Women Under Siege | The Nation


Women Under Siege

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To women who remember the days before the cultural shifts that followed the Baathist seizure of power in 1968, when freedom from rape was an Iraqi value, not a Western construct, it's this misogynistic culture that is an imposition. "Do you think this is the real Iraq?" says Amal Al-Khaderi, a member of Baghdad's intelligentsia who remembers a very different life here. "This is Iraq since the wars. This Iraq where women are covered, stay inside, do not speak their mind, this is not Iraq, not the real Iraq." Today's Iraqi culture is a multilayered and deeply complicated dish of still-living ancient tribal traditions, varying forms of Islam and the vestiges of a modern secular society that not so long ago saw miniskirted women working for equal pay, heading ministries and demonstrating for equality throughout the nation's cities. Under Saddam those women receded from view as their groups were outlawed and their rights stripped. Today, when associations like the Iraqi Women's League, the oldest such group in the country, are allowed free speech and organization, subjects like rape go unmentioned for fear of angering the newly empowered religious authorities. "We can't even mention such things," says founding member Wassan Al Souz, who shudders in frustration at the situation in which she finds her group. "Just like under Saddam, the problem is the barrier of fear" in this insecure environment, she says.

Lauren Sandler investigated issues of women and culture in Iraq on behalf of the Carr Foundation.

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Lauren Sandler
Lauren Sandler, who writes about media and culture, lives in New York.

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That is also why women's groups like the league have decided they cannot take on the penal code Saddam enacted in 1990, which obliterated most rights of women. "What is law? Something you write with a pencil," the dictator once said flippantly, explaining why he could change laws at will and ignore the Iraqi Constitution, which guaranteed equal rights for men and women. His laws remain what the police as well as judges, even women judges I met, enthusiastically continue to enforce since the war. Laws permit a man to take up to four wives, and they deny women rights in issues of inheritance and divorce. Then there are laws like Article 427, which states that a rapist is not guilty of rape if he marries his victim. Or Article 409, which prescribes leniency for any man who murders his female relative if she has had sexual intercourse--including rape--that could dishonor the family.

At the CPA's interim Ministry of Justice, a row of cubicles crammed into a marble stateroom in Saddam's former Baghdad palace, Zakia Hakki taps away at her keyboard with long fingernails. This elegant woman wrapped head to toe in black, who was one of Iraq's first women judges, had just been hired by the CPA to make recommendations about legal reforms. At first she seems like a true flash of hope for women's rights within the occupation--a progressive past as an activist in Kurdistan, a strong connection to her country, a history of work and study in Washington. But after some prodding she begins to describe the legal reforms she imagines, and the complex ideological contradictions that bind so many Iraqi women present themselves. For all her talk of change, Hakki does not believe Saddam's laws should be jettisoned. "Take polygamy," she says. "We need to change the law. If a man is going to take another wife, it can only be because she is mentally ill, sexually dysfunctional, can't have a child or has AIDS. You know, things like that. We can't just let men do whatever they want just because they want it. We need rules." The new rules, of course, sound awfully similar to the old ones, but she justifies her modest approach simply: These laws exist to protect the sanctity and longevity of the family. And in this country that has known nothing for decades but fear, the family and a strong and self-protecting tribal culture represent the only hope for stability and comfort.

Tension between protecting the family and protecting women's rights is a common theme in Iraq, when women gab over lunch in their homes or discuss politics in the heavily guarded meeting rooms of the CPA compound. This past September, I spoke with Governing Council member Aquila al-Hashimi in the marble jewel box of a building that only recently housed a segment of the fallen regime and now serves as the council headquarters. As a member of the previous Ministry of Foreign Affairs, al-Hashimi was not allowed to leave the country without a male relative, so fierce was the notion that women, even ones in high positions, needed to be protected. This perceived need to protect women, said al-Hashimi, was inextricably linked to the central concept of honor. And honor worked to represent not just men's interests but those of the families they headed. It was the ideal of protecting the family that made the law codes, and the culture that absorbed them, palatable to women. "Take honor killings," said al-Hashimi. "They only exist to protect the family. That may sound crazy, but it is simply a question of culture." (Two days after our conversation, al-Hashimi was fatally shot, leaving only two women on the Governing Council.)

The women who live in fear of "honor" killings have little support in Iraq, as Hadil Jawad attests. After Jawad ran off with her neighbor--a man her family passionately disapproved of--eight years ago, her parents and brother made regular visits to her husband's family's home in the hopes that the couple would arrive and they could make good on their desire to murder their daughter, or "wash the scandal," as it is called here. She and her husband returned to Baghdad after living on the lam before the war, Jawad says, but she still expects every day to be recognized by a relative who will put an end to her life. "I am scared to run into my brother and my uncles, and yet I am still dying to hear news of my family," she sighs. Each time a woman is raped or even kidnapped--since most families assume that the kidnapping of a woman results in rape--her life is endangered not just by her abductors but by her closest relatives. "A lot of women are like me," says Jawad, beginning a litany of horror stories. Jawad, who unlike most women in this city refuses to cover her long wavy hair with the hijab, or headscarf, blames Islam and its Sharia law for the culture that she says makes certain her future murder.

Other women activists are doing their best to work within the Islamic system, like Manal Omar, a Muslim American who heads the Iraq field office of the Washington-based group Women for Women International. When Omar was attempting to set up work-training programs for women here, she was astonished to hear many women say that they would be breaking Islam's tenets if they took jobs. Omar's response was to approach Shiite clerics throughout the country and convince them to issue fatwas permitting women to work. "It's not news that Islam and women's rights can coexist--I mean look at me," she says, a round face full of urban American attitude glowing from under her hijab.

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