Freedom for whom? Iraq, Women and War

Magnús Þorkell Bernharðsson

Unlike the discussion preceding the war on Afghanistan in 2001, the war on Iraq did not focus on the necessity of liberating Iraqi women specificially. While the debate preceding the Iraqi war centered around weapons of mass destruction, oil, terrorism, and possible connections to Al-Qaeda, there was hardly any discussion on the status of women in Iraq. We did not, for example, hear about the clothing of Iraqi women like we heard about the burqa in Afghantistan. Generally, the consensus seemed to be that the status of women in Iraq, relatively speaking, was generally good or at the very least it was not as bad as Afghanistan. And whereas we heard a lot about the terrible crimes against humanity that the regime of Saddam Husayn perpetrated, the specific acts of violence against women were not analyzed nor given much thought. In this lecture I will question whether the status of women was as positive as we were lead to believe and how the current situation in Iraq has in fact made their status and position even worse.

The recent military campaign had the name „Operation Iraqi Freedom“. The overall purpose of this attack was to liberate Iraqis from the regime of Saddam Hussein. So now that almost half a year has passed it may be opportune to evaluate to what extent this mission has lived up to its name. It is, of course, premature to pass judgement becuase it is not clear at this stage to know whether we are situated at the beginning, middle or at the end of an cycle. Perhaps it will take years if not decades to fully assess the success or failure of this campaign. But what is possible to disceris n what has happened so far. And so far, the situation has been chaotic, desparate and in fact devastating for many Iraqis but in particular for Iraqi women.

Operation Iraqi Freedom has thus not made Iraqi women free. What it has meant so far is that the recent war and warlike conditions and the absolute breakdown of security and structure has enabled Iraqi men, and others, to have the freedom to have their will with women and to dominate the public sphere. Apart from the immediate family of Saddam Husayn the biggest losers in the recent war have been Iraqi women especially professional and middle class women or those in schools in the vicinty of Baghdad. The present situation is particularly troubling when the possible future trends are discerned and also when the past half-century is evaluated.

For the last fifty years, Western European women have experienced significant changes in their social and legal situation. Much of this progress has taken place in a Europe that has largely been peaceful and prosperous. In stark contrast to the peaceful situation in Western Europe, the Middle East has been subject to waves of violence in its recent history. Since the end of World War II, the Middle East has suffered through at least 11 major wars, which has resulted in casualties in the millions and considerable displacement and structural damage.

These major wars, and the numerous relatively minor ones, have led the militarization of society. There is no area of the world that expends as much to the purchase of military equipment per capita as the Middle East. In addition, various armies have been imporant in politics and have orchestrated several signifanct coups such as in Egypt or have very prominent political roles. Throughout history, the army was often a vehichle for upward mobility for those who have been traditionally outside of the power structure. For many minority groups the military offered a chance to become leaders in their society the most prominent example is Syria, where the Alawite Al-Assad family has dominated Syrian politics for decades. By and large, women are prohibited for joing the army and thus have not had a chance to join the military to improve their social and political standing. But that does not mean that women haven’t participated in armed conflict. In the Algerian war of independence for example, Algerian women were very active participants. Similarly Palestinian women play somewhat prominent roles in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Iraq, women were largely absent from the political scence up until the Second World War. In the 1950s and 1960s Iraqi women became more visible on the political scene. Women such as Bediya Afnan, Sumayya al-Zawahi, and Faiha’a Kamal had important positions in the diplomatic corps. In 1959, the Government of Abd al-Karim Qasem addressed the status of women by changing the laws regarding inheritance and polygamy which were positive steps to better the status of women.

By and large, women have benefitted from the systematic centralization of the state that has sought formulate national laws concerning family law and education. These measures have taken the decision away from the family or tribe, for example, whether or not to send a girl to school. So if that tool is used in a constructive way, a strong central government can actually help improve the situation of women.

This aspect was apparent, for example, when Saddam Husayn become the primary player in Iraqi politics in the 1970s. He was initially quite popular with the middle classes because he sought to enable women to enter the work place and instituions of higher learning. The tragic Iran Iraq war, however, was devastating for many Iraqi women. Many women became widows or their husbands/brothers/fathers came back from the battlefield maimed or hurt physically and psychologically. The Baath party also decreed that each women should bear five children in order to raise future soldiers for the Iraqi state. It was during the fateful war that the Anfal campaign took place against the Kurdish population of Iraq that would have horrific effects on many Kurdish women.

Most people are familiar with the general contours of the Anfal campaign of Saddam Husayn’s government against the Kurds which was represented for example by the horrible pictures of the chemical attack at Halabja. Yet as various schoalars have pointed out, such as political scientist Mia Blom, the systematic use of rape was a deliberate tactic used by Husayn’s government to undermine the morale of the Kurds in order to inflict significant psychological damage on the survivors and their families.

Officially the genocide campaign was directed first and foremost against men. But for similar reasons as has been discussed here at this confernce in the context of Bosnia and Kosova, the systematic use of rape was not only to inflict physical and emotional harm to women but also to demoralize men, encourage flight, and decrease the willingness to fight. Rape was policy and a public act often in front of families to further increase the pain and suffering. According to reports by human rights groups, some of these Kurdish women were subsequently rejeted by their family and had to flee the area. It seems to be emerging as one prominent theme in this conference is that the rape of women is a very common occurrence in ethnic conflicts.

In the 1990s, the Iraqi nation suffered numerous hardships. In addition to the destruction of the first Persian Gulf war, Iraq was subject to widespread economic sanctions upheld by the United Nations. Although the full effects of the sanction are not known, it is clear that they contributed to the deteriation of society. Access to medicines and food became more problematic and thus made the practical aspects of daily life more formidable especially for women who are largely responsble for those tasks.

The recent war on Iran in 2003 has made life even more difficult for Iraqi women. The general lawlessness in some parts of the country and the chaotic state of affairs has made it very difficult to lead a normal life. In fact the streets have been so dangerous, especially in the central part of the country, that many women had not dared to go outside. In addition to the forces who are seeking to battle the American and British occupation, one should keep in mind that in the Fall of 2002 many Iraqi prisons were opened up so hardened criminals were set free and are now presumably roaming the streets.

This lawlessness and lack of security has led to an unprecedent increase of reported rapes especially in the Baghdad area. The American led Coalition Provisionial Authority has started to train police and maintain security in the various trouble spots but until now the public sphere remains extremly dangerous, especially for women.

There has been some discussion on increasing the visibility of women in the public debate that has been going on in Iraq. In the forums that have taking place to discuss important political issues women have been in a distinct minority and have not had a very visible role. Up until the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, the UN was considering hosting a women’s conference but that plan has been put on hold for now at least. Paul Bremer, the leading American administrator, recently held a meeting with Iraqi women to discuss their status and role. So officially there is a committment to ensure that women will have a voice in the future. Currently, however, it seems that the women’s question is being treated like a separate question and thus they are not being directly involved in the important discussions now taking place about the future of the country.

It is difficult to say what this will mean for the future status of Iraqi women. It is potentially problematic that certain Shi’ite parties, such as those led by Muqtada al-Sadr, seem to be gaining ground politically. He advocates the establishment of a similar sort of political system in Iraq as is in place in Iran which does not generally envisage prominent roles for women.

Currently the political structure that is mostly discussed for Iraq is to weaken the role of the central authority and instead organize Iraq along federalist lines. This propsoal could have the potential to weaken the status of women because generally women have benefitted from centralized and uniform laws. If however more power is given to the various regions, it is possible that the women living in more conservative areas might face serious restrictions.

The current generation of Iraqi women, especially those born since 1978 have basically not experienced anything but war, sanctions, and chaos. What psychological impact this has had on Iraqis and Iraqi women is difficult to say. But while the security
situation is not under control there is not much hope that their status will improve.

There are now though several women’s groups operating in Iraq and a they are recall a time when women were more active participants in the society. What is problematic is that in this intermediary stage, many basic decisions are being made, lines are being set, laws formulated which will have significant consequences for the future of the nation. At this point women are merely passive observers and may therefore not necessarily benefit nor contribute to this important process.