A decade after the US invasion of Iraq, only one of the straw-man arguments for going to war remains standing: “We did it for democracy and women’s rights.” And yet we hear the same thing again and again from women in the shelters we operate throughout Iraq: “Why are we living in these violent times?” They don’t mourn the fall of Saddam, but women here have suffered 10 years of spiraling abuse, including a spike in ‘honor killings,’ forced veiling, and a growing tolerance for beating women into subordination.
If you talk to women in war zones anywhere, they’ll tell you that domestic violence increases in war-time. But in Iraq, violence against women has also been systematic. And unknown to most Americans, it has been orchestrated by some of the very forces that the US boosted to power.
Like religious fundamentalists everywhere, these sectarian militias and clerics have a social vision for their country that depends on subjugating women. But because the US wagered that they could deliver stability, these men were cultivated as allies in Iraq. As we now know, they never even got the stability they traded women’s rights for.
The dynamic was clearly at work in the drafting of Iraq’s constitution, heavily brokered by the US. To pass it, the US needed support from Islamist parties. They got it by trading away women’s rights. In fact, the current constitution is a huge step backwards for Iraqi women. It replaces one of the Middle East’s most expansive laws on the status of women, dating from 1959, with separate and unequal laws on the basis of sex. They subjected Iraqi women to a newly introduced Sharia law promoted in an article in the new constitution.
When Yusra* arrived at one of our shelters, she told a harrowing story of brutal abuse at the hands of her husband and her father. The shelter was the one place she could turn. Under the new constitution, she knew she wouldn’t get justice from the religious courts, where her testimony is worth half of her husband’s and where the laws allow the husband to “discipline” his wife.
At our shelter, Yusra bonded with other women, who had also escaped violence. They shared their dream of living in a country that guarantees them equal rights. And they began organizing to demand those rights.
Like women and men throughout the region, Yusra and her friends have filled the public square in Baghdad every Friday for two years now, demanding the freedom to assemble peacefully, and calling for equal protection under the law. These women are fighting for the same democratic principles we all believe in. They know from hard experience that there is no democracy without women’s rights and that women’s rights will not be delivered by foreign troops.
For women in Iraq, the past 10 years have been filled with war and violence. They want to move beyond mere survival and build the country they dream of. Help us build that dream. And let’s remember what strong-willed people can accomplish in the face of injustice and impunity.
*Name changed to protect her identity.
Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization. She has worked with women’s human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities to address women’s health, violence against women, economic and environmental justice and peace building. She has also written extensively on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and her critical analysis has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus and elsewehere.
Yanar Mohammed of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq.