Three years ago this month, Vivian Salim Mati drove with her family from their Baghdad home toward the airport highway to escape a bombing raid. As they were leaving the city, an American tank fired on them without warning. Mati recalls seeing the soldier shooting bullets from the top of the tank. Within moments, her husband, her two sons, her daughter and her mother-in-law were shot dead in the car. Mati received neither explanation from occupation forces nor compensation for her loss.
Earlier this year Mati decided to join a delegation of Iraqi women to visit the United States and recount her experiences in the war. Mati traveled the dangerous route from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, to obtain her US visa. However, her visa was denied on the grounds that she might overstay her visit because she lacked “sufficient family ties that would compel her to return” to Iraq. Her fellow delegates, who recounted this story, felt it especially grievous that the US government cited Mati’s lack of family–deaths for which America was responsible–to explain why she could not enter the country.
Code Pink, a national women’s group known for its creative approach to antiwar activism and signature pink outfits, sponsored and accompanied the delegation on a month-long nationwide tour. In their encounters with Americans, which began March 8 with meetings and events in Washington, DC, to mark International Women’s Day, the Iraqi women hope to convey the grim realities of the US occupation, one that has been essentially invisible to American citizens and lawmakers.
They are not just offering testimony about the impact of the ongoing violence on families and children; they have come to initiate change by lobbying for US accountability and withdrawal from Iraq. Like Cindy Sheehan, who focused America’s attention on the war by publicly grieving for her son, antiwar activists are making a subtle but important shift in focus from protest demonstrations to pushing for legislation, taking their personal experiences of the war into policy-makers’ chambers.
In their first public meeting in the United States, the Iraqi delegates spoke from the corner of a chapel in Manhattan and described the deteriorating conditions for women under the occupation. Entisar Mohammad Ariabi, a pharmacist in a large hospital in Baghdad, explained the daily conditions in her workplace: wards full of bloody bodies from roadside explosives and shootings, and doctors who have few sterilization tools or other medical supplies. “And everywhere there are women–wives, mothers, daughters–crying for their dead loved ones,” she said.
“Death is the familiar in Iraq. It is normal to go to the hospital and ask about your friends and family,” added delegate Faiza al-Araji, a civil engineer living as a refugee in Jordan. The delegates choose words to describe the violence that are blunt and clinical–tanks, blood, torture and shrapnel–dispassionately reciting one loss after another.
While many accounts describe the brutality of war, others capture the more insidious aspects of occupation: a lack of clean drinking water, sewage-contaminated rivers, mounting theft and internal strife as people fight over mundane necessities like light bulbs and batteries, electricity that runs for only an hour a day–not long enough for hospitals to operate or for people to use the Internet. Worst of all is the normalcy of fear: of midnight raids, of random explosions and of one another. The results have transformed society–Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds are pitted against one another, and children’s psyches are warped by the traumas of violence and loss.
The streets and public areas in Iraq are filled with insecurity, chaos and danger. The safe, functional world for most Iraqi families has closed in, collapsing from the city and streets to the home. Al-Araji noted that mothers largely choose to keep their children at home to study instead of sending them to school, where they may be shot, hurt or unable to return.
Al-Araji explained that her frustration with this chaos motivated her to come to the United States: “We can’t instigate change inside our own country. Listen to the irony in this story: We have to come to Washington and talk to the people there to change the situation in Iraq. The decision-makers are here.” The Iraqi peace delegation, composed of human-rights activists, doctors and engineers, say they had tried to advocate for policy change in Iraq. Some had taken documentation of rights abuses to the Ministry of Human Rights and asked about detainees, but got no results.
Code Pink offered to sponsor the delegates in the United States as part of an international peace effort that brings together women who suffered loss from all sides of the Iraq conflict. But the two groups occasionally struggle over what political measures are most effective.
In a morning strategy meeting in Washington, Code Pink organizers discussed possible courses of action for International Women’s Day. As Code Pink’s Susan Joi described in her blog, the American women suggested displaying graphic photos of the carnage of war, candlelight vigils and musical protest. But one of the Iraqi women declared that such tactics seemed small in light of the actions needed to end the war. “She spoke about how destroyed her country is, how dangerous it is for her and all Iraqis. She noted that it is dangerous for US soldiers as well,” Joi wrote. And as the meeting went on it grew increasingly apparent that the struggle to build a movement that would appeal to Americans, while forcing them to acknowledge their accountability in the Iraq War, would not be easy.
Cindy Sheehan joined the Iraqi delegation in New York City. As the figurehead of a growing movement to channel personal loss into political change, she explained, “We can’t rely on our elected leaders, they haven’t been representing us, so we turn to effecting policy.” Sheehan has decided to abandon a bid for Dianne Feinstein’s US Senate seat in order to focus on antiwar legislation and has been working on Massachusetts Democratic Representative Jim McGovern’s resolution to end the war by prohibiting any more funding or troop deployment.
The impact of personal perspectives of the war was crucial to a change of heart by North Carolina Republican Representative Walter Jones. Once an ardent supporter of the war and notorious for his demand that Capitol Hill restaurants serve “freedom fries,” Jones is co-sponsor of a resolution that calls for a timeline for withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
Code Pink and the Iraqi women’s delegation set up about a dozen meetings with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in which they stressed that the safety and livelihood of women has worsened since the beginning of the war. Iraq’s standard of living and education was at an all-time high before the occupation. The literacy rate and number of women in universities were also at record highs, according to the delegates. But now, women have less security and freedom.
While the Code Pink delegation scrambled to get members of Congress to agree to meetings on International Women’s Day, a delegation of female Iraqi and Afghan officials hand-picked by the US State Department and sympathetic to the Bush Administration, were given both an official welcome by the President Bush and opportunities to meet with lawmakers. But conspicuously absent in Bush’s speech to the Iraqi and Afghan officials were any citations of improvement in the life of Iraqi women.
In her blog, A Family in Baghdad, Faiza al-Araji expressed her frustration with the willful blindness of the American public. “The media isn’t telling them the truth about what is going on in Iraq, the military commanders appear on TV for hasty minutes, then disappear; they deliver great statements like: everything is going well in Iraq, so far… We shall not abandon that country for it shall sink in a civil war… And I look on with my hand over my cheek… I remember the pictures of the Iraqis who fell… Who is taking our lives and blood so cheaply?”