“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” The Plight of Women & Children in Occupied Iraq

It’s been five years today since the United States invaded Iraq. There is much speculation about the success and failure of the war, the contractors, the casualties, the stability of the Iraqi government, consequent foreign views of the U.S., inadequate troop supplies, shameful lack of support for the mentally and physically wounded troops returning home, whether we should have ever gone to war to begin with, and how the hell we’re going to get out.

Having acknowledged those issues, I’m going to talk about something else. What were the lives of non-combative Iraqis like before U.S. occupation and what are their lives like now? Not soldiers, not religious extremists, not government officials, but the ordinary Iraqis struggling within the daily mine-field living of a conflict zone with multiple warring sides using base guerrilla tactics.

Before I continue I just want to say this:

I recognize that the period following the fall of one form of government and its replacement by another is, quite literally, revolutionary. Throughout history, all cases of this are paired with periods of social and political unrest, instability, and hardship.

However, the Iraqi people didn’t instigate this revolution. Indeed, they couldn’t have. But they never asked for our involvement and it wasn’t for their suffering that we went in. The U.S. invaded Iraq for its own reasons, none of which were later substantiated. After five years of mismanaged occupation, we’ve taken a country weighted with severe oppression and injustice and replaced it with a battlefield of warring religious, political and tribal factions, starvation and disease, and near anarchic instability in which every day is a lottery to see who will walk into the streets and make it home alive.

As in most wars and regions of conflict, it is mostly women and children who fall to the bottom of a deep pool of suffering.

Life Under Saddam

There is no disputing that life during Hussein’s quarter-century police state was a nightmare of cruelty and corruption. Your ethnicity and/or behavior could easily earn you a middle-ages style punishment (with the exception of the modern chemical warfare unleashed in repeated ethnic cleansing efforts against the Kurds.)

If you spoke out against Hussein’s regime you, and possibly your family members, were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Political gathering of any sort was forbidden to the public, except for occasion to exult the government.

Police stations included basement torture chambers, and the crime of theft could lead to amputation, branding or death. Any woman suspected of prostitution, proof being unnecessary, was beheaded and her head placed on a pike and displayed with a sign reading “For the Honor of Iraq.”

There are tales of further insanity, of course. But for the bulk of Iraqi’s, what I’ve just described were the prominent sources of danger.

And yet, although women’s rights began to deteriorate during the final years of Hussein’s reign, until the early-1990’s urban Iraqi women were widely considered among the most liberated in the middle east. Women had careers, drove automobiles, and as of 1987 75% of Iraqi women were literate.

Following World War I, Britain colonized several regions into the country of Iraq, which they ruled for fifteen years. Many British laws remained in place through the 1990’s including equal inheritance rights, equal rights in seeking divorce, restrictions against polygamy, and a legal marrying age of 18.

In 1970 Saddam Hussein drafted a constitution that granted women the right to attend school, own property, vote, and run for office.

None of this diminishes the atrocities of Hussein’s reign, but it does set a contrast for what was to come.

“It Wasn’t Supposed to be Like This.”

Although many returned joyously to Iraq following the fall of Hussein, most were quickly disillusioned. Today, the rules have changed and for women, they have not improved. An ineffective government, appointed by the U.S., allows religious extremists to create and enforce informal laws throughout their varying regions of dominance. Sunni and Shias alike dictate new and severe requirements for women.

Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi who grew up during the final two decades of Saddam’s regime, and at age 23 founded Women for Women International, describes the differences in her country since 2003. As quoted in a recent article in Ms. Magazine:

“The violence during Saddam’s time was … committed by the government, Saddam’s family, people in power. Now the violence is … being committed by everyone around you.”

Many areas of Iraq are ruled with Sharia-inspired laws reminiscent of the Taliban. Women must remain cloaked in full burqua, genders must remain segregated in public, singing and dancing are prohibited. Women’s hair salons, one of the few (although marginally) accepted professions for a woman, are often bombed and many are abandoned, or taken underground.

Additionally, in the generally lawless state of warring factions, carjacking, kidnapping, and rape are common. As they are exceptional targets, women avoid the streets and few if any still risk driving.

Since 2003, more than 2,000 honor killings have been reported.

According to Yanar Mohammed, founder of the The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI),

We used to have a government that was almost secular. It had one dictator. “Now we have almost 60 dictators—Islamists who think of women as forces of evil. This is what is called the democratization of Iraq.

Although she gets repeated death threats, and many of her colleagues have fled the country, Yanar Mohammed stays in order to run the few women’s shelters available to protect abused women and those targeted for honor killings.

The international human rights organization MADRE, who once warned that religious fundamentalists would benefit most from a U.S. invasion in Iraq, explains in its 2007 report Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the U.S. War on Iraq,

Often, the first salvo in a war for theocracy is a systematic attack on women and minorities who represent or demand an alternative or competing vision for society.

The MADRE report also documents how pleas for help from women’s groups were ignored by the U.S.

During the first year of US occupation, Iraqi women’s organizations appealed directly to [US Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance Paul] Bremer, demanding that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that he headed train and dispatch security guards to help prevent violence against women and that the CPA prosecute crimes against women. These demands were ignored.

Under Bremer, the US refused to honor a series of demands by women’s organizations, including calls to create a women’s ministry; appoint women to the drafting committee of Iraq’s interim constitution; guarantee that 40 percent of US appointees to Iraq’s new government were women; pass laws codifying women’s rights and criminalizing domestic violence; and uphold UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates that women be included at all levels of decision–making in situations of peacemaking and post–war reconstruction.

In 2003, Iraqi men and women risked their lives to come forward and vote on a new constitution. Overwhelmingly they voted to replace the government established by the U.S. in favor of the United Iraqi Alliance, which in addition to offering Iraqis the resources to rebuild homes and the promise to utilize the nation’s oil wealth for economic development projects, called for an immediate “withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq.”

The new government however, has been unable to deliver on its promises and has additionally shown itself to condone and even encourage women’s oppression.

Although Iraqi law now states that women must hold 25% of the seats in Parliament, according to a recent NPR piece, activist Amira Al Khabi (ph) says

These women members of Parliament are ghosts. They say nothing. The party has fooled the people. They say “Look, we’ve given women a role,” when they have no role at all. It’s pure propaganda.

According to Ms. Al Khabi, members of Parliament recently expressed approval that nearly 100 women were tortured and killed in Basra (mostly by strangulation or beheading) because they had been wearing makeup or dressed in a manner considered too “western.”

29 year-old journalist Khalzar Abdul Amir received a note at her office. It read, “Quit or die.” She took the note as a declaration that it was legal to kill her. She fled to Kurdistan for a while, before returning to Iraq to help support her family. Echoing the sentiment of American and Iraqi citizens alike, she tells herself over and over

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Add to this the other sufferings of combat zones – a dearth of electricity, water, food, and jobs – where any attempt to leave your home to procure any of these scarcities risks your life – and you have an idea of a civilian’s life in modern day Iraq. Many Iraqi women have submitted themselves to prostitution in order to feed their families.

In 2005 alone, the country endured over 1,000 roadside bomb attacks – that’s more than three per day. More than 1 million Iraqi’s have died since the invasion began. 2 million have fled Iraq and another 2 million have abandoned their homes to hide in less volatile areas of the country.

Earlier this month Women for Women International released Stronger Women, Stronger Nations, a comprehensive report on the state of women’s lives in post-invasion Iraq. The report addresses the atrocities and suffering endured under Saddam Hussein, and compares it with the lives of non-combatants under U.S. occupation.

During a ten-day fact-finding mission the organization found:

  • [E]xtremists from both communities increasingly mounted attacks on one another in the form of car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and torture, hit-and-run raids, and [although malice between Sunnis and Shias during Hussein’s reign was minimal] increasingly larger instances of deliberate ethnic cleansing against towns and neighborhoods occupied by civilians from the other sect.
  • Even in those parts of Iraq where there is little sectarian violence, a pervasive state of lawlessness remains. Even in ethnically or religiously homogeneous cities and towns, the government typically provides little security or policing presence. This allows the militias, in conjunction with a wide variety of organized crime rings, to assume authority in these areas, and while they may keep outright violence low, they indulge in all manner of criminal behavior against the local population. Theft, extortion, kidnapping, and the threat of random violence are ubiquitous problems for most Iraqis.
  • 88.8% of respondents expressed a great deal of concern that they or someone living in their households would become a victim of violence.
  • 67.9% of respondents stated that their ability to walk down the street as they please has gotten worse since the U.S. invasion.
  • 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.

Then & Now

Further Reading:

Hidden victims of a brutal conflict: Iraq’s women – A month-long investigation by The Observer reveals the terrible reality of life after Saddam.

Letter from Baghdad – A Democracy of Killings and Bombings – Yanar Mohammed

Iraqi Women Hit Hard by Occupation

Listen to a panel with Yanar Mohammed and other global rights leaders – courtesy of Ms. Magazine.

Stolen Away The abduction and forced prostitution of Iraqi women and girls. Time Magazine feature.

Slightly off-topic but very relevant – Five Years and Counting: The Unmitigated Disaster is Working Dahr Jamail for IPS News.

How You Can Help:

Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq Join the letter-writing campaign to amend the Iraqi constitution, or donate money. Donations go toward human and women’s rights training, democracy training for Iraqi women, and sewing machines distributed to help women gain economic self-sufficiency while working safely from their homes.

MADRE gives you lots of ways get involved. You can donate, purchase stuff through their web store, buy books or movies through giveline, volunteer, host a speaker, and more…


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