Iraqi Women: Resilience Amid Horror
By: Serene Assir
Published Thursday, March 8, 2012
It has been almost nine years since the US and UK launched their criminal invasion of Iraq, and almost three months since a major US troop withdrawal in December 2011. The situation of Iraqi women deteriorated enormously under direct occupation and has only continued to worsen in recent months.
The presence of 250,000 troops was perhaps no longer necessary to enforce an occupation based on terrorizing Iraqi society into submission. In some ways, women have suffered the worst of that system. Women are not only targets of violence, they are the objects through which the rest of society is violated and degraded.
Thousands of women are currently in prison under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior or the US and UK-trained military. Others, according to veteran Iraqi activist Asma al-Haidari, languish in “secret prisons, headed by militias loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.”
The use of torture and sexual abuse in prisons has become systematic in Iraq, al-Haidari said, thanks to training not only by the US and the UK, but also Israel and Iran.
While in detention, many women suffer rape and become mothers to children they never wanted. Some are raped in front of their husbands and children, as a way to humiliate the family and extract “confessions” from men suspected of resisting against a criminal regime.
Certainly, indiscriminate violence on the streets, affects society as a whole. But women, who are frequently targeted for kidnapping and rape by militias operating in a lawless state, have spent the past nine years being pushed further into the relative safety of their homes.
Even at home, many women are not safe. “Domestic violence has grown in a society affected by insecurity and joblessness,” said al-Haidari. In February this year, the Iraqi planning ministry put total unemployment levels at 25 percent. Unofficial estimates claim the rate is higher, at 30 percent.
Women have suffered not only as a result of violence, but also because of a regime based on violating Iraqis’ rights. While the US and successive puppet Iraqi governments claimed they would protect women’s rights, they have jointly succeeded in turning back the clock on every achievement Iraqi society had made.
The degradation of secularism in Iraqi society, under the weight of Iranian-trained and backed militias, has also given rise to new social dynamics, for which women paid the heaviest price.
It is hard to imagine just how the effects of a decade of oppression can be undone. For one, the dismantling of Iraq’s state institutions in 2003 put hundreds of thousands of women out of work. A 2007 Brussells Tribunal dossier on women estimated that until 2003, 72 percent of public sector workers, including teachers, were women.
A decade later, in March 2012, the UN Inter-Agency and Analysis Unit showed that only 14 percent of Iraqi women were either employed or actively seeking employment. “Since 2008 the number of women active in the labor force has decreased while the unemployment rate has increased,” the UN fact sheet read.
Young women in particular have suffered the effects of the destruction of an Iraqi state that once provided education free of charge. Indeed, Iraq stands out for its counter-intuitive degradation of social rights in recent years. While in 1985, the adult female literacy rate stood at 87 percent, according to UNICEF, illiteracy among young female inhabitants of Iraq’s rural areas today exceeds 50 percent.
“Young girls have no childhood,” said al-Haidari, bemoaning the rise in early marriages and prostitution, especially among refugee communities in Syria, and to a lesser extent, Jordan. “We have even heard stories of young girls committing suicide because they sense they are a burden to their families. This was unheard of prior to the occupation.”
While many prominent voices in Iraqi civil society are women’s, they have enjoyed no political representation to speak of. Because of that, many women are “angry,” said Iraqi author and human rights activist Haifa Zangana.
Minister of State for Women's Affairs Ibtihal al-Zaidi, the only female minister with a portfolio under Maliki, has complained of her powerlessness to do anything for Iraqi women. Her predecessor, Nawal al-Samarrai, resigned in February 2009, publicly denouncing cuts in her budget to just US$1,500.
In spite of the damage, many Iraqi women have continued to take an active, even heroic role. “Iraqi women have been very resilient,” said Zangana. “Since 2003, and increasingly since February 2011, women have been at the forefront of protests denouncing the occupation and the regime.”
In the private sphere, women have also shown admirable strength. One in 10 Iraqi households is female-headed, according to the UN, while 90 percent of women household heads are widows. Widows receive practically no assistance, with systematic corruption affecting them too.
Still, they have continued to inventively provide for their children, which is no small feat, given the multiple obstacles involved in securing work in Iraq. Detainees’ families also suffer vulnerability, with the women having to take the lead in the absence of a husband or a father.
Indeed, it appears that if life is even possible at all for Iraqis, it is in great part thanks to the country’s women. “The horror of Iraqi women’s lives must not overshadow their brilliance,” said Zangana. But brilliance alone may not be enough to cure Iraqi society of its ills. “We need real hope,” she added.