Women are the Biggest Losers: Reflecting on the War in Iraq

In the third week of December 2011, a confluence of political events profoundly affecting Iraqi and American women took place.

In that week, the remaining occupying US troops in Iraq were withdrawn, unceremoniously in a fortified concrete courtyard, with only a small band playing as the US flag was furled. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta avowed that the price was high, but the US invasion and occupation "gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq." Iraq President Maliki did not attend.

By contrast to the discreet exit, President Obama welcomed returning US troops at Fort Bragg with big braggadocios. The war was "one of the most extraordinary chapters in American military history." Having sacrificed so much for "people they never met," the returning soldiers are part of what makes "us special as Americans." Unlike other empires, which wage war for resources and territory, "We do it because it's right."

The same week, Yanar Mohammed, founding director of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), was interviewed on the state of Iraq as the American occupation ends. She described Iraqi cities full of destroyed buildings and broken streets, with intermittent electricity and unsafe drinking water. Iraq, she said, is now a country of 99% poor and 1% rich living in the Green Zone, burdened with the most corrupt government in the world that is giving control of oil resources to multinational oil companies.

Iraqi women "are the biggest losers" in this war, Mohammed asserted, ending up with extreme lack of freedom, lack of social security, lack of opportunity, and increased sexual terror. Her organization has conducted extensive high-risk investigations into the prevalence and plight of Iraqi widows, women kidnapped and killed, and women trafficked into prostitution. Fifteen percent of Iraq's 1 to 2 million widows are seeking temporary marriages out of economic desperation and extreme insecurity in being a single woman. By 2006, OWFI had observed an "epidemic rise" in the number of women prostituted in brothels, workplaces, and hideouts in Baghdad. Through covert investigation, they learned of the trafficking of women within Iraq for Iraqi men in all regions and for US military, as well as to nearby countries. Democracy in Iraq has been crushed for women.

American women soldiers in Iraq were big losers, also. Nearly 200,000 served there, in as dangerous situations as men. Though barred from combat, they patrolled streets with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles, dismantled explosives, driven trucks down bomb-ridden streets, and rescued the dead and injured in battle zones. These same women found themselves, concurrently, caught in a second, more damaging war - a private, preemptive one in the barracks. As one female soldier put it, "They basically assume that because you are a girl in the Army, you're obligated to have sex with them." Resisting sexual assault in the barracks spills over to battlefield, according to many women veterans, in the form of relentless verbal sexual harassment, punitive high-risk assignments, and the morbid sense that your back is not being watched.

An estimated one in three active duty woman is sexually assaulted; nearly all report constant sexual harassment. Patricia Resick, a psychiatrist who researches PTSD in women at the Boston Veterans Administration, asserts "sexual trauma is a more significant risk factor for PTSD than combat or the types of trauma that men generally experience." Resick adds that sexual trauma, unlike combat trauma, is caused by people who are supposed to bond with you and protect you and that betrayal by those you need to trust with your life deepens the harm.

In another key event of the week, the State Department released the National Action Plan (NAO) on Women, Peace and Security, championed by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The NAO brings the US into compliance with the UN resolutions that call for integrating women as full partners in conflict resolution and peace building. Its purpose is to assure that US diplomatic, defense, and development policies are gauged in part by their impact on women in countries where we engage diplomatically, militarily and economically. One example of implementing the National Action Plan would be to "strengthen protection for women and girls in conflict situations, with greater focus on greater legal accountability for rape and sexual violence."

Tragically, our diplomatic and defense policies in Iraq created the opposite: conditions in which up to two million widows are penniless; legions of women were killed by fundamentalists squads in Basra; thousands have been trafficked for prostitution; and Shari'a domestic law in which "women are worth 1/2 of men legally, and 1/4 of men socially," is embedded within the new constitution. The same war has left tens of thousands of American women soldiers broken physically, mentally, and spiritually from military sexual trauma instigated by fellow soldiers. Having the fortitude to acknowledge publicly that women are "the biggest losers" in our vainglorious militarist policies in Iraq and elsewhere would give substance and integrity to the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. Physician heal thyself.

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