Iraqi Women: Resilience Amid Horror

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Iraqi women work in the brick factory in the town of Nahrawan east of Baghdad, 8 March 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Thaier al-Sudani)

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.


Reading Serene article now on 2014 , three years later, Iraqi women's fate has even deteriorated further. The new drafted so called Ja'afari law issued by the IRAQI minister of "Justice", who belongs to ELFADHIL shittee party , where stated that marriage age for girls is at 9 years old and boys at 15 years old. It is not only a sectarian law but ""it is burying Iraqi girls before they even born"". Iraqi women will not exisit if this law will be approved by the Iraqi Parliament after the so called 30 of April elections! The only way to reverse the fate and the course of Iraqi women is to campaigen fiercely at all fronts against it, locally, regionally and internationally. Voicing our protest loudly might bring a result which will save not only Iraqi women but the whole iraqi society from going deeper into the darkest age of a sectarian state.

I very much appreciate the honesty and integrity of this article, so lacking in the Western press. Much respect to the courageous women of Iraq, some of whom have posted comments here. Many blessings to the women of Iraq...and may God help me and my fellow Americans who have brought so much suffering to them.

Many women organizations in Iraq 'celebrated' women's day, and talked about the abysmal situation of the Iraqi women, especially violence and lack of constitutional rights. They talk about divorce, beating, illiteracy..etc. But none of these orgs connected women's tragedy to the destruction of the Iraqi State and its institutions which were the most important supporter of women since the establishment of the republic. None mentioned the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent governments as the culprit. None referred to the impoverishment of women, so that many Iraqi families are now living on garbage (literally not metaphorically), million families in Baghdad alone are homeless, none talked about the corrupt and backward government, the dark-minded fanatics, the degraded sectarian militias. Ironically, one of these orgs, said that it would like to help women in danger, only if they have 'evidence'. If these women orgs keep on talking about the liberated new Iraq, they are participating in the crime, whether they like it or not. Good for them the silent 25% representation, and the women minister who is proud of inequality. Thanks Serene for the excellent article.

Unimaginable horrors have been thrown at our Iraqi brethren since the time of sanctions to this day..

An excellent article. It precisely represents what Iraqi women are going through today. Thank you Serene.

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