A prominent group of Iraqi women who backed the US-British invasion recently met the American ambassador in an effort to pressure the politicians drawing up Iraq's constitution not to limit women's rights. Western feminist groups and some Iraqi women activists fear that Islamic law, if enshrined as a main source of legislation, will be used to restrict their rights, particularly in relation to marriage, divorce and inheritance. The US claims to share this concern. Iraqi women generally do not.
To understand why, perhaps we need to remember that this constitution is being written in a war zone, in a country on the verge of a civil war. This process is designed not to represent the Iraqi people's need for a constitution but to comply with an imposed timetable aimed at legitimising the occupation. The drafting process has increasingly proved a dividing, rather than a unifying, process. Under Saddam Hussein, we had a constitution described as "progressive and secular". It did not stop him violating human rights, women's included. The same is happening now. The militias of the parties heading the interim government are involved in daily violations of Iraqis' human rights, women's in particular, with the US-led occupation's blessing. Will the new constitution put an end to this violence?
Most Iraqi women try to cope sensitively with the predicament of dealing with the occupation and the rise of reactionary practices affecting their rights and way of life. This applies across the political and class spectrum, to the secular left as much as to moderate Islamists and nationalists. Most also feel that the constitution is not their priority, and that those writing such a crucial document should be able to think clearly, to think of tomorrow. To do that one must be free of today's fears and able to enjoy basic human rights, such as walking safely in the streets. Iraqi women cannot.
Despite all the rhetoric of "building a new democracy", Iraqis are buckling under the burdens and abuse of the US-led occupation and its local Iraqi sub-contractors. Daily life for most Iraqis is still a struggle for survival. Human rights under occupation have proved, like weapons of mass destruction, to be a mirage. Torture and ill-treatment - even the torture of children in adult facilities - is widespread. Depleted uranium and other banned weapons have been used against Iraqi cities by occupying troops.
Iraqi women were long the most liberated in the Middle East. Occupation has largely confined them to their homes. A typical Iraqi woman's day begins with the struggle to get the basics: electricity, petrol or a cylinder of gas, water, food and medication. It ends with a sigh of relief at surviving death threats and violent attacks. For most women, simply to venture on to the street is to risk being attacked or kidnapped for profit or revenge. Young girls are sold to neighbouring countries for prostitution.
In a land awash with oil, 16 million Iraqis rely on monthly food rations for survival. None has been received since May. Privatisation threatens free public services. Acute malnutrition among children has doubled. Unemployment, at 70%, has fuelled poverty, prostitution, backstreet abortions and honour killings. Corruption and nepotism are rampant in the interim government. Gender is no obstacle: Layla Abdul-Latif, the minister of transport in Ayad Allawi's administration, is under investigation for corruption.
A quota system imposed by Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, ensures women's participation in the interim government, the national assembly and the committee appointed to write the constitution. Iraqi women's historical struggle against colonial domination, and for national unity, social justice and legal equality, has been reduced to bickering among a handful of "women leaders" over nominal political posts.
Powerless, holed up in guarded areas, venturing out in daylight only with armed escorts, and lacking any credibility among Iraqi women, the failure of these "leaders" is catastrophic. Like their male colleagues, they have adopted a selective, largely US-oriented approach to human rights. The suffering of their sisters in cities showered with napalm, phosphorus and cluster bombs by US jets, the death of an estimated 100,000 Iraqis (half of them women and children), is met with rhetoric about training women for leadership and democracy.
Documents released in March by the American Civil Liberties Union highlight more than a dozen cases of rape and abuse of female detainees, and reveal that no action was taken against any soldier or civilian official as a result - and that US troops have destroyed evidence, to avoid a repetition of last year's Abu Ghraib scandal.
The silence of female National Assembly members and interim-government and US-financed women's NGOs is deafening. In Iraq, "women's rights" is an absurd discourse chewing on meaningless words. No wonder that the US-funded NGOs, which preach western-style women's rights and democracy, are regarded as vehicles for foreign manipulation and are despised and boycotted, even when they recruit liberal or left personalities.
Iraqi women know that the enemy is not Islam. There is a strong antipathy to anyone trying to conscript women's issues to the racist "war on terror" targeted against the Muslim world. Most Iraqi women do not regard traditional society, exemplified by the neighbourhood and extended family, however restrictive at times, as the enemy. In fact, it has in practice been the protector of women and children, of their physical safety and welfare, despite lowest-common-denominator demands on dress and personal conduct. The enemy is the collapse of the state and civil society. And the culprit is the foreign military invasion and occupation.
Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi-born novelist and former prisoner of Saddam's regime; a version of this article appeared in the Cairo weekly Al-Ahram