In Basra, Iraq's second largest city, 2008 was ushered in with an announcement of the 2007 death toll of women targeted by Islamist militias. City officials reported on December 31 that 133 women were killed and mutilated last year, their bodies dumped in trash bins with notes warning others against "violating Islamic teachings..." But ambulance drivers who are hired to troll the city streets in the early mornings to collect the bodies confirm what most residents believe: the actual numbers are much higher.
The killers' leaflets are not very original. They usually accuse the women of being prostitutes or adulterers. But those murdered are more likely to be doctors, professors, or journalists. We know this because activists from the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) have taken on the gruesome task of visiting city morgues to try and determine the scale and pattern of the killings. According to OWFI, most of the women who have been murdered "are PhD holders, professionals, activists, and office workers."
Their crime is not "promiscuity," but rather opposition to the transformation of Iraq into an Islamist state. That bloody transition has been the main political trend under US occupation. It's no secret who is killing the women of Basra. Shiite political forces empowered by the US invasion have been terrorizing women there since 2003. Within weeks of the invasion, these groups established "Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" squads, which many Iraqis refer to simply as "misery gangs." They began by patrolling the streets, harassing and sometimes beating women who did not dress or behave to their liking. Coalition forces did nothing to stop them, and soon the militias escalated their violence to torturing and assassinating anyone who they saw as an obstacle to turning Iraq into an Islamist state.
The Culture Card
Despite the clearly political nature of these killings, US media generally portray violence against Iraqi women as an unfortunate part of Arab or Muslim "culture." For instance, journalist Kay S. Hymowitz has catalogued the "inventory of brutality" committed by men in the "Muslim world," railing against "the savage fundamentalist Muslim oppression of women." Hymowitz echoes a commonly held assumption, namely that gender-based violence, when committed in the Middle East, derives from Islam.
Of course, pinning violence against women on Islam is politically useful: it helps to dehumanize Muslims and justify US intervention in their countries. It also deflects attention from the many ways that US policy has ignored and enabled violence against the women of Iraq (like championing political leaders with an openly-stated intent to unravel women's legal rights). But in fact, culture alone explains very little. All human behavior has cultural dimensions, but culture is merely a context, not a cause or a useful explanation for violence, whether in Iraq or anywhere else.
It makes much more sense to examine gender-a system of power relations whose number one enforcement mechanism is recourse to violence against women. There is nothing "Muslim" about that system, except that its Muslim proponents, like their Jewish, Christian, and Hindu counterparts, use culture and religion to rationalize women's subjugation.
In fact, shifting the focus from culture to gender reveals a system of power that is nearly universal. Yanar Mohammed, the founder of OWFI, describes this year's killings of women in Basra as a campaign "to restrain women into the domestic domain and end all female participation in the social and political scene." Compare her comment to Amnesty International's conclusion about the ongoing mass killings of women in Guatemala. According to Amnesty, that wave of violence, "carries with it a perverse message: women should abandon the public space they have won at much personal and social effort and shut themselves back up in the private world, abandoning their essential role in national development." This certainly captures the intent of Iraq's Islamists, who have little in common with the killers of women in Guatemala, other than a rigid adherence to a gendered system of power.
Instead of lamenting the "brutality" of Islam, the US media should start connecting the dots between the US occupation and the empowerment of people who use violence against women as a strategy to pursue their political agenda. We can start with the fact that the Pentagon has trained, armed, and funded the very militias that are killing the women of Basra.
Yifat Susskind is MADRE Communications Director.