Fearing for the safety of conference participants, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), canceled a planned symposium following the Aug. 19 bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people and injured 150 others.
That cancellation symbolizes the fallen hopes of Iraqi women since the U.S. invasion.
President Bush promised that a U.S. war would improve the situation of women in Iraq. Instead, Iraqi women have been besieged by violence, unemployment and other crises set off by the occupation.
“The situation for women is worse now than before the war,” said Eman Ahmed Khammas who directs the Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad. “Because of the security situation, it’s really very difficult to move around and very dangerous. Families are afraid for their daughters and don’t allow them to be outside on their own. Two weeks ago, they found a bomb in front of the gate of my daughter’s school. And there are many kidnappings and rapes. I know a girl who was kidnapped just a few days ago.”
Yanar Mohammed, co-founder of a new Iraqi group called the Organization of Women’s Freedom, agrees that women are worse off under the U.S. occupation. “Organized gangs are kidnapping women, to be exploited and sometimes to be sold. This has created fear and horror for women. Many families now have prevented their girls from going to school.”
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
Though opposed to Saddam Hussein, women activists explain that his policies toward women were more progressive than those of many governments in the Middle East. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Iraq enacted mandatory education for women and equal pay for equal work. And by the 1980s women constituted almost 40 percent of public sector workers.
The first Gulf War in 1991 and the many years of U.S.-led economic sanctions devastated Iraqi women. The UN Fund for Women reported “increased mortality rates, increased rates of divorce, polygamy and domestic violence; decreased marriage rates; a significant increase in malnutrition among women and children; and an added burden of responsibility as women had to care for children traumatized by war, disease and malnutrition.”
Women who had been encouraged to pursue an education and outside employment were told to stay home.
Many agree that life for women under the U.S. occupation has deteriorated further. Statistics on rapes, abductions, and other crimes under the occupation are unavailable, but a July 2003 Human Rights Watch study suggests a recent increase. It states, “Women and girls told Human Rights Watch that the insecurity and fear of sexual violence or abduction is keeping them in their homes, out of schools and away from work and looking for employment.”
Many women doctors, lawyers, professors and public sector employees have lost their jobs. The Labor Ministry of Iraq estimates that 70 percent of the working age population, or some 12 million workers, are without jobs.
U.S. IGNORES WOMEN LEADERS
While some Iraqi women choose to wear veils, involuntary veiling appears to be on the rise. Yanar Mohammed of the Organization of Women’s Freedom reports that in some parts of Iraq, Islamic political groups have entered schools and workplaces to insist that by the next day every woman must wear a veil.
She believes the power of religious political parties throughout Iraq has grown since the occupation began, including within the governing council. Mohammed’s group has called for separation of state and mosque and she believes they have been silenced for taking such a stand.
Many women were disappointed when the U.S. appointed only three women to the Iraqi Governing Council. In October one of these women was assassinated–an act widely interpreted as a threat to women’s participation in politics.
“When the Americans came to Iraq one of the slogans was to help women be in decision-making circles. But we do not see any of these things,” says Khammas, noting that there are no women on the committee that is drafting the new Iraqi constitution.
Despite the dangers, women leaders and women’s organizations are sprouting up throughout the country to meet the new challenges posed by the occupation. While the U.S. press focuses on the armed opposition to the U.S. occupation, these organizations are part of the non-violent resistance that includes trade unions, professionals, unions of the unemployed, students and women.
Andrea Buffa works with Global Exchange and is former executive director of the Media Alliance in San Francisco.
by Andrea Buffa