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.”