give special considerations to engaging the women…My concern was not stepping where I shouldn’t step, or drag¬ging a woman in there that would anger the local men.’” By ignoring women, the U.S. appointments undermined women’s future political opportunities, and the Coalition’s choice of representatives for national and local governing bodies often reinforced the power of conservative clerics and tribal leaders. For example, in 2003 the U.S. appointed only three women to the 25¬member Iraqi Governing Council; there were no female provincial governors, very few female representatives on city, district, and neighborhood councils outside of Baghdad, and no women on the 24¬member constitu¬tional committee that drafted the interim constitution.
The excuse is that the U.S. did not want to violate Iraqi sensibilities with a demand for a female quota in the National Assembly. But, as Safia al¬Souhail, a leader of the Bani Tamim tribe in central Iraq, points out, “They’re forcing a lot of changes on this society. Why not force this as well?…Suddenly, women’s rights are the red line?”
Indeed, by ignoring women, the Coalition encouraged the conservative male office holders to ignore women’s concerns as well. Interviewed in April 2005, Salam Smeasim, a secularist economics adviser in the interim Women’s Affairs Ministry, claimed she was more afraid of the secular conservatives than Islamic powers. “’Even the Communist men…don’t want women to be active or to have powerful positions.’”
Many women have turned to some clerics for help in guaranteeing political rights. According to Hind Makiya, the founding director of the UK¬based Iraqi Women’s Foundation, “”We have to rely on a moderate religious leader such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al¬Sistani to fight for our rights, as so¬called Iraqi liberals barter away our rights amongst themselves.” Some Iraqi women have sought and received support from al¬Sistani for their participation in government. For example, the Coalition appointed a female judge in the more conser¬vative south, but after protests she wasn’t sworn in. Even after the prospective judge went to al¬Sistani and received his approval for her appointment, the Coalition refused to swear her in because of what peo¬ple might do to her.
It is perilous in today’s Iraq for a woman to be a political figure. In the December 2005 elections for Parliamentary seats, Maha al Douri, a candidate from a minor Shi’a slate put her face on campaign posters and talked about women’s rights. She received threats. This was not surprising; before the constitutional referendum in 2005, campaign posters in conservative areas showing a woman’s face—as a symbol of the face of a new Iraq— were ripped from walls or painted over, denounced as shameful. Candidate Huda al Nu’aimi would not display any of her campaign posters in December 2005, includ¬ing posters showing her face. Like other female candi¬dates, some of whom were even afraid to appear in pub¬lic, al Nu’aimi feared that insurgents would smear her as a collaborator with the U.S. forces.
But there are fissures among Iraqi women: they do not speak with one voice. For example, among the Shi’a , there are Communist and secularized females and many educated professionals; yet Shi’a women are more likely to express allegiance to their religion than to their gen¬der. For many, but certainly not all Shi’a women, women’s rights are not high on their political agenda. Examples of conservative Shi’a attitudes about women’s role in society are plentiful: once a woman marries (which every respectable Shi’a woman is expected to do), her primary job is household work. She is to drop the “ second job,” i.e. work outside the home, true even for professional women. In July 2004 Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) surveyed 2000 families, 96.7% of whom were Shi’a, in three southern Iraqi cities; more than half the men and women approved of wife beating if the wife were disobedient. Significantly, the survey’s sample was urban, not rural, where one might have anticipated the response.
In spite of powerful patriarchal attitudes and the danger of being accused of violating Shari’a, Shi’a women have sought political office. In 2004, Thanaa Salman, a 27¬year¬old school principal in Hilla, pushed her way into local politics. After she was elected to her neighborhood council, the elections for its presidency were held with¬out her knowledge. She contacted the Americans who had organized the vote and demanded a new election. It was held, and she won the presidency by a narrow margin. Raghad Ali, 25, tried to run for local office in Hilla, but the men at the candidate registration office insisted that women could not be candidates. Afterwards Raghad claimed, “I was frightened of the people in my neighborhood…They looked at me so strangely, like I thought I was equal to men. I’m afraid of everything, from gossip to violence. It just kills the ambitions inside.” But, like numerous other Iraqi women, Raghad and her sister organized a petition drive to get women a large number of seats in the National Assembly. According to the Iraqi Constitution, ratified in October 2005, women are guaranteed a quarter of the seats. A more in¬depth discussion of the Constitution’s impact on women’s lives appears later in this report.
In a curious split familiar in the West, some Shi’a women are prepared to take considerable risks to partic¬ipate in politics, at the same time denying interest in women’s rights. In January 2005, women in Najaf wearing the abaya were willing to be photographed and named, unlike many women who run for office. These candidates, espousing conservative religious ideas, appeared to have no interest whatsoever in advancing women’s rights. As one woman stated, she was running for office not to address women’s issues but “’to provide job opportunities…to help widows and poor people.’
Shaping a Stable and Viable Civil Society
Despite the danger, violence, insecurity, and depriva¬tion, Iraqi women continue to try to shape their own lives and to create a more stable society. Local NGOs fill some gaps although it is increasingly difficult for them to function, especially in the south. Before the invasion, Al Mareefa, Knowledge for the Iraqi Women’s Society, had provided community services through Baghdad’s mosques. Since Hussein’s fall, Al Mareefa has registered as an NGO and in June 2003 opened its first women’s center. At the center, women have taken classes in sub¬jects like computer¬skills, sewing, and cooking. In 2004, Al Mareefa also opened a center in Al Dora, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad. The Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), an avowedly women’s rights organization, distributes sup¬plies to Baghdad’s squatter camps, publishes a newspa¬per that exposes rape cases and honor killings, and has opened shelters in Baghdad and Kirkuk for women flee¬ing from domestic abuse and potential honor killings.