Women in Iraq and Afghanistan: U.S. Actions Do Little To Help
In the aftermath of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the situation of women is no longer on our radar screen, despite its use as a justification for the ouster of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. In both countries there were some initially positive(and well-publicized) changes. However, as time goes on, it is becoming clear that the situation for women has not significantly improved, and has in some ways worsened, since the respective governments were overthrown. While many similarities exist for women in countries where conflict has taken place, the specifics vary substantially and thus the conditions for women in Afghanistan and Iraq are reported separately below.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, one of the justifications used was that we needed to liberate women in that country from the Taliban -although we had originally been instrumental in putting the Taliban in power and had never before expressed substantial interest in the situation of women in Afghanistan. Laura Bush was quoted as saying, “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” After the overthrow of the Taliban, we were shown jubilant pictures of women throwing off their burquas and girls happily going to school. Unfortunately, this rosy picture, for the most part, was short lived, especially outside the capitol of Kabul.
Currently, there is a draft constitution that guarantees women equal rights, as well as 20% of the seats in the future National Assembly (stronger guarantees than U.S. women have in our Constitution). But these guarantees are largely negated by a clause that states that no law can be contrary to the beliefs of Islam. The Chairman of the Constitutional Convention told women delegates, “Even God has not given you equal rights because under his decision, two women are counted as equal to one man.”
President Hamid Karzai’s government, despite much rhetoric, has proven to be blatantly anti-women in its actions and inactions. Little has been done to help women find jobs and to provide the basic necessities for their families. Reliable electricity and potable water are still scarce. Girls’ schools lack such basics as books and chairs. Women cannot sing on Kabul television and women’s songs are not played. Critically, there is no legal protection for women. Many of those in power now are the same men who imposed anti-women restrictions in 1992 and started a reign of misogynist terror where thousands of women and girls were systematically raped.
Security is still an overwhelming problem for women. Amnesty International recently concluded that the Karzai government is unable to protect women and that the risk of sexual violence at the hands of various armed factions is still high. Women and girls are threatened with violence in every aspect of their lives, including being subjected to forced marriages, sexual slavery and prostitution. There is a high rate of forced marriages, particularly among young girls. Sometimes a girl’s family pushes for the marriage. But in many cases the marriage is used to resolve a tribal conflict and is overtly supported by armed factions, local officials and tribal warlords, many of whom wield more power than the central government. For example, if a man kills another man, tribal elders may order the killer to give a woman in his family to the killer’s family as compensation.
In Kabul and a few other cities, girls are free to go to school and have jobs but this is not the case in most parts of the country. According to CARE, an international humanitarian organization, only one tenth of girls in outlying provinces are able to go to school. In one province, it is estimated that 80% of young girls are the victims of forced marriages.
In Herat, women cannot walk or take a taxi without a male relative as an escort. If a woman is seen without such a man she can be forced to undergo an exam to see if she has had recent sexual intercourse. Because of the oppression of women, the suicide rate (frequently by self-immolation) among girls and young women is much higher than when the Taliban was in power. From September through February of this last year, there have been 40 cases of immolation in Herat because of the continued tradition of forced marriages. One NGO worker, comparing present conditions to the Taliban era said that under the Taliban, if a woman showed her flesh she would be flogged; now she will be raped.
Sonali Kolhatkar, of the Afghan Women’s Mission, offers these suggestions for ways in which the U.S. could take concrete steps to help Afghani women:
1. Instead of arming fundamentalist warlords who threaten the safety of women, the U.S. could participate in the United Nations campaign to disarm them.
2. The U.S. could provide funds to combat malnutrition and maternal mortality and fund schools, provide food assistance, etc.
While Saddam Hussein’s regime was oppressive, it did initially give Iraqi women more rights than they had in other Middle Eastern countries. They could vote, attend school, hold public office and own property. Women were guaranteed the right to prevent their husbands from taking a second wife (which is allowed in Islam) and they were not required to wear headscarves.
After the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s, Hussein began courting Islamic hardliners with such actions as segregating schools and decriminalizing honor killings and polygamy. After the 1991 Gulf War, women in the Kurdish north were able to get laws passed protecting their rights, but the rights of women in the rest of Iraq continued to deteriorate. Today the torture, incarceration and killing of women continues, with no effort on the part of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) to stop these practices.
Increased militarization of Iraqi society has led to widespread availability of weapons. When Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and Editor-in-Chief of Al Mousawat (Equality) Newspaper, asked the CPA for protection after receiving death threats, she was told they had more urgent matters to attend to. Amnesty International reports that it is not aware of any efforts by the CPA to protect women and women’s rights workers.
Mohammed’s fears are well founded, as the recent killing of Fern Holland, a women’s rights worker from the U.S., indicates. Although it is not clear if her killing was because of her work (which included setting up a women’s shelter) or a random murder, the women who work and go to the shelter report being regularly threatened and harassed. There has also been an assassination attempt of the only female cabinet member and, in September 2003, one of the three female members of the Iraqi Governing Council was assassinated.
The recently agreed-to new constitution calls for 25% female representation. Now that the U.S. has theoretically turned over power, the Iraqi government is theoretically not accountable to the U.S. and there is the grave danger of Sharia laws being introduced, which would replace the current civil legal code with one based on fundamentalist Islamic laws.
Currently there is a 60% unemployment rate in Iraq, shortages of electricity and water and badly damaged transportation and healthcare systems. For women, obtaining medical care, putting food on the table and sending children, especially girls, to school remains an impossible struggle. The U.S. has exacerbated the situation for women by setting up a governing council where only three of the 25 members are women and no women have been appointed as governors of the eighteen provinces; only one of the 25 ministries is led by a woman. And as Amnesty International reports, rapes and abductions in Baghdad have become so severe since the U.S. invasion that women are afraid to leave their homes; the wearing of head scarves and garments that hide women’s bodies is becoming more and more common.
I recently asked Yanar Mohammed for her assessment of the situation for women in Iraq and she told me “There is no way to describe how much deterioration has struck the lives of millions of women in Iraq. After one year of so-called ‘peace,’ social insurance programs are not in place yet. Widows with children consequently have no support for their lives. Paul Bremer celebrates opening a computer center for women in one of the wealthy parts of Baghdad, while millions of women suffer chronic deprivation and destitution alongside their children. Our most important project for the time being is setting up a women’s shelter as an alternative for women threatened with honor killings and severe domestic abuse. Unfortunately, this will be the only alternative for women threatened with their lives (because of their personal choices in life). There is no other in Baghdad.
“I have asked support from the coalition many times,” she added. “I have received no response yet.”
Information for this report came from numerous news articles as well as reports by various human rights organizations and the United Nations.
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jul/Aug 2004
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