Women Under Siege | The Nation


Women Under Siege

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Many Iraqis are hopeful that Islamic leaders will take it upon themselves to institute changes in favor of women. Maybe--but I had to wonder what kind of liberation that would be when I visited a small mosque in Salam City one Friday afternoon. Mosques in Iraq open their main spaces only for men to pray, but this one had announced the seemingly radical decision to offer the space for a women's service instead. That first Friday, more than a hundred women formed lines of black abayas (the garment that covers all but a woman's face, hands and feet), performing the elaborate kneeling and standing choreography of Friday prayer in the stifling space. The two-hour service was broken by a solemn sermon, in which the prayer leader repeated for upwards of ten minutes the importance of waking two hours early to prepare meals for husbands and children and to clean the house so that prayer attendance would in no way interrupt domestic duties. "We used to talk about equality," said Hanaa Edwards, an Iraqi activist, after hearing about the service. "Now we only talk about this kind of advancement."

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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A few do still talk about equality, most notably Yanar Mohammed, whose bare arms in this sweltering country would be enough to establish iconoclasm, even leaving aside the radically secular group she has founded since the war, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq. Mohammed travels with bodyguards and packs a pistol in her compact handbag because of the death threats she has received for her very public views. She has appeared on Al Jazeera arguing that the hijab constitutes a form of slavery for women--a view not very popular in a country where Shiite extremists have been invading university classrooms with machine guns to threaten women who will not cover their heads, as they have been doing since summer exams began in occupied Basra. "Who should we fear more these days, these religious fascists or the men who are kidnapping and raping women?" she says, her dark eyes shining in anger.

But talk to Mohammed about how to establish a secular democracy and impossible contradictions abound. "Of course everyone should be given a free vote," she says, "and of course we should have a secular government." The trouble is, it's likely that only a small minority of Iraqis would use their votes to such ends. Indeed, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the cleric who has the ear and esteem of the majority of Shiites, who in turn make up the majority of the country, recently proposed that Islam be "considered a main source for the constitution," according to Jalal Talabani, current president of the Governing Council. This will surely add momentum to a constitutional process already on that track. The council's appointed Constitutional Provisional Committee (an all-male gang) had intimated that an Iraqi constitution would need to have a distinctly Islamic flavor. Now Sistani and his representatives want the general public to elect the constitution's drafters--a move that would almost certainly ensure a Sharia-based constitution, which does not bode well for women's rights.

For women, moreover, the sad irony is that while many Iraqis would see any attempt to help them as a US ploy (à la Colonel Heider), the coalition is doing nothing to help them anyway. In the aftermath of so many failed wars, Saddam played the misogyny card as a way of appealing to the millions of Iraqi men who felt their masculinity had been robbed by defeat, and then poverty. The absence of action on the part of the coalition is, in effect, doing much the same thing, sacrificing women to the larger cause of currying favor with an increasingly restive male population.

When the coalition claimed Saddam's palaces as its own and sought to establish legitimacy and control with existing non-Baathist structures, the Shiite majority Saddam had violently ostracized was the most organized game in town. But the coalition failed to grapple with the human rights consequences of a power shift in that direction, especially as far as women, who make up 65 percent of Iraq's war-ravaged population, are concerned. While new governmental ministries were created to support various causes like the environment and displaced people, a ministry of women's affairs was immediately rejected. (Instead, a single person is the dedicated "focal point" for women's issues; none of various people who have occupied that revolving-door position have been permitted any real authority within the coalition.) Over dinner in the palace cafeteria one night, when I discussed the accelerating crisis for women with two high-ranking American officials in the Interior Ministry--which oversees police and security--I was told with shocking candor as my pen perched over my reporter's notebook: "We don't do women." It's hardly a dirty secret that our government abroad views women's rights as at most a secondary concern, yet it was thoroughly sobering to hear this lack of interest so casually discussed.

As anticoalition violence erupts with greater intensity, officials retreat farther behind the tank-guarded checkpoints of their security compound, and many of the existing resources of Iraq--the once-great university system, the numerous women's groups that dream of the opportunity to take advantage of their newfound freedom of speech, the millions of educated women who survived the terrors of the regime only to be threatened by random abduction, rape and murder--are being overlooked and squandered in favor of tribal and Islamic structures and the airlifted and imposed rule by US-led committee. The Americans' utter lack of comprehension of what Iraqi women have to offer was apparent at a meeting about women's work prospects, when one well-meaning camouflage-clad officer said to rows of female attendees, including many professionals such as judges and doctors, "Under the occupation, you can think about what work is appropriate for women to do--you don't have to just sew anymore."

Before her death, Governing Council member al-Hashimi warned of putting too much emphasis on what the coalition could accomplish through top-down initiatives. "You must not impose by laws what culture should be. Culture creates laws, not the other way around," she said. Of course, laws can provide a buffer when culture fosters human rights abuses. But al-Hashimi's ideas resonate with many people working to address the difficulty of life as an Iraqi woman, like Hanaa Edwards, whose group, called Al Amal (Arabic for "hope"), is instituting human rights training courses for women throughout Baghdad, modeled on a program thousands of women have attended in the more liberal Kurdish north. "I used to think in terms of political reform," says this veteran of the 1960s student movement. "Now I think about the grassroots. Now, humanitarian assistance is what's important." It is perhaps unimaginable now that the governing authority could work at the grassroots level as well, establishing shelters for women in need, or reforming the social infrastructure, which now requires women who have been raped to undergo a forensics test at the morgue and counsels women seeking divorce to work it out with their husbands.

Unless the coalition and the conservative tribal and religious authorities of Iraq are somehow compelled to recognize that women are crucial to the future of the country--not just as mothers and homemakers but as full members and leaders of Iraqi society--the current situation is not likely to improve. Which means, for example, that men will continue to have the right to marry additional wives without spousal permission, except if Hakki's reforms pass, in which case they would have to demonstrate their wife (or wives') sexual dysfunction or mental illness. Hadil Jawad will continue to live under threat, knowing that if her brother or father or uncle sees her he may shoot her in the head, or strangle her with a rope, or stab her to death with a kitchen knife, as a member of the Iraqi police nonchalantly described the manner of so many honor killings. Zainab and Hanaa will continue to believe that the Iraqi police force that ignores them is in fact safeguarding them as they hide out at home. And each day it becomes less likely that Raba and the millions of women like her will stay out until 2 o'clock in the morning any time soon.

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