As the right wing’s antifeminist front, the sisters of the Independent Women’s Forum have been such a hit in this country that they’re now getting taxpayer money to take their act on the road. In September the State Department announced the IWF would receive part of a new $10 million grant program to “train Iraqi women in the skills and practices of democratic public life.”
At first glance, the IWF might seem a surprising choice for such a task. Founded in the early 1990s with funds from conservative foundations–Scaife, Bradley, Carthage and the rest–the IWF, by its own definition, leads the US opposition to the US women’s liberation movement. The group’s members, now peppered throughout the Bush Administration and the media, include Lynne Cheney and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
The IWF could teach plenty about how to mount slanderous media attacks that skew the debate on affirmative action, equality in education and equal pay, and they know a thing or two about rolling back government regulations and challenging pro-equality legislation in court. But women’s groups that work in Iraq say that’s not exactly what Iraqi women need now.
Contaminated water is health problem number one. “Whole communities are suffering from outbreaks of cholera, intestinal infections and kidney stones,” says Yifat Susskind of Madre. Malnutrition is up and jobs are scarce. Women, once 40 percent of public sector workers, became mostly unemployed after occupation layoffs. And then there’s the fear that women will bear the brunt of US plans for large-scale privatization in Iraq, initiated during the administration of former occupation chief Paul Bremer.
“As society’s primary caretakers, Iraqi women will be forced to absorb the burden created by the elimination of public healthcare, education, housing, food subsidies, water services and other programs designed to meet the basic needs of the population,” says Susskind. “The majority of the poor, they stand to lose access to critical social services in a ‘free-market’ Iraq.”
Yet the State Department’s plan, as described by Coordinator for International Women’s Issues April Palmerlee in September 2002, is to “promote freedom, faith and free markets through promoting women’s issues” in Iraq. In other words, push privatization using the rhetoric of women’s rights.
Here’s where the flacks and ideologues of the IWF come in. Although primarily known stateside for its critique of feminism, the IWF has always served an economic agenda: “free market” capitalism, corporate rights and government deregulation. The group opposes the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, for example, because they consider its equal-pay requirements “antithetical to free market principles.”
Nancy Pfotenhauer, president and CEO of the IWF, is a former director of the Washington office of Koch Industries and was chief economist on George Bush Senior’s Council on Competitiveness. She heads not only IWF but also its sidekick, Americans for Prosperity, a deregulation lobby subsidized heavily by Koch, the second-largest privately held company in the United States. (Koch has been caught stealing oil from federal and Indian land and covering up the release of clouds of carcinogenic benzene from its Texas refinery.) Pfotenhauer, who used her spot at the IWF to lobby against CAFE emission standards (a woman’s issue?), has no credentials in advancing women’s democratic rights, but she could teach Iraqis a barrelful about privatizing oil. (Imagine the rallies: Oil rights are women’s rights!)
The IWF’s grant is for a twelve-month stint, though Iraq’s elections are supposedly just two months away. It will be sharing its grant money with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), whose “distinguished advisers” include Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, William Kristol and Gary Bauer. IWF’s Iraqi partners include Women for a Free Iraq (WFI), an organization made up mostly of Iraqi exiles in America who put a female-friendly gloss on the US operation to oust Saddam Hussein and now on Iraqi “democracy.”
The WFI received early support from the FDD and Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, whose office oversees the Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative grants. Dobriansky held numerous press conferences highlighting the WFI around the US invasion, including one at the Heritage Foundation. “Those who have taken to the streets with signs reading No War in Iraq are misled,” a Kurdish WFI member told the Washington press corps at one event a few weeks after the February 15, 2003, antiwar demonstrations. Dobriansky’s office also arranged for WFI members to meet with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. One of the exiled women on the WFI circuit was Zainab Al Suwaij, the director of the American Islamic Congress (another State Department co-grantee), who spoke at this year’s Republican convention.
What will the IWF do with the money? If its meetings so far are any indication, it will preach the virtues of unfettered capitalism. This July the IWF held a summit on “democracy, economic liberty, free markets and women,” co-sponsored by the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq (a group formed of WFI members and backed by FDD). “WAFDI’s mission is to empower Iraqi women in all areas of the society. And, definitely that won’t be possible without a free market,” wrote WAFDI’s director, Basmi Fakri, in an e-mail. “IWF hosted a two hour session only on [the] free market for the Iraqi women delegates who came for a ten day democracy training.”
Upon hearing of their grant award this fall, the IWF declared, “We’d like to train 150 pro-democracy women on the fundamentals of democracy, women’s political activism in a democracy…to enable Iraqi women to participate in their country and help Iraq develop a democracy that best suits the needs of that country.” Evidently, it believes democracy comes in many shapes and sizes. The kind it and the neocons like best should come with a label: “Made in the USA.”