An Empty Sort of Freedom
Published on Monday, March 8, 2004 by the Guardian/UK
An Empty Sort of Freedom
Saddam was no Defender of Women, but they have Faced New Miseries and More Violence Since he Fell
by Houzan Mahmoud
 

Women in Iraq endured untold hardships and difficulties during the past three decades of the Ba'ath regime. Although some basic rights for women, such as the right to education, employment, divorce in civil courts and custody over kids, were endorsed in the Personal Status Code, some of these legal rights were routinely violated.

The Ba'ath regime's "faithfulness campaign", an act of terrorism against women that included the summary beheading of scores of those accused of prostitution, is just one example of its brutality against women.

However, it is now almost a year after the war, which was supposed to bring "liberation" to Iraqis. Rather than an improvement in the quality of women's lives, what we have seen is widespread violence, and an escalation of violence against women.

From the start of the occupation, rape, abduction, "honor" killings and domestic violence have became daily occurrences. The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (Owfi) has informally surveyed Baghdad, and now knows of 400 women who were raped in the city between April and August last year.

A lack of security and proper policing have led to chaos and to growing rates of crime against women. Women can no longer go out alone to work, or attend schools or universities. An armed male relative has to guard a woman if she wants to leave the house.

Girls and women have become a cheap commodity to be traded in post-Saddam Iraq. Owfi knows of cases where virgin girls have been sold to neighboring countries for $200, and non-virgins for $100.

The idea that a woman represents family "honor" is becoming central to Iraqi culture, and protecting that honor has cost many women their lives in recent months. Rape is considered so shaming to the family's honor that death - by suicide or murder - is needed to expunge it.

Like Iraqi men, many women have lost their jobs. Marooned at home and lacking independence, women are faced with new miseries. Islamist groups have imposed veiling, and have issued fatwas against prostitutes. Now "entertainment" marriages are taking place. This is an Islamic version of prostitution, in which rich men marry women temporarily (often for only a few hours) in return for money.

The Iraqi Governing Council - an American creature - offers no hope for Iraqi women, consisting as it does of religious or tribal leaders and nationalists who rarely make any reference to women's rights. In fact, many IGC members have a history of violating women's rights.

For example, the Kurdish nationalist parties that have been running northern Iraq for more than 13 years have violated women's rights and tried to suppress progressive women's organizations. In July 2000, they attacked a women's shelter and the offices of an independent women's Organization Both were saving the lives of Kurdish women fleeing "honor" killings and domestic violence. More than 8,000 women have died in "honor" killings since the nationalists have been in control.

One of the IGC's first moves was symbolic. International Women's Day in Iraq has been changed from March 8 to August 18, the date of birth of Fatima Zahra, the prophet Mohammed's daughter. This has nothing to do with women's rights, and everything to do with subordinating women to religious rules.

When the IGC proposed replacing the secular law with sharia, there were big demonstrations, but these have received almost no media coverage. This is no surprise. When the Union of the Unemployed marched for jobs, American soldiers arrested some of the organizers. This, too, passed unnoticed.

What is needed is a secular constitution based on full equality between women and men, as well as the complete separation of religion from the state and education system. At a demonstration in Baghdad recently, Yanar Mohammed, Owfi's chairperson, received two death threats from an Islamist militia group. They threatened to assassinate her and "blow up" activists who work with her.

Amnesty International has taken these threats so seriously that it has written to Paul Bremer, the US chief administrator in Iraq, raising its concern for Yanar Mohammed's safety. It is urging the Coalition Provisional Authority to ensure that, amid the bombs and the atrocities, the deterioration of women's rights doesn't become a secondary issue.

The groups represented in the IGC are irrelevant to Iraqis' demands and desire for freedom. American support for Islamist groups through the IGC exposes US hypocrisy. The parties in the IGC have no legitimacy, and have not been chosen by Iraqis.

Iraq's lack of basic rights for women and the rise of political Islam are the result of three wars and the ongoing occupation. The only way out of this chaos is through the direct power of the real people of Iraq - the progressive, secular masses.

Houzan Mahmoud (houzan73@yahoo.co.uk) is the UK representative of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq - www.equalityiniraq.com

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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