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All pain, no gain for Iraqi women

“Respect for women… can triumph in the Middle East and beyond!” President George Bush at the UN, September 2002

Since the US/UK invasion on Iraq something has practically vanished from its streets. That something is the sight of Iraqi women. Not surprisingly, the empty speeches promising liberation for the women of Iraq after the fall of Saddam have amounted to nothing. Instead the situation for women in Iraq today has worsened according to a report published by Amnesty International (Decades of suffering, Now women deserve better).

The report documents increases in killings, abductions and rapes since the fall of Saddam’s regime. It is no secret that Saddam’s regime was not a defender of women’s rights but compared to women in other Middle Eastern countries, women in Iraq had many rights that have been destroyed by the occupation.

Women in Saddam’s Iraq

The 1970s and early 1980s were years of economic growth in Iraq. State policies were aimed at eradicating illiteracy, educating women and incorporating them into the labour force. They became among the most educated and professional in the entire region. Women could work, study at university, and receive extensive medical coverage. A working Iraqi mother received five years of maternity leave. In 1980 women could vote and run for election. They had equal pay and could legally drive and could choose to uncover their heads.

But after the 1991 Gulf War and the sanctions, living conditions for women in Iraq began to deteriorate. The declining economy caused many women to lose their jobs and abandon their education. Then in the mid-1990s there was a campaign for the Islamisation of Iraq. Saddam’s regime started to appease the tribes and the imams by imposing anti-women legislation that included death for a woman who commits adultery.

In 2000 they organised the mass killing of 200 women in Baghdad and Mosul. The General Union for Women of Iraq – a government organisation controlled by the Ba’ath Party – was asked to present a list of “honourless” women to the government – “honourless” meaning prostitutes. The fate of these women was beheading and then hanging them naked upside down in front of their houses. So life for women under Saddam’s rule was far from being free from danger but things have worsened since the war started.

Life for women after the war

Since the beginning of the occupation, rape, abduction, “honour” killings and domestic violence towards women have became daily occurrences. The Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) reported that 400 women were raped in Baghdad in the space of just five months last year.

And it’s not just the horrors of rape women have to deal with. If they tell their families what has happened to them, they are in danger of being killed to stop them bringing shame on the family. Some of these women commit suicide. Women can no longer leave their homes without fear of being attacked. This means many can no longer work or study.

Political islamism has been rising since the beginning of the occupation and women have been under attack especially for not wearing the veil. Due to increasing pressure many have started to wear veils, but also because bareheaded women are favourite targets for rapists. More and more mosques are turning away women not wearing the abaya (head to toe covering) and many universities are forcing female students to wear the hijab and forbidding the wearing of jeans! There have been fatwas issued against prostitutes and reports of women being sold to neighbouring countries.

There have also been sexual assaults and violations of women’s rights by US forces in Iraq. Many women have been taken hostage tortured, and sexually abused. The sexual abuse, rape and torture against Iraqi women is not confined only to Abu Ghraib prison, but is reportedly happening all across Iraq.

As well as dealing with fear and repression many women in Iraq have been left as the head of the household after their men have been killed or detained. Seventy-two per cent of working Iraqi women were public employees and many of them have lost their jobs. Most are now too scared to leave the house.

Simple everyday life has been made unbearable since the occupation. Frequent electricity cuts, lack of water and in some cases food, lack of jobs and no basic healthcare in areas have added yet another burden onto the forever increasing list of worries for women in Iraq today.

The stories of horror and despair are many and they are happening to women in Iraq right now. But there are also stories of brave resistance against the attacks, in some cases in the face of death threats. But the climate of oppression is forcing more and more women out of the political arena and deep into their homes.

Many women’s organisations are doing amazing work opening women’s shelters and refuges and organising demonstrations but if women are going to be free in Iraq much more needs to be done. There has to be an end to the occupation. Women need to link up with others fighting against the imperialist occupation, such as trade union organisations and organise armed militia to protect women from attacks so more women can join the fight back. Only an end to the occupation can give women the chance to start living a life without fear.

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