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"Leaning in" in Iraq: Women's Rights and War?


The beginnings of the US wars with Iraq started with Bush Sr in 1991. Embargoes, sanctions, and bombing raids have strung together decades of militarised US brutality towards Iraq. Repeated lies about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's capabilities ignited the 2003 illegal invasion. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives in this period and several million have been displaced by this US occupation. Huge numbers of these people are women - the very women that Laura Bush promised to "save".

In the weeks leading up to this 10-year anniversary of the 2003 war there has been precious little said about actual women's rights in Iraq. Media venues and screens of all sorts instead are in full gear discussing feminist dilemmas in the US, from Sheryl Sandberg's need for powerful women to lean in, to whether women - that fantasmatic unspecified category - can "have it all", or "not".

These are messy times we live in. Wars are said to end (and they really don't) and the war/s on women across the globe - from Congo, to Egypt, to Afghanistan, to the US Republican party - are not counted amongst them anyway. There is much noise about Sandberg of Facebook fame telling women to lean in - meaning to stay at the table and persevere - to get top leadership roles, while most women here and elsewhere have no chance for the top rungs of power. Do not be confused by the fact that Secretary of States Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary - who leans in readily - spoke on behalf of women's rights while getting little in return.

It is problematic and troubling that Sandberg readily claims to be a feminist, without qualifying that her kind of feminism is corporatist and way too exclusionary. Her notion of "true equality" requires more women to be at the top - in leadership positions in government and the corporate structure. She supposedly believes that these women can change the world for the rest of women, and men. But, so far, they have not done so in meaningful ways. Shall I remind us of Madeleine Albright's famous statement when asked about US sanctions against Iraq that endangered the lives of 100 of thousands children? She said: "We think the price is worth it."

So what is a girl or woman to think? Hillary finishes up her stint as Secretary of State and is lauded as one of the best, ever. She is acclaimed for her "women's rights" foreign policy agenda and the gratitude of women worldwide. Little is said about the imperial stance of her framing, or the gender violence that US policy has triggered and continues for women across the globe under her watch. Women in Iraq, and Afghanistan and Egypt are standing up, what Sandberg might term leaning in, but against patriarchal practices that US policy is implicated in.

These complex relations and their related exclusionary silences seem to appear everywhere. The new Pope Francis is hailed as a friend of the poor. He is lauded for his dedication to a simple life and a concern with poverty. But he has a fraught history with Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner over the right of women to free contraception and also the acceptability of gay marriage. It seems that the Pope is no friend to women and/or gays or trans people whether they are poor or not. Little is said of his exclusionary doctrine, so it remains invisible - like much gender violence and inequality alongside wars for women's rights.

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