Sunday, April 04, 2010

Do Iraq's Women Miss Saddam?

Do Iraq's Women Miss Saddam?

Published Sunday, April 04, 2010

Women's advocacy groups say the US courtship of conservative Islamists curtailed women's rights.

Benjamin Joffe-Walt / The Media Line

For some, it was an easier time.

Women could walk freely throughout the streets of the capital, wearing whatever they pleased. A high percentage of women had full-time jobs, women in government were given a year of maternity leave and public day care centers were set up. The country had one of the best education systems in the Arab world and women were well represented in most faculties.

While one would hardly go so far as to describe those times as 'the good ole' days', for many women Iraq under Saddam Hussein had its perks.

Today the situation is quite different. While the fall of Saddam Hussein has led to many overall improvements in personal freedoms and civil rights, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent courtship of socially conservative Islamic political groups has created quite a different picture for women.

Women no longer have many of the civil rights they were afforded under Saddam Hussein's regime. Sharia law has been written into Iraq's constitution, women have been barred from certain aspects of public life in many parts of the country, women's freedom of movement has been severely curtailed, sex trafficking, prostitution, abductions and assassinations of women have all risen and women in government no longer get a year of maternity leave - that has been cut to six months.

"In general women were living much better off under Saddam," Yanar Mohammed, a women's rights advocate with the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq told The Media Line. "The Iraq that I grew up in was a very modern Iraq and we had basic human rights."

"It was more fashionable at the time to give more rights to women and even Saddam followed the more progressive tendency in the region," she said. "So the Personal Status Law of the time, passed [in 1959] even before Saddam, established a minimum age for marriage, made it very difficult for a man to take a second wife and one almost never saw clerics ruling on civil matters."

"But then the U.S. occupation created a political vacuum and allowed what they call the 'cultural groups' to have their way in Iraq," Mohammed continued. "These religious groups were able to gain access to the constitution and allow people to turn to Sharia instead of civil law. So there is no longer any strong civil law to protect us and there are now big parts of Iraq which are being ruled under Sharia, in which women have very little rights."

"The Americans just let the rule of the jungle go ahead - whoever is the strongest will rule - and the Islamists are the strongest," she said. "So now we are living in a new Islamist Iraq, with Islamic courts all over Baghdad and women totally vulnerable to religious law: a man can marry four wives, a girl that is twelve years old, it's almost impossible for women to get divorced. None of this was the case in Saddam's time."

Dr Haitham Numan, Director of the Baghdad-based Asharq Research Center, argued that the situation for women has significantly worsened since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"We cannot say that education for women or the general situation for women is better today," Dr Numan told The Media Line. "On the contrary it is worse."

"We can see more general freedoms in Iraq since the fall of the Saddam regime, but at the same time we now have Islamic law, which forbids women's participation in many aspects of life," Dr Numan said. "Ten years ago Islamic leaders had no political clout and this is a major change."

"Political leaders today are interested in their own coalition, not in women's rights," Dr Numan added. "So there are simply no new projects for women."

But Nadya Khalife, Women's Rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, argued that there was little utility to the comparison between women's rights before and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"There are issues coming up that didn't come up in the same way before the U.S.-led invasion," she told The Media Line. "There has been a rise in honor crimes, the targeting of female professionals and politicians, the trafficking of women and children and prostitution. Personal status laws have also changed so there are efforts to legalize polygamy and women have even been killed for wearing the wrong type of attire or going outside wearing makeup."

"There is certainly a conservative push towards personal status laws," Khalife added. "But overall I think we can't compare if the situation for women has improved or not. For example, people say women used to be much more educated and now their levels of literacy is down and their access to education has been curtailed, but this is all affected by the political turmoil, a foreign invasion and the lack of freedom of movement. So things have changed, but there are many factors, so whether they have changed for the better or worse is hard to say."

Houzan Mahmoud, the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq's representative abroad, agreed that the comparison was problematic.

"Both situations are horrible," she told The Media Line. "Just because we have a terrible situation at the moment doesn't mean we need to glorify Saddam's dictatorship."

"During Saddam's regime if you were not political you could lead a normal life, but for the majority of us who opposed the dictatorship, it was hell," Mahmoud said. "You were either for the Ba'ath party under Saddam or you were subjected to torture, persecution and abuse. There was no freedom of speech, no freedom of association, women did not have the right to establish women's organizations and he also started to bring socially conservative norms into the constitution. So I don't really like arguments that imply that Saddam Hussein's regime was great."

"Now America has invited the most tribalist, misogynist, Islamist extremist groups to join the government," she continued. "Warlords, ex-Ba'athists, you name it. It's a government of corrupt pullets that has nothing to do with people's aspirations for freedom or welfare and which hasn't brought any normalcy."

"As a result, there is a lot of gender-based violence at all levels," Mahmoud concluded. "We have one or two million women who have been widowed and have no access to social benefits. There is widespread violence and the majority of people live under the poverty line, particularly women. There is trafficking of women and young girls for prostitution both internally and externally. Sharia law has been implemented through the constitution and the enforcement of social conservatism has been brought back into the society."

Mahmoud's colleague in Baghdad Yanar Mohammed said that a law requiring a quarter of Iraq's legislature to be filled by women has made little difference.

"On the one hand it's a good sign because it does bring women to the scene," she said. "But almost half of the women who ended up in parliament came from religious parties. They claim to represent women's rights but in reality they do not want equality, do not demand equality and just support the oppression of women. Even if they try, the rest of the parliamentarians are clerics and don't listen to them."
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