New Internationalist

What price freedom?

Issue 373

Seven months in Baghdad as an activist, writer and circus clown has given Jo Wilding an insight into how women’s lives have changed in the ‘new’ Iraq.

On my visits to pre-war Iraq, it was safe, as a woman, to walk on the streets alone at three in the morning. Of course that’s partly because the Ba’athists suppressed any crimes other than their own. Now my women friends don’t feel safe on the streets at any hour. At the checkpoint entering Falluja, a US marine referred to the hijabs or headscarves all the women in our group were wearing, by saying: ‘You don’t have to wear those things any more. Women are free now.’ But in reality far more women go out covered up now than before the US invasion. My friend Layla said she had a letter from some women students in one of the colleges: ‘They are being threatened with suspension if they do not wear a veil.’

Layla is now vice-president of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI).1 Supporters of Moqtada Al-Sadr have threatened the organization and some individual women within it, including director Yanar Mohammed. Other women’s groups and labour organizations, such as the Workers’ Communist Party, have also been threatened.

Jo Wilding
Dancing in the dark – Asma’a and friends are confined to their home. Jo Wilding

Jo Wilding
Marwa has had to leave school because the journey has become too dangerous. Jo Wilding

Failure to protect women and their rights has been a feature of the occupation. Women’s political rights have been given little more than lip service. When the Coalition Provisional Authority named thousands of new judges in early 2004, there were only 15 women. Even so, some male lawyers protested that the promotion of one woman was ‘inappropriate’. Instead of defending her right to take that high-level role in public life, the coalition authority suspended her appointment.

This is in spite of the fact that there is a strong tradition of women involved in Iraqi public life, stretching back several decades. Zakia Hakki, Iraq’s first woman judge, was appointed in 1959. In that same year the Personal Status Law was passed, making women and men substantially equal in law. By 1970 they were declared as such in the constitution. Iraqi women were among the most advanced in the region in terms of education and rights. By 1980, women could vote and run for election – indeed, some 20 per cent of Saddam Hussein’s Government were women. This compares with 14 per cent in the US and an average of 3.5 per cent in Arab countries.

By 1991, the increase in fundamentalist influence which followed UN sanctions on Iraq was becoming evident. To mollify the shari’a (Islamic law) lobby, Saddam closed down nightclubs and decriminalized ‘honour killings’ by male relatives of women who had disgraced their families by, for example, being raped. Today, the Organization of Women’s Freedom is calling for a secular constitution to guarantee equality between women and men. Instead, in January 2003, the Governing Council, as it was then known, passed Order 137 which reversed the 1959 Personal Status Law and submitted family, matrimonial and related financial matters to religious, rather than legal, jurisdiction. In face of protest, the Order, passed by only 11 of the 25 Council members, was dropped. It is, however, aptly illustrated by a remark made by a representative of the interim Interior Ministry to the New York Times: ‘We don’t do women.’

With unemployment between 60 and 80 per cent, many women have lost their jobs. Men take to driving their private cars as taxis, cleaning shoes or selling on the street. Women don’t do these things. They have not completely disappeared from the streets: you still see them in the markets, on the buses, working in the banks, begging in the traffic queues. But there is nowhere to go. The coffee shops are the preserve of men. The streets are dangerous. The shops are just depressing if you haven’t got any money to spend. There are no cinemas. There are few places where women can meet and just share gossip and company.

In the Sufi mosque at Friday prayers the women greet each other with hugs and hundreds of kisses, whispering eagerly at the back while the kids jump about, until a woman in a huge white outfit which denotes her as a member of the Prayer Police, comes past to tell them to face the front, be quiet, keep their children under control. After prayers, begins the real business of exchanging the week’s news. Men gather outside waiting for wives and sisters and in-laws who are queuing for the return of their shoes, reluctant to cut short the only social occasion of the week.

Sabriya lives in a metal shack annexed to a relative’s house, her two children staying with her mother for lack of space. She interprets for foreign activists. For a long time she didn’t tell us about the death and kidnap threats she’d had by telephone, for fear that we would stop working with her. ‘If I cannot do this work,’ she said, ‘I am already dead.’

Apart from that, those without jobs disappear into the home. For lack of anything but housework to do, many of them are losing their minds. My friend Asma’a has been looking for work but can’t find any. She used to teach computing. It’s boring and frustrating to be at home all day. ‘We do all the work of the house and then we chat on the internet and we download music and dance and we watch TV.’ They know that, able to afford the internet in their homes, they are among the luckier ones.

Though girls are able to go to school – as they have for decades – increasingly, they too are disappearing into their homes. In the academic year after the invasion, far fewer girls went to school than previously. Marwa, a bright-eyed 12-year-old who lives in the squatter camp at Shuala, dropped out of school because it was too dangerous for her to travel there and spend the day unprotected.

Without the restoration of conditions whereby all girls can go to school, without an active stance in favour of women’s rights by the occupying powers – which they undeniably remain despite the June 2004 ‘handover’ of sovereignty – and without massive and active international solidarity with women’s groups like the OWFI, Iraqi women will lose all that they’ve achieved in the past few decades.

Jo Wilding has worked on various solidarity projects in Iraq, including running a small circus which worked with traumatized children and adults. After being kidnapped, briefly, she returned to Britain where she is now studying law.

  1. http://www.equalityiniraq.com

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