Washington (UPI) Mar 14, 2008
Iraqi women say they are increasingly targeted for anything from their clothes to driving to attending school, as society shifts from Saddam Hussein's brutality to one facing violence in the streets and religious fundamentalism.
Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaida'ie, began his welcome to the International Women's Day celebration he was hosting this week not with the praises for his countrywomen, but with a moment of silence.
Guests packed into the embassy reception hall bowed their heads -- some covered in the Muslim hijab, most not -- "to remember what Iraqi women have endured and are enduring," he said before dusting off a quick chronology of Iraqi women's achievements: 1923, the first women's magazine; 1935, the first woman law school graduate and doctor; 1938, the first woman judge.
"That was at a time when our neighbors didn't allow their girls to go to school," Sumaida'ie added.
Iraq's Constitution is intended to ensure this doesn't happen. A quarter of Parliament itself is to be female. Women voted in post-Saddam elections, a favorite reminder of the Bush administration. There's little overt U.S. attention to their ongoing struggles, however, as violence forces Iraqi women into widowhood and threatens them sexually.
"Iraqi women have not always been in such desperate state," Sumaida'ie said. They raised families with "remarkable courage and remarkable fortitude żż in extraordinary circumstances."
A new report from Women for Women International notes Iraqi women polled say the situation since 2004 has gotten worse. Nearly 70 percent of Iraqi women respondents think women are increasingly targeted in Iraq and attribute it to "less respect for women's rights than before, that women are thought of as possessions, and that the economy has gotten worse." Just more than 76 percent "said that girls in their families are not allowed to attend school, and 56.7 percent said that girls' ability to attend school has gotten worse since the U.S. invasion."
Against those odds, Iraqi women held marches and rallies throughout Iraq over the past week, protesting the trend. In Washington, prior to being recognized by Sumaida'ie at the embassy event, Dr. Eaman al-Gobory and seven non-Iraqi women were awarded International Women of Courage Awards by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Gobory, national medical officer for the International Organization for Migration, was chosen for helping Iraqi children receive medical attention outside the country.
The situation for women "is deteriorating," she told United Press International. During the Saddam regime, "women can go alone and drive a car and do a lot of things." Now such activities risk kidnap and death, she said, as does wearing clothes considered not modest enough or without the traditional hijab over her head.
"It really brings psychological trauma because you are doing something against the principle that we are living for," she said. "The country is for all. It's not because I have to be a good citizen I have to be covered so I am a good citizen. This is the principle. If I'm covered or not this is my personal freedom."
U.S. response to the growing crisis for women in Iraq is both well-documented in millions of dollars of empowerment programs and missing from the mouths at the top.
"Certainly the administration remains concerned about women's rights and programs in Iraq," a senior administration official told UPI. The official pointed to the constitution and a host of U.S. programs.
At least as far back as August 2003, the White House has had some focus on Iraqi women. It included a "10 Steps to Improve the Lives of Iraqi Women" section in its 100 Days of Progress in Iraq report.
The State Department's Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative, for example, has received $24.5 million since 2004. Its goal is to ensure women are equipped for involvement and leadership in politics, media, business and civil society.
But regularly in news conferences the threats to Iraq are commonly Iran or al-Qaida, not the homegrown boom in religious fundamentalism protected by the same political parties Washington dubs allies.
Most recently, President Bush's International Women's Day speech last Friday included two familiar sentences on Iraq: "In Iraq, Saddam Hussein once used rape rooms to brutalize women and dishonor their families. Today, because we acted, Iraq's women voted in free and democratic elections; they live under a constitution that protects women's rights."
War itself affects all, but women specifically and uniquely, said Donald Steinberg, deputy president for policy at the International Crisis Group.
"They tend to be the ones who become single heads of household during conflict because men with guns are off fighting wars. And in that capacity, social services, security is diminished for them," he said. Historically, women make up the majority of those displaced by war. Gobory said it's true for the Iraq war. She said no less than 1 million of the more than 4 million displaced Iraqis are single, head-of-household women.
Sometimes, too often, the "men with guns" target women themselves. "There is a nefarious tendency increasingly throughout the world for rape to be used as a weapon of war and obviously women are most susceptible to that," Steinberg said.
Human Rights Watch's 2008 report says "prosecutions are rare" and counts "members of insurgent groups and militias, soldiers, and police among the perpetrators."
This week the U.S. State Department released its annual human-rights report and it detailed a sad trend reflecting more the concerns of Iraqi women than sunny chances championed by the U.S. government: an Iraq of "widespread" honor killings and female genital mutilation, "increased" prostitution and "a source for trafficking of women and girls to other Arab countries żż also reports of girls, women, and boys trafficked within the country for sexual and other exploitation."
"Throughout the country, women reported increasing pressure to wear veils, including within government ministries," the report stated. "Women were targeted for undertaking normal activities, such as driving a car, and wearing trousers, in an effort to force them to remain at home, wear veils and adhere to a conservative interpretation of Islam."
"Women's rights have been hurt in Arab Iraq in two arenas, the practical and the legal," said Juan Cole, Middle East expert at the University of Michigan. While the constitution includes legal protections, "the victory of Muslim fundamentalists in the two elections that were held, both at the federal and provincial level, has enabled religiously minded governors to impose restrictions on women," he said. This, he said, threatened a 1959 law "which was relatively forward looking for its time."
Basra, the formerly cosmopolitan oil capital in southern Iraq once known as the "Venice of the Middle East," witnessed specific targeting of women. At least 57 women, warned to cover up by ominous graffiti on city walls, were found killed.
Minister for Women's Rights Nariman Othman led a rally to the Parliament speaker's office and issued a list of concerns this week, part of a massive Baghdad rally of both women and men.
"Congratulations to all the women in the world on International Women's Day," Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, the first woman president of Iraq's Electrical Utility Workers Union, wrote in an e-mail recapping a celebration for women in Basra. "I hope that peace would prevail. żż Raise your voices with us highly: 'no to violence against Iraqi women.'"
"That's the type of action that keeps their issues before Parliament and before political leaders," Sumaida'ie said. "I would support (the Iraqi woman) in anything she does. I think women should keep up the pressure."
Sumaida'ie urges the government to be more "aggressive" in enforcing the constitution's protections for women. He's optimistic, but warns in the short term "we are going to struggle. That's a reality."
"We cannot expect suddenly to recover from a society that has been put down by decades of misrule into a society that is modern and up to date in every sense," he told UPI at the embassy celebration. "So we understand that we need patience. But patience coupled with resolve. Patience without action is not going to get us anywhere."
Action will require women to play prominent roles in ending the conflict and making policy, said Steinberg of the International Crisis Group. He said often cease-fires and eventual peace aren't met or sustained because women aren't at the negotiating table; the fighters are, but not all the stakeholders.
"And therefore in the post-conflict period what you often get is agreements that do not address the needs of women."
Gobory, the Iraqi State Department awardee, fears a point of no return even for what she deems "simple reasons."
"We are struggling not to do that. If all women are covered, we know we will never have a chance to go back again," she said. "If all of us do what they want, there will be no returning back to have more freedom."
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