The US state department has launched a $10m "Iraqi women's democracy initiative" to train Iraqi women in the skills and practices of democratic life ahead of the forthcoming elections. Paula Dobriansky, US undersecretary of state for global affairs, declared:"We will give Iraqi women the tools, information and experience they need to run for office and lobby for fair treatment." The fact that the money will go mainly to organizations embedded with the US administration, such as the Independent Women's Forum (IWF) founded by Dick Cheney's wife Lynn, was, of course, not mentioned.
Of all the blunders by the US administration in Iraq, the greatest is its failure to understand Iraqi people, women in particular. The main misconception is to perceive Iraqi women as silent, powerless victims in a male-controlled society in urgent need of "liberation". This image fits conveniently into the big picture of the Iraqi people being passive victims who would welcome the occupation of their country.
The reality is different. Iraqi women were actively involved in public life even under the Ottoman empire. In 1899 the first schools for girls were established, the first women's organization in 1924. By 1937 there were four women's magazines published in Baghdad.
Women were involved in the 1920 revolution against British occupation, including in fighting. In the 50s, political parties established women's organizations All reflected the same principle: fighting alongside men, women were also liberating themselves. That was proven in the aftermath of the 1958 revolution ending the British-imposed monarchy when women's organizations achieved within two years what over 30 years of British occupation failed to: legal equality.
This process led Unicef to report in 1993: "Rarely do women in the Arab world enjoy as much power as they do in Iraq ... men and women must receive equal pay for equal work. A wife's income is recognized as independent from her husband's. In 1974, education was made free at all levels, and in 1979 it was made compulsory for girls and boys until the age of 12." By the early 90s, Iraq had one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world. There were more professional women in positions of power than in almost any other Middle Eastern nation
The tragedy was that women were living under Saddam's oppressive regime. True, women occupied high political positions, but they did nothing to protest at the injustice inflicted on their sisters who opposed the regime.
The same is happening now in "the new democratic Iraq". After "liberation", Bush and Blair trumpeted women's advancement as a centerpiece of their vision for Iraq. In the White House, hand-picked Iraqi women recited desperately needed homilies to justify the invasion of Iraq. In June, nominal sovereignty was handed over to a US-appointed Iraqi interim government, including six women cabinet ministers. They were not elected by Iraqi people.
Under Ayad Allawi's regime, "multinational forces" remain immune from legal redress, rarely accountable for crimes committed against Iraqis. The gap between women members of Allawi's regime and the majority of Iraqi women is widening by the day. While cabinet ministers and the US-UK embassies are cocooned inside the fortified green zone, Iraqis are denied the basic right of walking safely in their own streets. Right of road is for US tanks labeled: "If you pass the convoy you will be killed."
Lack of security and fear of kidnapping make Iraqi women prisoners in their own homes. They witness the looting of their country by Halliburton, Bechtel, US NGOs, missionaries, mercenaries and local subcontractors, while they are denied clean water and electricity. In the land of oil, they have to queue five hours a day to get kerosene or petrol. Acute malnutrition has doubled among children. Unemployment at 70% is exacerbating poverty, prostitution, backstreet abortion and honor killing. Corruption and nepotism are rampant in the interim government. Al-Naqib, minister of interior admitted that he had appointed 49 of his relatives to high-ranking jobs, but only because they were qualified.
The killing of academics, journalists and scientists has not spared women: Liqa Abdul Razaq, a newsreader at al-Sharqiyya TV, was shot with her two-month-old baby. Layla al-Saad, dean of law at Mosul University was slaughtered in her house.
The silence of the "feminists" of Allawi's regime is deafening. The suffering of their sisters in cities showered with napalm, phosphorus and cluster bombs by US jet fighters, the death of about 100,000 Iraqi civilians, half of them women and children, is met with rhetoric about training for democracy.
Tony Blair, acknowledged yesterday in Baghdad that violence would continue both before and after the January 30 elections, but added: "On the other hand we will have a very clear expression of democratic will." Does he not know that "democracy" is what Iraqi women use nowadays to frighten their naughty children, by shouting: "Quiet, or I'll call democracy."
Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi-born novelist and former prisoner of the Saddam regime. He can be reached at email@example.com
© 2004 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.