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


The US war in Iraq utilised sexualised torture. MADRE has called special attention to the widespread use of rape and other forms of torture against women detainees by US and Iraqi forces. The OWFI further documents these atrocities in their Women's Prison Watch project. Right wing militias stepped into the power vacuum left after the overthrow of Hussein and they continue their attack - abductions, assassinations and rapes - on women in the hopes of establishing their preferred extremist theocracy.

MADRE has disclosed that the US armed and trained right wing Islamist militias using torture and gender violence in Iraq and yet anti-war activists have been slow to highlight the gendered aspect of the violence gripping Iraq. US media has largely ignored the thousands of Iraqi women who have been detained and tortured during the US occupation. Instead of a thunderous critique of "feminicide" in Iraq, there is a pretense of concern for women's rights. Similar conditions exist in Afghanistan.

According to Yifat Susskind, executive director of MADRE, they along with OWFI have established a network of women's shelters in the non-Kurdish part of Iraq to address the violence towards any gender non-conforming person. These safe houses include protection for gays and lesbians and others in danger of gender violence, uniting women's rights and LGBT activism for a first time. This action allowed for a particular kind of Iraqi Arab Spring in Baghdad's Tahrir Square in 2011.

Contrary to popular understanding in the US, neither the Bush nor Obama administration has put the protection of women's rights in Iraq (or Afghanistan) at centre stage. Instead it has traded women's rights for a fragile cooperation at great cost to women's equality. Wars of all and any sort are not good for most of us, anywhere. And, they create human and environmental disasters beside all else.

These disasters afflict children in particular, and the women who care for them as well. According to Yanar Mohammed, director of OWFI, at this ten-year anniversary there is an alarming increase in birth defects and cancers among young children. This is especially the case in places like Haweeja, a town about two hours drive from Baghdad, used as a munitions dump by the US military. This consequence of the war will not end any time soon.

Beyond imperial feminism

So, I have wandered far afield here, and also, not. The Iraq War in its many articulations bleeds over a 22 year period. Never has there been a war that so few in the imperial country have cared so little about. There has been too little attention paid, and much too little grieving done.

Attention and action is still needed. Those living with the aftermath of war, especially the gender violence of militarised countries at home and abroad need us to lean in - stand in, stand with and stir up resistance -  with them. As the war in Iraq transforms and the war in Afghanistan is downsized, the gender/ed violence on women continues. Resistance to it must be sustained as well.

Imperial feminism does not work for most women in the US or abroad, so it makes little sense to endorse it. Feminism promised to the many by the few does not work. Trickle-down feminism does not work.

I am reminded of my friend Egyptian feminist Nawal el Saadawi's response to a question asked to her at a teach-in in New York City just after the revolution in Tahrir Square. When asked what people in the US could do to support the revolution in Egypt she said: "Make your own revolution and change your government for us." 

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