From a World to Win News Service

What the U.S. Occupation Has Meant for Iraqi Women

Revolution #038, March 12, 2006, posted at

Revolution received the following from A World to Win News Service:

27 February 2005. A World to Win News Service. Somebody’s knocking at the door! Who is it? If we don’t open up, they’ll break in! Is it American soldiers? They raid homes and terrorize children and the whole family. We’ve seen it on TV. They insult, beat and arrest the men…

"In Fallujah many women were killed. Seventy-two women were killed the same way, shot once in the head, and their only sin was they opened the door to their homes," said a witness at the World Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul. But the men at the door might be just common thugs and criminals who break in and rape the women. None of this was common before the U.S. invasion. An Iraqi woman at the Tribunal testified that from the day that Iraq was invaded, there has been growing violence against women and systematic denial of their rights. They have been kidnapped, raped, and even hunted to be traded to foreign countries for the vast global prostitution network. An Iraqi woman told a journalist, "Kidnapping and raping women has become so widespread that every woman worries that she may become the next victim. Very few women are seen on the streets. It was not like that before the war, no! Many are frightened to step out of their home."

Since the invasion, especially in the southern city of Basra governed by U.S. and British-backed Shia clerics, women have been pressured to cover their heads. Barbers have been warned not to shave men, and tailors have been told how women must be dressed. So many women have been driven out of their jobs, especially young women, that now only 10 percent work. "Honor killings" are increasing at an alarming rate all over Iraq, even in Kurdistan.

After last year’s approval of the new constitution and the establishment of an Islamic regime based on Sharia (religious law), the kind of things that were happening to Iraqi women in day to day life became enshrined in law.

Now Islamic forces are dominating the lives of Iraqi women. A traveller from Afghanistan would rub their eyes, thinking that they hadn’t gone anywhere at all--that’s how much life for women in Iraq is coming to resemble what has been happening to Afghanistani women. In fact, the same U.S. that claims to have "liberated" the women of Afghanistan is now very busy "liberating" Iraqi women in the same way.

The invaders’ "liberation" of Iraqi women has at least three dimensions. One is economic: most people have suffered from the invasion but women have been the worst affected. The second dimension is represented by the atrocities committed by the invaders in order to humiliate and crush the spirit of the people. Again, the whole people of Iraq have been suffering, but women have paid especially dearly. And the third dimension is the demolition of women’s rights by an Islamic regime that is increasingly dominating the political scene of Iraq--thanks to the U.S./UK invasion.

What is so painful is that this all-around oppression of women will not end here. It will also have a huge impact on the way of life of the Iraqi people as a whole and help to consolidate backward social relations within the society.

Women the Hardest-hit Victims of the War on Iraq: The Economic Dimension

The economic sanctions imposed by the Western powers after the first invasion of Iraq in 1991 were a foretaste of the blows that would be inflicted on Iraqi women by the 2003 invasion.

According to the BBC, the number of women dying of complications of pregnancy and childbirth has tripled since 1990. Figures for miscarriages jumped, partly due to war-related stress and exposure to the chemical and depleted uranium weapons used by the U.S. Today 65 percent of Iraqi women give birth at home.

After the eight-year war with Iran that caused the death of half a million people in the 1980s, women came under pressure, since they were the only source of income in many families. This situation worsened considerably after 1991. Many government jobs paid so little that men quit, but women had to stay on since they had no alternative. Women working on farms were paid half of the already low wages. The economic situation overall became so bad that even some better-off families had to sell household appliances such as washing machines and freezers to offset their daily expenses. This increased women’s burden at home. And their desperation for a job reduced their wages to half that of men. When it came to educational expenses, families had to decide which one of their children should go to school. Usually, girls were not chosen.

U.S. Atrocities Against Women

In December 2003 a woman prisoner at Abu Ghraib smuggled out a note. "The note claimed that U.S. guards had been raping women detainees… Several of the women were now pregnant, it added. The women had been forced to strip naked in front of men, it said. The note urged the Iraqi resistance to bomb the jail to spare the women further shame." Female lawyers of women detainees discovered that this was true not only at Abu Ghraib but that the same thing was "happening all across Iraq." (This and subsequent quotes from the UK Guardian, 20 March 2004)

Since many women find it hard to talk about what happened to them, a woman lawyer named Swadi who had taken up several women’s cases visited a U.S. military base at al-Kharkh. She talked to a female prisoner there. "She was crying. She told us she had been raped… several American soldiers had raped her. She had tried to fight them off and they had hurt her arm. She showed us the stitches. She told us, "We have daughters and husbands. For God’s sake don't tell anyone about this."

The Guardian continued, "Astonishingly, the secret inquiry launched by the U.S. military in January 2005, headed by Major General Antonio Taguba, has confirmed that the letter smuggled out of Abu Ghraib by a woman known only as ‘Noor’ was entirely and devastatingly accurate."

Some of the 1,800 photos American guards took at Abu Ghraib show a U.S. military policeman "having sex with an Iraqi woman," according to Taguba’s report. Taguba also confirmed that guards videotaped and photographed naked female detainees. Although the Bush administration prevented the release of all these photos, some of these previously secret pictures of women were shown and placed on the Web by an Australian television station that obtained a copy of a CD made by the guards. When U.S. soldiers arrest and imprison women accused of prostitution, this seems to be a license for further sexual abuse.

Professor Huda Shaker al-Nuaimi, a political scientist at Baghdad University, said, "We believe she (Noor) was raped and that she was made pregnant by a U.S. guard. After her release from Abu Ghraib, I went to her house. The neighbors said her family had moved away. I believe she has been killed." That has been the fate of at least several other women ex-prisoners. Since in Islamic societies rape is considered a dishonor staining the woman and her family, few women talk about what they experienced while in U.S. jails and detention camps.

According to the same report, other sorts of humiliation of women for the amusement of their captors are also common in these prisons. "An Iraqi woman in her 70s had been harnessed and ridden like a donkey at Abu Ghraib and another coalition detention center after being arrested last July," the report revealed. UK Labour MP Ann Clwyd, who investigated the case, found this to be true. Women, like men prisoners, are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Family members who frequently gathered in front of Abu Ghraib and other prisons say that many women have committed suicide.

There is reason to believe this abuse is still going on. When the lawyer Swadi tried to visit women at Abu Ghraib recently, American guards refused to let her in. When she complained, they threatened to arrest her.

The U.S.-Sponsored Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in Iraq

After the overthrow of King Faisal by General Qassim in 1958, Iraq adopted a relatively secular constitution compared to many countries in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein accepted it when he came to power. Women were legally equal to men. They were guaranteed education up to the primary level. They had a right to divorce, and polygamy was made impossible in practical terms. Women had the right to vote and stand for public office. They had the right to wear what they wanted.

These laws relating to women’s rights started to crumble after the first Gulf War, when the U.S. tried to isolate Saddam and at the same time began courting and promoting Shia Islamic groups. Saddam also felt compelled to appeal to religious sentiments to get the support of clerics and tribal leaders. He allowed men to take up to four wives, and kill them without punishment if they were suspected of infidelity.

After the 2003 invasion and the overthrow of Saddam, as the U.S. began close cooperation with Shia and some Sunni Islamic political parties, Islamists took increasing control over people’s daily lives. Again, women were the first to suffer from these developments.

This situation developed most quickly in predominantly Shia areas such as Basra in southern Iraq. Women were forced to wear an Islamic hejab (head covering). Those who refused risked harassment and even kidnapping and rape. Nowadays in Basra it is unusual for a woman to go out without a veil. A woman activist told the Guardian newspaper that religious pressure groups mainly related to the Shia fundamentalist parties go to schools, take over classrooms and make all the girls put on veils and even gloves. Women have not been left alone in the universities either. Many young women students feel it is unsafe not to wear a veil. More than a dozen cultural and religious associations have emerged on the campuses in the last two years. Incidents of intimidation by classmates connected to Shia parties and militias are increasing. In one of these incidents at Basra University, militiamen attacked and reportedly killed at least two women students.

The point is that the hejab is only the beginning of severe oppression for women. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini started out attacking women’s rights by making the hejab compulsory. The hejab is a sign of subjugation and in turn brings a series of further forms of subjugation. It degrades women. Not letting women dress normally is a sign that they will not be permitted to do other normal things. The very purpose of the hejab is to limit women’s participation in society and keep them at home. This has numerous psychological consequences for women and a devastating impact on their relationship with society.

Iraqi women and even single men increasingly find themselves unable to become independent of their families because they cannot afford to live on their own. For both economic and security reasons, there has been a whole new phenomenon of young people returning to live with their extended families. This in turn revives the tribal relations that the constitution of 1959 had hit. During past decades the increasing number of people going to work and receiving education had weakened tribal relations. Now, under the U.S. occupation, the trend is being reversed. This enforces and provides a more solid foundation for the harsher oppression of women. In such conditions the oldest man in the extended family can play the role of the tribal head. Men are considered the protectors of the tribe’s honor and can decide the fate of any girl in the extended family. When tribal relations are strong and take new forms in the cities, then tribal chiefs can refuse to accept civil laws if they contradict their traditional law. Even if the law allows women some freedoms or the men of the family agree to them, the tribal rulers won’t allow it.

Legalized Oppression of Women: the New Constitution

Iraq’s new constitution finalized the establishment of an Islamic regime. It regulates important issues, including women’s rights.

Article 2 of the final version of the constitution makes Islam the official religion of Iraq and its state and makes it clear that no law can be passed to contradict it. Article 14 of the final constitution guarantees equal rights for women as long as those rights do not "violate Sharia" (Islamic law). The new constitution of Iraq also guarantees all rights in "international treaties and conventions as long as they do not contradict Islam." So Sharia comes first. Of course, religious law does contradict women’s rights and human rights on many points, and in all those cases women’s rights are denied explicitly.

According to Sharia, only fathers can have custody of children in case of divorce. Women are officially valued at only half the worth of men in matters such as inheritance and bearing witness in court. How exactly Sharia is going to be applied depends on the government, judges and of course the clerics. But it is obvious that women have already lost many basic rights, and others such as education, health, employment and so on are under serious threat.

The evolution of this situation is important to note. When Abdul Aziz Hakim (the leader of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq) was chairing the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), there was an attempt to insert Sharia into family law, namely article 137. This article sought to make family law conform to Islamic law and limit women’s rights. The council approved it in December 2003. This article provoked much controversy in different circles, including within the council itself. But it was not declared law because the then U.S. overseer of Iraq, Paul Bremer, ultimately did not sign it. The U.S. did not see it in its interest to approve the law at that time, perhaps because it was only a temporary law, and they felt that it was not worth facing the criticism of many women and even some of the forces supporting the U.S. invasion, such as the Kurdish leaders.

But in January 2005, when the Shia parties won the election, once again they started to push for a new constitution based on Sharia. They wanted religious courts to handle marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance cases. Some even sought the constitutional recognition of tribal justice. There was a long debate about the wording on the role of Islam. The Shia Islamic parties who dominate the Iraqi government proposed that Islam be labelled "the" main source of Iraqi law, while those opposed, like the Kurds and other minorities, wanted the constitution to call Islam "a" main source of law.

In short, both factions wanted Islam to have a main role in the constitution. However, after a few U.S.-imposed deadlines were missed due to a political stalemate between the factions, finally the U.S. intervened directly. Kurdish and Sunni negotiators later revealed that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad suggested calling Islam "a primary source" of law, which basically supported the most extreme religious view and severely undercut women’s rights. The clear U.S. support for the Shia fundamentalists provoked and embarrassed even many who had supported the U.S. invasion.

In order to hide this trampling on women’s rights, the constitution guarantees women 25 percent of the seats in parliament. But this is merely for show. The bitter reality is that no matter how many women are in Iraq’s parliament, with the new constitution in force the new generation of women in Iraq is even more oppressed than the last. The U.S. invasion is responsible for this situation. Although these religious fundamentalists certainly reflect real social relations and have a social base, they were put into power by American guns. In the end, it is the U.S. who dictates to them and not the other way around.

The U.S. "helped midwife an Islamic state in Iraq," approvingly wrote Isabel Coleman, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and U.S. Foreign Policy Programme at the Council on Foreign Relations in the unofficial U.S. ruling class theoretical journal Foreign Affairs for January/February 2006. She calls for more of the same across the Islamic world. Under U.S. sponsorship, some of the "experts on women" involved in writing the new constitution for the U.S.-occupied Islamic Republic of Afghanistan also helped write the new constitution for the budding Islamic republic of Iraq.

U.S. support for fundamentalist Shias is not support for the majority of the population and it is not a policy adopted as a way out of the stalemate that has seized the Iraqi government. Male supremacist Islamic traditions are being used to revitalize the tribal and feudal relations that the U.S. needs to give their occupation a more solid base. Limiting women’s rights and increasing women’s oppression strengthens the backward feudal and tribal petty tyrants who are the main allies of the U.S. imperialists in Iraq. The experience of Afghanistan and the U.S.’s alliance with the most reactionary feudals and warlords in that country give a rough idea of what path the U.S. is taking--one that clashes increasingly sharply with the most basic interests of women and the people as a whole.

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