Bush's Hypocrisy and the Reality of Women's Oppression in Iraq

Revolutionary Worker #1270, March 13, 2005, posted at rwor.org

During the Republican National Convention last summer, George W. Bush declared that with the "use of American power" in Afghanistan and Iraq, "young women across the Middle East will hear the message that their day of equality and justice is coming."

It's hard to fathom the depth of hypocrisy involved in Bush's posing as a champion of equality and justice for women in the Middle East (or anywhere for that matter). This is the same imperial president that cavorts around with (and shares the beliefs of) the likes of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Franklin Graham, who think that the Bible should be interpreted and put into practice literally--including preaching that women should be submissive to men-- according to what they say is "god's word."

And the situation that women face in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan and Iraq makes clear that the reality is the polar opposite of what Bush claims.

Many women in Afghanistan had hoped that the fall of the Taliban would bring some measure of freedom from oppression--that they could shed the burqas covering them from head to foot or could leave their homes to go to work and school without fear. But the U.S. invasion and occupation have brought no such changes. Women face many of the same horrors they faced under Taliban rule--only now, the whole country is dominated by an outside power that claims to stand for "freedom" and "democracy."

The current regime in Kabul established under U.S. supervision is called the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan-- and religious fundamentalists wield major influence within the regime and in large areas of the country where the central government has little or no control. While wearing the burqa is not required by law, most women cannot go out into the streets without being covered--and often dare not go out at all--because they are in danger of being attacked, kidnapped, or raped. Millions of girls are still deprived of education.

In occupied Iraq, women as well as men are being gunned down at U.S. military checkpoints, brutalized by U.S. troops carrying out house-to-house searches, and tortured in U.S. military prisons.

According to an Amnesty International report released last month, "Reports about the torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison and other U.S. detention centers in Iraq have included allegations that women have been subjected to sexual abuse, possibly including rape. Several women detainees have spoken to Amnesty International after their release from detention. They reported beatings, threats of rape, humiliating treatment and long periods of solitary confinement.. For women in Iraq, the stigma frequently attached to the victims instead of the perpetrators of sexual crimes makes reporting such abuses especially daunting."

Amnesty also reports, "Women face discriminatory laws and practices that deny them equal justice or protection from violence in the family and community.. The general lack of security has forced many women out of public life.. Within their own communities, many women and girls remain at risk of death and injury from male relatives if they are accused of behavior held to have brought dishonor on the family. So-called `honor crimes' are in effect condoned in Iraqi legislation, which allows the courts to hand down lenient sentences on the perpetrators."

The U.S. occupiers say that there may be problems but that things are changing for women and the people overall in Iraq. They point to the January 30 election as a triumph of democracy and a sure indication of the success of U.S. policies in Iraq.

But this election was not about giving expression to the will of the Iraqi people and putting real power into their hands. The election--orchestrated and manipulated by the U.S. from beginning to end--was about giving legitimacy to the U.S. domination of Iraq. It was about piecing together a puppet regime headed by compradors (forces tied to imperialism) that would enable the U.S. imperialists to exert long-term control over Iraq and its oil resources and to "stabilize" the country so it can be a base for further aggressive moves in the region.

And for Iraqi women, the election represented a gigantic step back in terms of their status in society. The Saddam Hussein regime was brutal and reactionary--but the government was secular and women's equality was formally written into the law. Now, the U.S.-managed election has brought to the forefront the specter of a government, constitution, and society based on Islamic law.

The top winner in the election was the United Iraq Alliance, a coalition of Shiite parties dominated by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Dawa--religiously based parties with ties to the fundamentalist mullahs ruling Iran. Another major political grouping is secular forces who participated in the election as the Iraqi List, headed by the U.S.-appointed interim prime minister and long-time CIA asset Iyad Allawi. The third major grouping is made up of the two main Kurdish parties headed by pro-U.S. bourgeois nationalists.

There is intense behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing in post-election Iraq, and it is unclear what exact forms of alliances will emerge--and to what degree the government and the constitution will be overtly religious. But it is certain in any case that Islamic fundamentalists--and their reactionary ideology--will play (and is already playing) a prominent role throughout society.

The New York Times reported recently that in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, "Shiite religious parties have been transforming the city into an Islamic fief since the toppling of Hussein. Militias have driven alcohol sellers off the streets. Women are harassed if they walk the streets in anything less than head-to-toe black. Conservative judges are invoking Shariah in some courts."

Some Iraqi Shiite clerics argue that Shariah, or Islamic law, should officially govern all "family" matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Other prominent clerics argue that Koranic law should be the foundation for all legislation.

As Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, explains, if Shariah was applied to "family" or "personal" matters, it "would typically deny divorced women any inheritance, give girls half the inheritance received by their brothers, restrict women's right to initiate divorce, restrict women's appearance in the public, and make the testimony of women in court worth half that of a man."

In other words, the application of Shariah law means that women are openly considered to have only half the rights of men.

Bush administration officials play a cynical two-sided game in relation to the Shiite fundamentalist forces in Iraq. On one hand, they claim that the Iraqis--thanks to the U.S.--are now "in control of their country's destiny" and that it is up to them to make their own "choice" about the nature of the government and its laws. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "Iraq is for the Iraqis. It's not for Americans. We're not going to decide what kind of a country they're going to have." (It's quite obvious, of course, that the U.S. does NOT consider it a "legitimate choice" for the masses of Iraqi people to demand that the occupying troops leave.)

At the same time, Bush and other U.S. imperialists promote themselves as upholders of "progress" and Western-style "freedom" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the region in contrast to the Islamic theocrats. Again, this is shameless hypocrisy. What is advocated by the fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the name of Islam, is no different from the literal and absolutist interpretation of the Bible advocated by the Christian fundamentalist forces in the U.S., including those at the highest levels of the government.

And beyond the hypocrisy, there is an effort to pose the choices for the women in Iraq and for the people in Iraq and the region more generally as between "progress" and "freedom," represented especially by the U.S., and the "backwardness" represented by feudal forces like the Taliban and others. In relation to this, what RCP Chairman Bob Avakian pointed out shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is quite relevant:

"On the one hand, the fact is that the way women are shrouded and shackled under the Taliban--and everything that this symbolizes and encapsulates about their oppression under Taliban rule--does represent forms of oppression that are essentially (or largely) eliminated with the bourgeois-democratic transformation of society. And, of course, we support even bourgeois-democratic reforms in opposition to feudal (and other pre-capitalist) relations of oppression.

"In a way, this is analogous to the point that--if these are the terms we accept--bourgeois democracy is `better' than fascism. But the more fundamental truth--and point to be emphasized--is that these are not the terms in which things should be understood and posed: the `choice' must not be limited to bourgeois-democratic society--with its forms of exploitative, oppressive, and repressive relations and rule--vs. feudal (or fascistic) forms of rule, repression, and oppression. And we should also never forget that bourgeois rule--that is, bourgeois dictatorship --in its `democratic' form, can be transformed into open, unvarnished dictatorship--fascism--which is an especially relevant and important point with regard to what is unfolding in U.S. society today.

"We must not allow things to be cast in--and confined to--the question of which forms of oppression and exploitation, and reactionary dictatorship, are `better.'

"More specifically, and more especially in present circumstances, we must not allow things to be cast in such a way as to fall in line with the notion (or the pretense) that the U.S. (and other) imperialists somehow represent `progress' or `liberation,' either in terms of the oppression of women or more generally, with regard to Afghanistan or in the world as a whole...

"What we must emphasize is the fact that both bourgeois-democratic and feudal (and other pre- capitalist) social relations embody horrendous oppression of women, even if in somewhat different forms (along with many of the same forms) and there is a need for a radical rupture with all of this--with both pre- capitalist as well as bourgeois (including bourgeois-democratic) forms of oppression and exploitation (and repression)."

(From "Imperialist Hypocrisy and the Taliban Oppression of Women," available online at rwor.org.)