Iraq’s war on women

Lesley Abdela
17 July 2005

Just as Iraqi women were anticipating a new era of democracy and freedom, a wave of intimidation by extremist groups has arisen to crush their hopes. Violent oppression of women is spreading across Iraq, a weapon of mass mental and physical destruction. And yet there is silence from world leaders, religious leaders, politicians and the media.

Insurgents and religious extremists use rape, acid and assassination to force Iraqi women to wear the veil – the symbol of submission, first signal of further repression to come. Many Iraqi women have never worn the scarf. Now, dead bodies of girls and women are found in rivers and on waste ground with a veil tied around the head, as a message.

As well as unveiled women, key targets are those who wear make-up, who are well educated and in the professions, and who work with organisations connected with the coalition forces.

Political Islamists target universities in particular. A male university professor told me about a bright, highly intelligent young student from Babylon University, Hilla, south of Baghdad. She had never worn the scarf. Despite death threats to compel her to wear it, she refused to do so and continued to attend university. She was raped and murdered. The professor spoke of the mess made of her body. He has since told his daughter she must either wear a scarf or leave university. He doesn’t want her to wear the scarf nor does he want her to leave university, but he is terrified for her life.

It is clear what the Islamic fundamentalist men want for women. Using the will of Allah as cover, they pursue women’s conformity to almost any interpretation of the Qu’ran. They demand women’s submission to any male authority. Women are to lead lives without voices, as the social, political and economic inferiors of men, even of 12-year-old boys.

Competing futures

It was not always like this. In the pre-Saddam period, women had opportunities for limited social progress. In 1948, Iraq had been one of the first countries in the middle east to have a woman judge; in 1959, Nazila al-Dulaima (of the Iraqi Communist party) became one of the first female government ministers in the Arabian peninsula. Even under Saddam’s regime, women were free to choose whether to wear western-style dress and make-up or the black abaya. Many wore western dress in their jobs for government departments and in schools and universities.

Also in openDemocracy by and about Iraqi women:

Anita Sharma, “Women in Iraq: between fear and freedom” (March 2004)

Faiza al-Araji & Anthony Swofford, “America through an Iraqi lens” (October 2004)

Sama Hadad, “Fallujah’s lesson for Iraq” (November 2004)

Alya Shakir, “Ahmed, a story of Iraq” (June 2005)

Alia Amer, “I am an Iraqi journalist” (June 2005)

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Indeed, when the Ba’ath Party took control in 1968, one of its proclaimed goals was equality of men and women. Women’s inclusion was a key component of the social revolution. Women were given the right to vote, receive an education, and work outside the home. Education was mandatory for both girls and boys up to the age of 16. Women were strongly encouraged to attend universities and acquire professional skills.

In 1970 the Ba’athists passed a new constitution in which women and men were made – at least nominally – equal before the law. Women’s rights in the political and economic spheres expanded, though family law, which was based on Islamic law, continued to favour men.

The ferocious repression of political dissent under the Saddam Hussein regime, which consolidated its rule, fell on women and men equally, but particular laws (such as Law 101) – under which (alleged) prostitution was punishable by death – impacted particularly on women. Hundreds of women dissidents and the partners, mothers, sisters and daughters of male dissidents were branded prostitutes and beheaded.

The need for women to play a central role in the workforce during the exodus of men to fight in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) drew women into formerly male-dominated positions, such as career military officers, oil-project designers, and construction supervisors, scientists and engineers, doctors, accountants and jobs in general administration. In 1989, 27 women were elected to Iraq’s 250-seat national assembly – at 10.8%, a higher ratio than the British House of Commons had at the time, with 41 women out of 650 seats (6.3%).

A new phase opened when Saddam’s statue was forced to the ground after the three-week conflict, in April 2003. At that point, Iraqi women’s hopes for freedom and democracy soared. From September 2003 to February 2004, I was in the populous south-central province, working with women’s associations and human-rights groups in Hilla, Karbala, Diwaniya and al-Kut. I ran workshops on democracy and human rights, and attended conferences in Babylon University, Baghdad and Basra alongside women from all over Iraq.

Iraqi women, encouraged by the declarations of George W Bush and Tony Blair, said they wanted to learn how to participate in democracy; they wanted at least 50% representation at all levels of government – local and national; they wanted 50% representation on any council deciding on the new constitution. Plus they wanted women’s human rights and equal opportunities enshrined in the new constitution that Iraq’s political representatives were to draft.

Universal intimidation, separate laws?

More than a year on, prospects are bleaker. Attacks have now expanded from certain geographic locations to the whole country. They have also spread to non-Muslim women. A report by Sahar al-Haideri and Wa’ad Ibraheem for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting tells the story of Christian lawyer Ishaq in Mosul, who received the threat, “wear the veil or face death”. To reinforce the warning, a group of men approached Ishaq on the street on her way to work and threw acid in her face.

Attacks like this have frightened thousands of Christian women into wearing the veil. Similar attacks and threats have forced a number of women in the northern city of Mosul to give up paid work or to make sure they are accompanied to work by a brother, a male driver or a guard. Women have begun to fear wearing make-up. A woman who owned a beauty salon closed it down after receiving threats.

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) was ratified by the UN general assembly in 1979. By July 2005, 180 countries had acceded to it and become “states parties”.

Cedaw’s Article 1 defines discrimination against women as any

“distinction, exclusion, or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of marital status, on the basis of equality between men and women, of human rights or fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.

For the full text, click here

On 26 June 2005, I took part in a conference called “Our Constitution, Our Future”. Organised by the international NGO Women for Women, and judiciously situated outside Iraq, on the Jordanian shores of the Dead Sea, it focused on how best to replace restrictive laws and practices so the new constitution conforms to international agreements, particularly the jewel in the crown, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). Around 60 Iraqi men and women parliamentarians, academics, activists and members of the drafting committee for the constitution risked their lives to attend.

The division was clear even at the conference: progressive women and men want a secular constitution. More extreme religious groups (which include women) want Islamic Shari’a law.

A parallel legal system, in which citizens can opt either for religious or civil law, is one potential compromise. This would not be a unique and untried solution: in Lebanon Shi’a women have different rights from Christian women, Sunni women from Shi’a and Christians; Palestinians in Israel can choose to go to the civil court or to the Shari’a court.

On my return to Sussex, England, from the conference, I found emails waiting for me from Iraqi women, many of whom I know from my time in Iraq conducting advocacy, democracy and leadership courses and helping to start up women’s associations. Their messages describe escalating assassinations and violence conducted by insurgents against women. Attacks take place with impunity. In some cases the police are thought to be implicated.

Not a women’s issue

Women make up perhaps 60% of Iraq’s population after the Iran-Iraq war and the slaughter of perceived opponents by Saddam and his entourage. What can be done about this “black death” spreading among Iraq’s women?

The violence against women taking place in Iraq is not a so-called women’s issue. The perpetrators are men. The majority of people holding the reins of power in Iraq and the majority of leaders in the international community are men. How can men and women talk about democracy and human rights and somehow treat these atrocities as a side issue?

Iraqi women want the world to know what is happening – in detail. Iraqi women want the United Nations, and especially Muslim religious leaders worldwide, to call for specific action to prevent the escalating targeted assassinations of Muslim and Christian women. They want the cowardly perpetrators punished.

The challenge for men and women committed to democracy and human rights is to trigger a campaign of commitment from the world on the scale of “Make Poverty History”, to make murder and violence against women in Iraq (and the world) history, and to punish the perpetrators. To quote the suffragette slogan: Iraqi women need deeds not words. And they need them now.

Further Links:


Programme on Governance in the Arab Region

Women living under muslim laws

Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq

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