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Voices from the Front—Women Face a “Mutilated Beast”

April 30, 2007

When speaking to Americans, Yanar Mohammed is confronted repeatedly with the belief that Iraqi women’s rights are protected under occupation by the United States. In reality, says Mohammed, director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), after several generations of economically independent women, Iraq is now in the grip of the “genetically mutilated beast” of fundamentalist politicized Islam—Islamism. In addition, according to a recent Madre report, abuse and murder of women have become endemic, at the hands of both criminal gangs who abduct victims and a proliferation of sectarian militias—many U.S. trained, funded and armed. U.S. authorities used such mercenaries, says Madre, to consolidate power, pitting such Shiite groups as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army against Sunni insurgent militias.  Policing of women is central to these groups’ campaigns. In Baghdad’s now segregated neighborhoods, Mohammed reports, women’s dress has become a “flag of the political parties.” Sunni and Shiite militias compete, she says, over how much “their” women should cover up. In Basra, under the Mahdi Army, wearing pants or going outside without a headscarf is now punishable by death. “I can’t count anymore,” says Namaa Alward, “because each time I call Iraq I hear of a family being slaughtered or a friend being killed in the street.” These are ordinary people, she stresses, not insurgents.  An award-winning actor, Alward fled Iraq in the early 1980s after several arrests for resisting Saddam Hussein. She returned for the first time in 2003, this time as a human shield. Her mother, still in Baghdad, now forbids her to return because of the danger. Alward compares today’s Iraq, crippled by decades of war, sanctions and civil upheaval, with the country where she grew up. Before, women’s status had been underpinned by the 1959 Personal Status Law, which safe-guarded women’s rights in divorce, child custody and property inheritance, and the 1970 Provisional Constitution, which established women’s rights to vote, education, property and political office. Iraqi women enjoyed some of the highest levels of education, professional activity and legal protections in the Middle East. Alward relished the freedom of “being an actress, studying theatre, studying geology,” she said. “The education was free, health care was free.”  As a student in the 1970s, her circle of friends included both men and women. Taking full advantage of the latest fashions, they were, she laughs, a good market for European and American goods.  “Selling women mini-skirts and micro-skirts is much better than selling weapons to kill the women who use this fashion.” Following losses in the first Gulf War, Saddam turned to Islamic extremism for support. Eventually, women’s progress was all but stripped away by unchecked violence and by the new U.S.-backed Iraqi Constitution, which declares that “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam,” effectively returning control of “personal status” issues to local tribal and religious leaders. “What that means literally,” says Aseel Albanna, founder of Iraqi Voice for Peace, “is that everything I want to do as an Iraqi in my country, I have to ask a man in my household for permission. It took Iraqi women back a hundred years.” (Albanna joined Alward and representatives of Madre at a Women’s Media Center press briefing last month marking the one-year anniversary of the rape/murder of Abeer Qassim Hamza Al-Janabi at the hands of U.S. soldiers.) As an architecture student in Iraq in 1992, Albanna was among the 60% female portion of students. That compares with only one of five in a class she later took in the U.S. Among the droves of Iraqi women and girls now forced out of schools are two daughters of Dr. Entisar Mohammad Ariabi, one of a group of Iraqi women who last year undertook a U.S. speaking tour organized by Code Pink. They were forced to leave medical school after death threats were left on their desks. “Any woman who is in public and doesn’t conform in her dress or in her lifestyle to the image of Islamists is a target,” according to Yifat Susskind of Madre. This “virtual witchhunt” against lesbians, artists, academics, professionals and feminists ends all too often, she says, in “outright assassination.” Alward recently lost a cousin and two nieces. Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, has, like Alward, lost count of friends assassinated. “They are pharmacists, professors, reporters, activists,” she said in a recent interview for Ms. magazine. Rape is also used as a tool to police women, and most victims will not report attacks, fearing abandonment or even “honor killing” by their own families. Earlier this year, Sabrine al Janabi received unprecedented U.S. media attention when she accused Iraqi police of rape. Mohammed says activists in the OWFI Women’s Prison Watch believe that some 75% of the women in Baghdad’s Kadhimya prison have been raped, usually at police posts such as the notorious Amiriyah station. Coverage of Sabrine al Janabi’s accusation focused on sectarian conflict. Yet for ordinary Iraqis, says Albanna, “this is not an ancient rivalry. It is a very new phenomenon,” fuelled in part, she believes, by the U.S. policy of assigning seats in parliament on the basis of religious sect. Such actions transformed a formerly private, spiritual matter into one of political power and survival. “We never identified ourselves as Sunni or Shiite but as Iraqis,” Albanna stresses. Mixed marriages are common, and Alward’s family includes people of Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish and even Jewish backgrounds. Mohammed refuses to identify as Sunni or Shiite, as her background includes both. “We cannot cut our children in two, ” Alward comments. “They are part of an accumulation of marriages over hundreds of years in this meeting place that is Iraq.” Although the political tide is beginning to turn, Albanna says audiences across the U.S. have been in a state of denial about the occupation. “They said there’s no way our troops are doing this,” she recalls. “American people have the capability of changing what’s taking place in Iraq,” she says. “If we cannot acknowledge this, Iraq is over.”