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Liberating Iraq! What About
Iraqi Women?

By Bhaskar Dasgupta

15 October, 2004

Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less!

Iraq has been international front-page news for some time now and no need to panic, I am not going to mention the handover or Saddam's pending trial again, since I don't think the general readership is very interested in me being repetitive. What struck me about reading all the stories emerging out of Iraq were not the lengthy political analyses, the predictions and forecasts, the morals to be drawn and lessons to be learnt, etc., but rather small stories buried beneath the huge screaming headlines. One story was about Ms. Nidal Nasser Hussein, Najaf's first female lawyer, and her swearing-in ceremony to become Najaf's first appointed judge to the local court. Sadly the ceremony never happened.

Najaf of bombings, Shia shrines and Moktada al-Sadr fame was not ready to see a female judge and U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin, who selected Ms. Hussein, encountered demonstrators protesting her appointment, and hence delayed it indefinitely. The second story was about moving International Women's Day in Iraq from March 8th and changing it to August 18th, the alleged date of birth of Fatima Zahra, Prophet Mohammed's daughter. So what's the connection?

Before we find out, what links these stories, let us look at the situation of the women in Iraq to understand the background. Iraqi women were once among the most highly educated and professional women in the Middle East. As early as 1920 the Iraqi women moved to gain more rights and a better education. They demanded to be recognised as full citizens, insisted on and defended their freedom from having to wear a veil in public, as per Islamic tradition. Aswa Zahawi founded the Women's Rising Group, which began publishing 'Leila', a journal promoting education and
employment rights for women. All these efforts paid back, resulting in them joining the job markets by the late 1920s and early 1930s, making them pioneers in the Middle East.

Women have played important roles throughout Iraq's modern history. It was in the early years of the secular Baathist regime that women's status and rights were formally enshrined in legislation and treaties. In 1970, the new constitution nominally made Iraqi women and men equal under the law. Say what you may for our man Saddam Hussein, but under his rule, women's literacy and education improved, and restrictions on women outside their homes were lifted. Women won the right to vote and to run for political office, and they could freely drive, work and hold jobs traditionally held only by men.

The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed rapid economic growth in Iraq. The Iraqi government enforced further policies aimed at the improvement of education and employment opportunities for women. The Iraqi constitution was changed to ensure equal rights for both men and women. Unlike in many neighbouring Arab countries, Iraqi women enjoyed many more rights such as equal pay, six months of fully paid maternity leave and an additional six months of half pay and up to five years of unpaid maternity leave, while retaining their work place for them if they desired to return. Many workplaces had subsidized day care for their children. Women in Iraq became among the most educated and professional in the entire region, and working outside the home became the norm for them. Women could find and retain jobs, obtain higher education, and receive extensive medical coverage. In 1980 women could vote and run for election. Iraqi women could also serve in the army if they so wished. Perhaps the readers still remember one of my earlier columns about 'Dr. Germ', Saddam's biological warfare programme top, Dr. Rihab Taha, who headed the Iraqi Biological Weapons Program for 7 years, a very important position. While she was doing something heinous, can you imagine any other Arab nation allowing a woman anywhere near such a huge prestigious position? It's usually barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen time.

Before 1991, female literacy rates in Iraq were the highest in the region. Iraq had achieved a nearly complete primary education for girls as well as boys. After the 1991 Gulf War and after the economic embargos were applied, living conditions for women in Iraq began to deteriorate rapidly. The declining economy caused many women to lose their jobs and abandon their education to make room for the now also struggling men. So that was the history. What are the conditions now?

Girls and women are now facing a major learning gap and there has been a sharp decline in adult female literacy. And today, almost one year after the war, which was supposed to bring "liberation" to all Iraqis, Iraqi women are even worse off. Rather than an improvement in the quality of their lives, we have read about widespread violence against women. The lack of security and proper policing, in the early months, led to chaos and growing crime rates against women. They found it more and more difficult to go out alone to work, or to schools and universities without an armed male relative guarding them. The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq (Owfi) has drawn up lists of violations miles long.

In late December 2003 the Iraqi women vehemently rejected decision Number 137 passed by the Iraqi Governing Council (at that date including only two women after one of the three appointed members, Aquila al-Hashimi, was gunned down two months earlier). Decision 137 was to replace Iraqi civil law concerning family law with Sharia law, giving religious courts jurisdiction over matters such as inheritance, marriage, and divorce. The Iraqi Family Law, also known as the Personal Status Law, was the achievement of the struggle of the Iraqi people for much of the past century. It was not a law written by Saddam or his regime. Women naturally rebelled against that. They organized protests and demonstrations in Baghdad and urged US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, to pressure the Governing Council to revoke this resolution. They put up a hard fight and even managed to win the support of some moderate Islamic leaders and clerics. After much uproar they finally succeeded in convincing the majority of the council to overturn the resolution. Thank Allah for small favours?

Not many women have been appointed to leadership positions in Iraq since its "liberation". The 25-member US appointed Iraqi Governing Council included only three women. The 18-member committee that drafted the interim constitution did NOT include one single woman. The Iraqi interim government includes only six women in the total of thirty-three ministries. Now after viewing the background we come to the connection. Looking at the role of the women in Iraq's past, the link between those two news items is the role of women in Iraq's future. What does the future really hold for them?

Saddam was no protector of women, but they have faced many new miseries and more violence and threats since he fell. One of the threats is a highly potential move from the more secular orientation of the Baathist rule to a more religious orientation of the interim or later the new government. The proposal to move to Sharia law was just the start. The exclusion of women from drafting the new constitution was another. And this brings us to the second story. Moving the date of Women's Day has nothing whatsoever to do with women's rights, but reeks suspiciously of subordinating women to rigid religious rules.

Certain religious groups have already imposed veiling in various parts under their control and have also issued their own brands of fatwas, for temporary marriages, against prostitutes etc. In rural areas, Iraqi women have fallen under the firm hold of tribal leaders and religious clerics again. The current political climate with its religious flavour warns, almost screams, against excluding the Iraqi women, for if they are shut out and prevented from an active role now, their chances for a future role become next to none. Excluding the women now, will be condemning Iraq to a similar fate like its neighbours. A fate of social darkness, economic stagnation and tyrannical dictatorships. And not only that, but it will render all the lofty, honourable reasons for the invasion in the first place utterly meaningless.

The invasion was said to have occurred to remove a monster of a president from power and to ensure the human rights of the citizens. Ummm, all citizens? Sixty percent of the Iraqi population now are female. If they are not allowed proper representation and an active role in shaping the future of their own country, what message would that send to the region and the rest of the world? That women's political participation is not one of the ingredients of Western democracy?

Iraq's current lack of basic rights for women and the threat of a rise of political Islam are the result of a tyrannical rule, twelve years of economic sanctions, three devastating wars and an occupation. The only way out of this turmoil is through empowerment of the real people of Iraq, the progressive, secular masses of which 60% now are women. Iraqi women have stepped forward to enthusiastically support their new government, despite a looming threat to their lives.

Remember Aquila al-Hashimi, the Iraqi Governing Council member who was assassinated? The Iraqi women should be allowed a chance to participate actively and seriously in public life. Rajaa al-Khuzai, a former gynecologist from the southern Iraqi city of Diwaniyah, and now a member of Iraq's 25-member US-backed interim Governing Council is now fiercely pushing for the appointment of at least one woman to the planned governing quartet to come, comprising of a president, two vice presidents, and a prime minister. She is fighting to ensure that the new Iraqi executive branch
has at least the same 25% female representation as prescribed by the constitution. Good fortune to her! Why ever not? Asia after all has already experienced Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Khaleda Zia, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Corazon Aquino, Benazir Bhutto, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indira Ghandi, Tansu Ciller, Golda Meir and Suhbaataryn Yanjmaa. So why not in Iraq as well?

Real democracy involves the enabling of the people to make their own decisions and that includes ALL the people, even the female 60% of them. Jeanette Rankin, 1st US Congresswoman said in 1966: "We're half the people; we should be half the Congress." If the coalition (read the Americans) manage to get the women on their side, then they will have a much better chance of having a good prosperous
Iraq in the future.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!







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