Insecurity for Women in Iraq




A

young woman who calls herself Riverbend, wrote on August, 24 2003:
“I’m a computer science graduate. Before the war I was
working in an Iraqi database/software company in Baghdad as a programmer/network
administrator. It was tedious, it was back- breaking, it was geeky,
and it was wonderful. No matter what anyone heard, females in Iraq
were a lot better off than females in other parts of the Arab world—and
some parts of the Western world. We had equal salaries. We were
doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, professors, architects, programmers,
and more. Now females can no longer leave their homes alone”
(river- bendblog.blogspot.com). 


 She
is one of the bloggers from Iraq keeping daily web journals on the
impact of the war on their lives and the lives of those around them.
As a female, Riverbend also gives insight into the struggles and
fears of Iraqi women who are fighting their own war in the chaos
and lawlessness that is now Iraq. 


What
she fears is the rise in fundamentalism: “Before the war about
50 percent of college students were female and more than 50 percent
of the work force was composed of women. Not so any more. We are
seeing a terrifying increase in fundamentalism in Iraq…. Before
the occupation I more or less dressed the way I wanted to. I lived
in jeans and cotton trousers and comfortable shirts. Now I don’t
dare to leave the house without a long skirt and loose shirt (preferably
with long sleeves). A girl wearing jeans risks being attacked, abducted,
or insulted by fundamentalists who have been ‘liberated’.”
 


She
has a hope that the war may one day be over and that the U.S. forces
will, at some point, leave Iraq. Hope changes to fear at the thought
of a future of hijab-wearing domesticity under fundamentalist dictates.
The post-war 2003 rise of conservative Islamist organizations has
put Iraqi women at risk of losing still more of the rights and freedoms
that they had during much of Saddam Hussein’s rule, such as
the right to receive an education, work, drive, vote, and hold political
office, according to Human Rights Watch (“Climate of Fear,”
Human Rights Watch, July 2003).  


Post-war
insecurity has left many women unable to leave their homes without
a male family member to escort them. Prior to the 2003 war, Iraqi
women and girls were able to move about independently. Iraqi women
were among the most educated in the region. They were part of the
labor force and visible at almost all levels of state institutions
and bureaucracy. These days, however, religious intolerance, violent
burglaries, mafia-like gangs that roam the cities at night, increased
sexual violence, as well as militant resistance and U.S. snipers,
have pushed women into the back ground. 


At
least 400 women and girls as young as 8 years old were raped during
or immediately after the war, according to HRW. Under-reporting
due to the stigma against victims of sexual violence means that
the real figure was probably much higher. In Iraq, women are still
viewed as the ultimate reservoir of traditional values and any stain
on their honor is punishable by death. Fear of rape is therefore
aggravated by the occurrence of “honor killings.” The
family members of women who are known to have, or often only suspected
of having, “violated” codes of behavior, particularly
with respect to keeping their virginity before marriage, may kill
the woman in order to restore the honor of the family. This phenomenon
is stronger in rural areas, yet lenient sentences are given throughout
the country to perpetrators for reasons of “honorable motivation.” 


Discrimination
against women is banned in Iraq’s Constitution, but laws still
contain provisions that deny women rights and control of their lives
or fail to protect them from violence. The Transitional Administrative
Law (TAL) of March 2004—effectively an interim constitution—states:
“All Iraqis are equal in their rights without regard to gender,
sect, opinion, belief, nationality, religion or origin, and they
are all equal before the law. Discrimination against an Iraqi citizen
on the basis of his gender, nationality, religion, or origin is
prohibited” (Article 12). However, the TAL contains no reference
to the extensive legal reforms needed to remove discriminatory provisions
from penal, personal status, and nationality laws. 


Despite
Iraq’s obligations under international human rights treaties
and its own Constitution, women in Iraq continue to face various
forms of discrimination in legislation and practice. Women have
also been at risk of torture or ill-treatment as detainees in the
custody of U.S.-led forces. Reports about the torture and inhuman
treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison and other U.S. detention
centers in Iraq have included allegations that women have been subjected
to sexual abuse, possibly including rape. Several women detainees
have spoken to Amnesty International after their release from detention
on condition of anonymity. They reported beatings, threats of rape,
humiliating treatment, and long periods of solitary confinement
(“Iraq: Decades of Suffering, Now Women Deserve Better,”
Amnesty Interna- tional, February 2005). 


When
violence and conflict erupt, women tend to suffer in gender-specific
ways in addition to the suffering endured by all the population.
Yet, any mention of the hardships that Iraqi women are forced to
face needs to pay tribute to the dignity, humanity, and courage
of these women. They are fighting to survive and take care of their
children in ingenious ways.  


Household
management in the context of electricity cuts and water-shortages
is time-consuming, exhausting, and frustrating, yet these women
are doing it, often as widows. In spite of male escorts, women are
still demanding to leave their homes and maintain some semblance
of normality in their lives. In the face of death threats, women
are emerging to demand increased rights and liberties and a say
in the reconstruction of their country.  


Iraqi
women led the group of witnesses traveling to the World Tribunal
on Iraq in Istanbul to join human rights lawyers, professors, reporters,
and experts who came together from all over the world to document
the injustices occurring in Iraq (www.worldtribunal.org). Iraqi
writer and journalist Hana Ibrahim, currently chair of Women’s
Will organization, confirmed, “From the day that the occupation
started in Iraq there was a systematic violation of women and their
rights. They were kidnaped, raped, and even taken to other countries
to work. 


Ibrahim
said, “We will continue resisting in Iraq for you as well as
for ourselves because America is not the fate of humanity. They
are not the power to rule over the world in future and we can create
another world. We can create a more enlightened world for women
and we would ask you to look at the world from women’s eyes
because women’s eyes see through their hearts.” 


The
day following the Tribunal, President Bush was at Fort Bragg, North
Carolina where he said in a speech that the U.S. is helping to build
in Iraq “the institutions of a free society, a society based
on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion,
and equal justice under law.” Riverbend retorted on July 1,
“We’re so free, we often find ourselves pri- soners of
our homes.”





Caroline Muscat
is a freelance writer working in communications for international
non-governmental organizations. She was the communications coordinator
for the World Tribunal on Iraq.