Sunday, August 21, 2005

You've Come a Long Way, Baby 

If you watched Bill Maher this weekend, you saw the beady-eyed, preternaturally cheerful Asa Hutchinson, erstwhile Homeland Security flunky and former Clinton impeachment manager, attempting to justify Mr. Bush's installation of an Islamic theocracy in the formerly secular Iraq by explaining that, shoot, the transition to democracy is a slow and arduous process, and constitutions take a long time to put together, especially when Iraqi women -- whose lot the U.S. is deeply committed to improving! -- are helping to put them together. Immediately thereafter, macabre Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway (Who? We can only explain it thus: Ann Coulter + flesh-eating bacteria = Kellyanne Conway) confirmed that Iraqi women are far better off than they were under Saddam Hussein, and that it is sanctimonious for Americans to criticize the treatment of women under sharia, because we have not yet elected Elizabeth Dole president.

If, shortly thereafter, you passed out in front of the television and awoke just in time for this morning's episode of Meet the Press, you might be forgiven for assuming that a new Republican talking point had emerged in the intervening 36 hours, because you would have seen PNAC spokeshole Reuel Marc Gerecht announcing that:
In 1900, women did not have the right to vote. If Iraqis could develop a democracy that resembled America in the 1900s, I think we'd all be thrilled. I mean, women's social rights are not critical to the evolution of democracy. We hope they're there. I think they will be there. But I think we need to put this into perspective.
By all means, let's put that issue in perspective. There is, of course, no reason to go all the way back to America circa 1900; Iraq circa 1990, a time and place that most Iraqi women should be able to recall quite vividly, will do just fine. From a 2003 Human Rights Watch briefing paper entitled "Background on Women's Status in Iraq Prior to the Fall of the Saddam Hussein Government":
The primary legal underpinning of women's equality is contained in the Iraqi Provisional Constitution, which was drafted by the Ba'ath party in 1970. Article 19 declares all citizens equal before the law regardless of sex, blood, language, social origin, or religion. In January 1971, Iraq also ratified the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which provide equal protection under international law to all.

In order to further its program of economic development, the government passed a compulsory education law mandating that both sexes attend school through the primary level. Although middle and upper class Iraqi women had been attending university since the 1920s, rural women and girls were largely uneducated until this time. In December 1979, the government passed further legislation requiring the eradication of illiteracy. All illiterate persons between ages fifteen and forty-five were required to attend classes at local "literacy centers," many of which were run by the GFIW. Although many conservative sectors of Iraqi society refused to allow women in their communities to go to such centers (despite potential prosecution), the literacy gap between males and females narrowed.

The Iraqi government also passed labor and employment laws to ensure that women were granted equal opportunities in the civil service sector, maternity benefits, and freedom from harassment in the workplace. Such laws had a direct impact on the number of women in the workforce. The fact that the government (as opposed to the private sector) was hiring women contributed to the breakdown of the traditional reluctance to allow women to work outside the home. The Iraqi Bureau of Statistics reported that in 1976, women constituted approximately 38.5 percent of those in the education profession, 31 percent of the medical profession, 25 percent of lab technicians, 15 percent of accountants and 15 percent of civil servants. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), women assumed greater roles in the workforce in general and the civil service in particular, reflecting the shortage of working age men. Until the 1990s, the number of women working outside the home continued to grow.

Women attained the right to vote and run for office in 1980. In 1986, Iraq became one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). While this represented a positive step for Iraqi women, the reservations entered in regard to articles 2(f), 2(g), 9, and 16 undermined the guarantees of equality at the heart of the convention. Namely, these reservations sought to justify continued application of national laws that discriminate on the basis of sex, especially those in relation to women's and girls' rights within the familial structure, on the grounds that they are largely dictated by Islamic law. As with other countries in the region, most advancement in the status of Iraqi women has thus occurred within the public sphere.

In the years following the 1991 Gulf War, many of the positive steps that had been taken to advance women's and girls' status in Iraqi society were reversed due to a combination of legal, economic, and political factors. The most significant political factor was Saddam Hussein's decision to embrace Islamic and tribal traditions as a political tool in order to consolidate power. In addition, the U.N. sanctions imposed after the war have had a disproportionate impact on women and children (especially girls). For example, the gender gap in school enrollment (and subsequently female illiteracy) increased dramatically due to families' financial inability to send their children to school. When faced with limited resources, many families chose to keep their girl children at home.

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