On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Houzan Mahmoud says that women in the country are bearing the brunt as things go from bad to worse. On March 20, the Iraqi people have reached the dismal milestone of the third-year point since the United State-led invasion of Iraq. From the shock and awe of the aerial bombardment of 20 March 2003, they are now contemplating a fourth year of continuing terrorism, extreme insecurity, destruction, and the daily violation of women’s rights. As we know, war in Iraq was sold to the world as a mission to bring about an end to “terrorism”, to plant the seed of “democracy” in this part of the middle east, and to free Iraqis from Saddam’s country-wide torture chamber. And as we equally now know, this has been far from the outcome, with Abu Ghraib’s ghastly porno-torture images, mass imprisonments and the daily bombing and shooting outrages.
Meanwhile, a parliament headed by a Shia majority are currently intent on ruling Iraq according to a version of Islamic law, or Sharia. Apart from the horrors of growing Shia–Sunni sectarianism, a major concern is the effect this is having on women’s rights in Iraq.
Resurgent Islamists are pushing Iraqi women back into a corner. Having enjoyed greater rights compared to women in the region for years, Iraqi women are now being stripped of even their basic rights. The ability to choose their own clothes, to be able to love or marry whom they want to. Life’s simple things are all now under heavy threat.
It has been calculated that in the last three years in excess of 2,000 women and girls in Iraq have been subject to kidnap, rape or even death on the grounds of preserving so-called ‘family honour’. The forced veiling of women has made a comeback. Women are now genuinely frightened of punishment from violent “moral” groups in the streets.
And it gets worse. Representatives of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq recently discovered a jail in al-Kazemiah district of Baghdad holding over 200 women (and some children) in appalling conditions. They were held by the Shia-dominated authorities, some for supposed involvement with the insurgency, some for other reasons. Many had been tortured or raped. I have the names of several victims (which cannot be revealed for reason of safety) and I have passed them to Amnesty International.
Between the roadside car bombs, hostage-taking and sporadic US “offensives”, we don’t hear much of the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Perhaps because it is not a happy subject. Children are queuing up at hospitals in various cities to sell their blood to raise money to survive. Drug abuse is widespread and many orphans are dependent. Child prostitution is now rife. One untold story is the growing gangsterism surrounding prostitution in general – countless women are being forced into selling their bodies. The lucky ones are fleeing the country in large numbers – chiefly to Jordan and Syria.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq has been an unmitigated disaster. I hold absolutely no brief for Saddam Hussein, whose cruelty was well-known. His regime was often vicious. I am one of its victims and I personally witnessed much brutality under his rule. But the subjugation of women was never a Ba’athist goal. Instead women are now caught between a pincer movement of a heavy-handed (and despised) occupation that cares little for women’s rights in Iraq, and an increasingly reactionary Islamic armed insurrection that aims to imprison women.
But there is still hope. Ask most Iraqis (the vast majority) and they will tell you that the exit of the Multinational Force is an absolutely essential if violence is ever to end in Iraq. And women’s rights need to be brought right up the political agenda. For example, the present Iraqi administration has provided absolutely no financial support for women’s refuges in Iraq. Instead my own organisation provides safe houses and safe rooms in Baghdad and Kirkuk. But we do this on a shoestring, dependent on support from women’s groups in the US and the Netherlands.
But there are signs that people in Iraq are determined to resist the violence of the insurgents, the occupying powers and the Islamists. In a number of districts of Baghdad, for example, committees formed by a new non-religious grouping called the Iraq Freedom Congress have recently formed to defend people’s safety. In Alexandria, Mahmoodya and Husseinya districts of the capital people do simple ‘community watch’ things like warn neighbours of possible impending attacks. It is a basic, homespun activity taking place in the security vacuum enveloping Iraq, but it works.
It is these efforts in Iraq that need international backing, and not divisive religious parties. The US/UK governments’ claim that they have “freed” Iraq has been thoroughly exposed as a lie. Three years on it’s time to start supporting the people of Iraq and their efforts to turn the corner on sectarianism and war.
Houzan Mahmoud is an Iraqi who lives in the UK. She is the UK head of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and a member of the central council of the Iraq Freedom Congress
This article is published by the Tribune on 31 March 2006