Iraqi Women's Bodies Are Battlefields for War Vendettas
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The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) recently issued a frightening report documenting the growing practice of public executions of women by Shia Militia. One of the report's more grisly accounts was a story of a young woman dragged by a wire wound around her neck to a close-by football field and then hung to the goal post. They pierced her body with bullets. Her brother came running trying to defend his sister. He was also shot and killed. Sunni extremists are no better: OWFI members estimate that no less than 30 women are executed monthly for honor related reasons.
Almost four years into the Bush Administration's ill fated adventure in Iraq, Iraqi women are worse off than they were under the Baathist regime in a country where, for decades, the freedoms and rights enjoyed by Iraqi women were the envy of women in most other countries of the Middle East.
Before the U.S. invasion, Iraqi women had high levels of education. Their strong and independent women's movement had successfully forced Saddam's government to pass the groundbreaking 1959 Family Law Act which ensured equal rights in matters of personal law. Iraqi women could inherit land and property; they had equal rights to divorce and custody of their children; they were protected from domestic violence within the marriage. In other words, they had achieved real gains in the struggle for equality between women and men. Iraqi women, like all Iraqis, certainly suffered from the political repression and lack of freedom, but the secular -- albeit brutal -- Baathist regime protected women from the religious extremism that denies freedom to a majority of women in the Arab world.
The invasion of Iraq, however, changed the status of Iraqi women for the worse. Iraq's new colonial power, the United States, elevated a new group of leaders, most of who were allied with ultra conservative Shia clerics. Among the Sunni minority, the quick disappearance of their once dominant political power led to a resurgence of religious identity. Consequently, the Kurds, celebrated for their history of resistance to the Iraqi dictator, were able to reclaim traditions like honor killings, putting thousands of women at risk.
Iraqi sectarian conflict has exacerbated violence against women, making women's bodies the battlefields on which vendettas and threats are played out. My organization, The Global Fund for Women, and the humanitarian community has long known that the presence of military troops in a region of conflict increases the rate of prostitution, violence against women, and the potential for human trafficking.
While many believed that interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq would result in greater freedoms for women, international women's rights organizations like the Global Fund for Women were highly skeptical of the Bush administration's claims from the start. US representatives in Iraq failed to even listen to, much less validate, the voices of independent and secular Iraqi women leaders like Yana Mohammed during the process of drafting the constitution. As a result, the Iraqi constitution elevated Islamic law over constitutional rights for matters pertaining to personal and family matters.
For the first time in over 50 years of Iraq's history, Iraqi women's right to be treated as equal citizens has been overturned. This disgrace has happened on the watch of the United States. In many ways, it is no less shameful than the human rights abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib. If left unchallenged, it has the potential to affect many thousands of innocent lives in the years to come.
Since the US has failed to protect Iraqi women's rights, a new Secretary General of the United Nations must demonstrate the courage and conviction to take action. The women of Iraq deserve nothing less. We owe them at least this much.
Kavita N. Ramdas, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Global Fund for Women , has won numerous awards for her vision and advancement of an inclusive philanthropy in which donors and grantees are treated as equal partners.