After a long seven years of war and bloodshed, the national elections in Iraq this Spring 2010 took place in relative stability. The resulting government, when it is announced, will offer the first real indication of whether Iraqis intend to use democracy to empower conservative religious leaders, or whether they will turn to secular politicians, more in keeping with Iraq’s pre-war tradition of separating mosque and state.
The elections carry tremendous stakes for Iraqi women. The Constitution, finalized in 2005, is frustratingly ambiguous on women’s rights, leaving the country vulnerable to religious politicians intent on further subjugating women. Women fear an elected government that will not only abolish protections regarding divorce, inheritance, and child custody, which they have enjoyed since the 1950s; they fear a draconian society in which child brides, honor killings, and forced veiling will become widely accepted—and justified—not only by Islam but also by democracy.
The U.S. and the international community have shifted focus onto Afghanistan, but it is not too late to help Iraqi women. There is much work that international organizations should be doing now, starting with financially supporting the dozens of local Iraqi women’s rights groups that have formed since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The United States has long been eager to do something for women in the Middle East and has put more than $25 million towards promoting women’s rights in Iraq since 2003. The UK and the UN have also spearheaded programs for women. But too often that money has gone to Western organizations based in Washington DC or London, rather than to local women’s rights groups, which are in the best position to meet the needs of Iraqi women. They speak the language, understand the culture, and are not seen as associated with the West’s political or military agenda in Iraq. But local groups lack funding and have almost no exposure to the world outside of Iraq.
The international community could best promote development for Iraqi women by:
- Training them on how to use international law to press for their rights.
- Promoting moderate female candidates in Iraq’s upcoming elections.
- Supporting Muslim scholars who are reinterpreting the Quran and Islamic law to promote women’s rights.
- Pressuring the Iraqi parliament to amend Article 41 in the Constitution, which puts women’s rights under a religious framework.
- Giving monetary grants to groups that assist widows, many of whom lost their husbands due to the U.S. invasion.
Iraqi women’s groups have already made great gains. The early years of Saddam’s Baath Party, with its quasi-socialist principles, fostered a generation of university-educated women—engineers, professors, and doctors—and they are ready to take leadership roles. In 2004, Iraqi women’s groups overturned an effort by conservative members of parliament to replace a longstanding secular law defending women’s rights with Islamic law. That same year, Iraqi women led a campaign that successfully won a quota of 25 percent representation of women in the Parliament. Women were disappointed not to receive strong backing from the U.S. administration, which feared standing up to the Shia leadership. So they risked their own lives, and they succeeded.
Yet they could be much stronger with outside support. Despite President Bush’s pre-war promises to establish Iraqi women as feminist role models across the Arab world, women’s status has deteriorated since the U.S. invasion of 2003 due to the chaos of war. Indeed, the dissipation of the police force led to an increase in the number of abductions and rapes; looting of hospitals left women without basic healthcare; and U.S. aggression coupled with an Iraqi civil war has turned tens of thousands of women into widows, driving many into prostitution to put food on the table.
Although the civil war has largely ended in Iraq, there is still a question of who is in power, and what is their position on women’s rights. During the worst of the violence, gangs touting an extremist Islamic message tried to impose their dark vision for women. They threatened women for “un-Islamic” behavior such as wearing makeup or trousers or talking with men. Unveiled women had acid thrown on their faces. Lawyers who prosecuted honor killings were murdered, and a number of women’s centers were attacked.
Local women’s groups such as Iraqi Women’s Network and Muslim Women’s Association represent grassroots, moderate voices willing to take a stand against these extremist forces. In many cases, they challenge long-held cultural and religious traditions, still carried by both men and women in Iraq, which hold that feminism is incompatible with Islam. Many women’s rights groups cite passages from the Quran as evidence that Prophet Mohammed believed in women’s rights (his first wife was a rich businesswoman) and that treating women like chattel is haram—forbidden. Furthermore, they argue that when women’s lives improve, all of society is lifted. Giving a woman a business skill provides an additional income to the family, and educating her increases the likelihood that her children will be literate.
If it’s not enough to support women for the sake of what’s right, the international community should do it to protect its own interests. Replacing Saddam’s dictatorship with an anti-Western extremist theocracy with close ties to Iran does little to advance our goals of peace in the Middle East. Societies with a free, empowered female population are less likely to tolerate radical Islamic terrorism. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, there is an “absolute link” between women’s status and national security, stability, and economic prosperity. Preserving legal and political protections for women, and supporting women in civil society, should be part of the overall strategy to get at the roots of terrorism.
For too long we’ve operated under the notion that as soon as Iraq is secure, the international community will fully support women. The time has come to realize that Iraq will not be secure until we support women. One day soon, America will be out of Iraq—the bases empty, the aid offices shuttered, the media spotlight darkened. But Iraqi women will still be there, and their place in Iraq will be a piece of the U.S. legacy there. We cannot tolerate a democratic Iraq in which women are treated as second-class citizens, letting religion, tradition, or “culture” serve as excuses for the lack of justice. We should not leave behind a country in which women were better off under Saddam Hussein.