Little to Celebrate
On March 8, 2003, international women's day, Iraqi women had little to celebrate. They were living under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the weight of onerous UN sanctions, and living in fear of impending war. This year, Saddam Hussein is gone and sanctions have been lifted. But Iraqi women face a brand new set of burdens.
Iraqi women, like Iraqi men, wage a day-to-day struggle just to survive: They face a devastating 60 percent unemployment rate, constant shortages of electricity and clean drinking water, a crumbling transportation network, and a ruined health care system. But Iraqi women also have to cope with an unanticipated consequence of Hussein's ouster: the breakdown of the rule of law that has led to an unprecedented spate of rapes and kidnappings. Add to that the daily bombings and the travails of living under an occupying force, and it is no surprise that many Iraqi women are afraid to even venture out of their homes. "The situation for women is worse now than before the war," said Eman Ahmed Khammas who directs the Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad. "Because of the security situation, it's really very difficult to move around and very dangerous. Families are afraid for their daughters and don't allow them to be outside on their own."
Worse yet, in the long view, is a fear that Iraqi women's rights, won over a century of struggles, are now being eroded by the rising power of conservative Muslim clerics. Many Iraqi women fault the U.S. for shoring up the clerics, while failing to promote women to decision-making positions.
In December 2003, a coalition of Iraqi women's groups, most of whom had supported the US invasion, delivered a scathing letter to the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) denouncing a litany of discriminatory political appointments. The letter noted that there are only 3 women out of 25 on the Interim Governing Council; no women governors have been appointed in any of the 18 provinces, not one woman on the 9-person committee that wrote the just-completed Fundamental Law. There is only 1 woman in charge of one of the 25 government ministries.
And remember that one of the few noteworthy achievements of the Iraqi government prior to the invasion was that there were more professional women in positions of power than in almost any other Middle Eastern nation.
The relatively low key struggle between conservative clerics and women activists recently exploded within the US-appointed Governing Council over Code 137, a reactionary resolution passed by Council but not approved by the US authorities. The resolution would have scrapped Iraq's 1959 family affairs code -- considered among the most progressive in the Middle East -- and placed family law under Muslim religious jurisdiction.
Zakia Ismael Hakki, a retired woman judge, said that the new law would "send Iraqi families back to the Middle Ages" by stripping women of equal rights around marriage, divorce, children, inheritance, and property rights. Iraqi women promptly mobilized against the Code, with street protests and petitions that elicited international support. The women garnered a temporary victory when the substance of the code was dropped from the interim constitution approved on March 1. But conservative clerics and political parties like the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq vow to try again once political control is turned over the Iraqis on June 30.
Iraqi women are fully cognizant of the danger and are preemptively organizing to defend their rights in the post-June 30 Iraqi government. They spearheaded a national drive to have at least 40 percent representation in public administration, legislative bodies and the judiciary. The interim constitution, however, calls for a more modest 25 percent representation for women. Moreover, this is only a target, not a compulsory quota, and it only applies to the interim assembly and not appointed positions.
Yanar Mohamed, leader of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq who has received death threats because of her battles for women's rights, sees this as a critical juncture for Iraqi women. "Either we organize and demand our social and political freedoms or we give way to a theocracy and the institutionalized, legalized oppression of women in Iraq." It would be a sad irony indeed if an invasion that is now being sold as a war of liberation for Iraqis -- now that no WMDs can be found -- leads to a government that erodes the gains of Iraqi women.
Medea Benjamin is co-founder of women's peace group CodePink and the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange.