‘You can come upon women’s bodies anywhere’ “The Guardian”

Life was supposed to get better for women in Iraq after the ousting of Saddam. The reality has been rocketing rates of rape, murder, domestic violence and infant mortality, reports leading US writer Katha Pollitt. The video, originally posted on jebar.info, a Kurdish website, was soon plastered all over the internet: a young girl in a red tracksuit jacket and black pants was being beaten, kicked and stoned to death by a mob of excited, shouting men. It is a gruesome marriage of 21st-century technology and medieval barbarity. At one point, bloody and dazed, the girl tries to protect herself, whereupon a man drops a big rock or lump of concrete on her face, killing her. Her crime? Doaa Khalil Aswad, a 17-year-old member of the Kurdish Yazidi religious minority, a non-Muslim sect, had fallen in love with a Sunni boy and possibly converted to Islam. For this “crime” against family and community, Doaa was murdered in the village of Beshika, near Mosul, in a collective act of woman hatred, led by her brothers and uncles. In the video you can see local policemen watching and one man recording the killing on his mobile phone.

This is the new Iraq, where women were going to be free and equal – no more “rape rooms”, no more psychopathic Uday Hussein summoning young virgins to the palace for his pleasure. In the early days of the occupation, we heard a lot about building schools, starting women’s health programmes and funding women’s micro-enterprises. At the 2005 State of the Union address, Laura Bush sat with Safia Taleb al-Suhai, leader of the Iraqi Women’s Political Council, telegraphing the message that women’s rights and democracy went together and that both were part of the big plan for Iraq. Well, scratch that.

The status of women was never as high under Saddam as opponents of the war sometimes asserted, and it was already declining throughout the 1990s, as Saddam embraced Islam to distract the populace from the effects of the Gulf war, UN sanctions, and his own depredations. But Iraq today is even worse for women: more repressive, more violent, more lawless. As if car bombs and suicide bombers weren’t horrific enough, criminal gangs, religious militias and death squads kidnap, rape and kill with impunity, with special attention to women professionals, students and rights activists. According to the United Nations’ most recent quarterly report on human rights in Iraq, domestic violence and “honour” killings are on the rise – Kurdistan, often described as comparatively peaceful and orderly, saw more than 40 such killings between January and March this year; in the province of Erbil, rapes quadrupled between 2003 and 2006. Women who had worn western clothes and moved about freely all their lives have been terrorised into wearing the abaya and staying inside unless accompanied by male relatives. In Sadr City and elsewhere, sharia courts mete out misogynist “justice”.

“The political climate in Iraq is such that anyone can carry out crimes against women.You can come upon women’s bodies anywhere,” Kurdish feminist and labour activist Houzan Mahmoud told me in London, where she serves as the UK representative of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). Far from promoting women’s rights and security, “the occupation has strengthened the tribes, political Islam and reactionary bourgeois parties – all of which are anti-women.”

The true extent of the violence may never be known. According to Yifat Susskind, author of this year’s report by women’s human rights group Madre entitled Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the US War on Iraq, comprehensive statistics don’t exist: the Iraqi institutions responsible for collecting human rights data are complicit in human rights abuses and, besides, the Iraqi prime minister has told the Ministry of Health not to publish figures on civilian fatalities.

“I haven’t seen the United States offering any protection for women,” Mahmoud told me. Indeed, America is part of the problem. Think of Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, the 14-year-old girl raped and then murdered with her family by US soldiers in Mahmoudiya in March last year. Think of the women imprisoned at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, sometimes only for being the wife or sister of a man US forces were looking for. Think of women terrorised by soldiers who break into their homes and hold them at gunpoint. Given the punishments meted out to “unchaste” women, victims are unlikely to report rapes committed by US or allied soldiers or Iraqi military or police forces – but if the case of Abeer was unique, this would be the first military occupation in history in which the invaders and their local sidekicks didn’t help themselves to girls and women.

Four years after the fall of Saddam, the country is a political and economic basket case. The US-engineered constitution undermines secularism in favour of religious authority, while billions in US aid disappear into the pockets of contractors and bribe-takers. One third of the population is poor; last year there were 300,000 widows in Baghdad alone. According to a new report from Save the Children, Iraq now boasts the world’s biggest 15-year increase in infant and child mortality; in 2005, 122,000 children under five died – that’s one in eight.

I asked Mahmoud if the American presence had achieved anything at all for women. “No,” she said. “I can’t honestly say it has.” Like other women’s groups there, OWFI now carries out its work in secret.

· Katha Pollitt has written for the Nation since 1980. Her most recent book is Virginity or Death! and Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time, a selection of Nation columns from 2001 to 2006. Her volume of personal essays is forthcoming from Random House.

How you can help

The Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq runs shelters for battered women in four cities and an “underground railroad” to conduct women at risk of murder to safe havens. In response to the murder of Doaa, it is mounting an international campaign to ban honour killings and force Kurdish and Iraqi legal authorities to investigate and prosecute them. There have been demonstrations in London and Erbil; you can sign OWFI’s petition owfi.info, where you can also show your support for women’s rights in Iraq by clicking on “make a donation”.


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