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January 26, 2007

Marchers against the Iraq war in Washington, D.C., on Saturday could expect a more receptive atmosphere than in the past, according to women peace movement leaders. While antiwar actions often went unnoticed in the past, millions of CNN viewers could watch some 30 CodePink activists chant “de-escalate-investigate-bring-the-troops-home-now” during President Bush’s January 10 address defending his troop-surge plans. From the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue, four CodePink megaphones blasted the chants toward the White House, an event usually strictly prohibited. “Cops did their sweeps along the fence line with flashlights,” said Gael Murphy, a co-founder of CodePink. But “one of guys was winking at us.” The group was not asked to stop, nor were they fined. Other peace movement leaders have also noticed the change. Jody Dodd of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) remembered Grandmothers Against the War and Granny Peace Brigade members being handcuffed and arrested in New York, while police had to hold their walkers and canes. But last week when they visited the Senate, they were warmly embraced. The Philadelphia Inquirer even carried a photo of Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) sporting a Grannies Against the War pin. “That would not have happened at the beginning of this war,” said Dodd. Representing a group founded in 1915 and led by Jane Addams, Dodd noted, “women have historically been at the forefront of antiwar movements.” According to Susan Shaer, executive director of Women’s Action for New Directions, leaders at a December emergency retreat called by the National Council of Women’s Organizations agreed that the most important work of the New Year was to end the war. “I feel so strongly that women are never going to be safe in Iraq and Afghanistan as long as there is a U.S.-led occupation,” said Melody Drnach, vice president of action for the National Organization for Women (NOW), which is also in the vanguard of peace activism. “The most important determinant of women’s lives in Iraq is insecurity,” concluded a report released by CodePink and Global Exchange last year. In “Iraqi Women Under Siege,” historian Marjorie P. Lasky wrote: “Everyday life is chaotic. Just to walk the streets, particularly in urban areas, exposes women daily to the possibility of random violence, assault, kidnapping or death at the hands of suicide bombers, occupying forces and contractors, Iraqi police and National Guard or local thugs.” Lasky, an historian at Diablo Valley College in San Francisco, wrote that Iraqi women also suffered sexual abuse—in the form of gang rapes, routine sexual humiliation, and increased vulnerability to “honor” killings. Introducing the report, Nadje Al-Ali, a University of Exeter anthropologist, made the point that Iraqi women were once  “the most educated in the region, participating in all sectors of the labor force and playing an important role in public life.” Continuing instability has stymied a strategy outlined in a UN Security Council resolution to restore women to their active roles in post-conflict Iraq. While Bush hailed the new Iraqi Constitution as a major milestone for minorities and women, critics contend that it cannot guarantee women’s rights because it establishes Islam as the official state religion. Lasky cites Yanar Muhammad, head of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, who says that the Islamic provisions will turn the country into an “Afghanistan under the Taliban, where oppression and discrimination of women is institutionalized.” Her prediction seems confirmed in recent reporting by Nancy Trejos in the Washington Post that women are receiving death threats because of their careers and are harassed for not wearing long skirts and headscarves. For these women, said Dodd of WILPF, “there have to be reconstruction commitments” that include roles for women. “All of us agree that you can’t just say end the war.” Lawlessness and “guns everywhere,” she said, increase the danger for Iraqi women. At a discussion of “Gender and Weapons” hosted by WILPF and Global Action in October, Carol Cohn, of the Boston Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, spoke about the connection between the political discourse of weapons of mass destruction and expectations of gender. Cohn argued that actions typically associated with masculinity, such as strength and militarization, are valued more highly than actions associated with femininity, such as compromise and diplomacy. Dodd believes “there is a third way of dialogue and peaceful resolution.” For Drnach of NOW, that was the message of Saturday’s protest. Referring to the voters’ memo to the Bush Administration, she said the march was “a continuation of the public saying in November: We told you we want to end this war; to bring our troops home; and to rebuild Iraq with their own companies.” Jeanine Plant is a New York-based freelance writer. This report continues the Women’s Media Center series and organizing campaign focusing on women and military violence, specifically on the crimes against Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and their implications for the U.S. military and foreign policy. For more of the Iraq Series, go to WMC Campaigns.