Thursday, December 23, 2004
Courtesy of our distinguished colleagues at Cursor: Many Americans tend to imagine that Iraqi women were cowering behind their burqas until we arrived to liberate them, and are often shocked to learn that pre-invasion Iraq, in addition to being the only secular Arab state in the Middle East, was also, by a wide margin, the most liberal in terms of women's rights. Now the U.S. State Department is launching a $10 million initiative (read: boondoggle) to "give Iraqi women the tools, information and experience they need to run for office and lobby for fair treatment" -- prompting novelist Haifa Zangana, a former prisoner of the Saddam regime, to deliver the following brief but pointed history lesson:
The reality is different. Iraqi women were actively involved in public life even under the Ottoman empire. In 1899 the first schools for girls were established, the first women's organisation in 1924. By 1937 there were four women's magazines published in Baghdad.
Women were involved in the 1920 revolution against British occupation, including in fighting. In the 50s, political parties established women's organisations. All reflected the same principle: fighting alongside men, women were also liberating themselves. That was proven in the aftermath of the 1958 revolution ending the British-imposed monarchy when women's organisations achieved within two years what over 30 years of British occupation failed to: legal equality.
This process led Unicef to report in 1993: "Rarely do women in the Arab world enjoy as much power as they do in Iraq ... men and women must receive equal pay for equal work. A wife's income is recognised as independent from her husband's. In 1974, education was made free at all levels, and in 1979 it was made compulsory for girls and boys until the age of 12." By the early 90s, Iraq had one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world. There were more professional women in positions of power than in almost any other Middle Eastern nation . . . .
[Today] Lack of security and fear of kidnapping make Iraqi women prisoners in their own homes. They witness the looting of their country by Halliburton, Bechtel, US NGOs, missionaries, mercenaries and local subcontractors, while they are denied clean water and electricity. In the land of oil, they have to queue five hours a day to get kerosene or petrol. Acute malnutrition has doubled among children. Unemployment at 70% is exacerbating poverty, prostitution, backstreet abortion and honour killing . . . .
The silence of the "feminists" of Allawi's regime is deafening. The suffering of their sisters in cities showered with napalm, phosphorus and cluster bombs by US jet fighters, the death of about 100,000 Iraqi civilians, half of them women and children, is met with rhetoric about training for democracy.
Tony Blair, acknowledged yesterday in Baghdad that violence would continue both before and after the January 30 elections, but added: "On the other hand we will have a very clear expression of democratic will." Does he not know that "democracy" is what Iraqi women use nowadays to frighten their naughty children, by shouting: "Quiet, or I'll call democracy."