Sunday Magazine ~~ June 3 2007
THE OTHER HALF
Iraqi women’s voices
By KALPANA SHARMA
THE New York Times of May 27, 2007, carries an editorial titled “War without end”. It takes little to guess which war it is referring to the war in Iraq that was launched by the United States in 2003. Now, four years later, there does appear to be no end in sight in large part, as the newspaper puts it, because of American President George W. Bush’s “denial of Iraq’s civil war and his war-without-end against terror”. As a result, despite the growing domestic pressure to set a time limit and pull back U.S. troops from the country, Bush continues undeterred in his belief that he can impose democracy from above and beyond Iraq’s borders even as every day hundreds of Iraqis get killed in the senseless sectarian violence that has taken over life in that country. The rest of the world seems indifferent to the daily struggles of ordinary Iraqis to survive.
It is this unending nature of the war that is making Iraqi women, in particular, look back with some nostalgia to the years under Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist even if things were less than perfect during that time.
Better off in the past
In an interesting article in Le Monde Diplomatique (May 2007), Najde Sadiq Al-Ali surveys the position of women before and after the 2003 invasion and concludes that in many respects, women were better off in the past. Al-Ali is a senior lecturer in social anthropology at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter and author of Gender, Secularism and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women’s Movements (Cambridge University Press , 2000). Her latest book is Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (Zed Books, March 2007).
She writes that since the invasion, women worry not just about survival but also about the problems created by the deterioration in the infrastructure. She quotes a doctor, Intisar, at a teaching hospital in Baghdad who says, “We only have electricity for three to five hours a day. There isn’t enough clean drinking water. Lack of sanitation is a big problem, one of the main causes of malnutrition, dysentery and death among young children.”
Impact on health
Not surprisingly, this has impacted on the health of ordinary Iraqis. Quoting from reports published by UNICEF and the British-based charity Medact, Al-Ali states that the current situation in Iraq has led not just to deterioration in health but also to malnutrition and increase in mortality rates of children. Preventable diseases are also increasing.
In war, and even in peace, women carry the burden of the problems around them. Nowhere is this more evident than in Iraq, a country where women were educated, held leading positions in many professions and led a life of dignity. Now they are caught between the occupation forces on the one side and Islamist militias on the other who are forcing on them codes of dress and behaviour that they did not have to observe earlier.
Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi exile who was imprisoned by Saddam, writing in The Guardian Weekly (April 20-26, 2007) points out that in the first three years after the invasion, women stayed at home because of the violence outside. “ But now that the savagery of their circumstances has propelled many of them to the head of their households, they are risking their lives outdoors. Since men are the main target of U.S.-led troops, militias and death squads, black-cloaked women are seen queuing at prisons, government offices or mortuaries in search of disappeared or detained male relatives. It is the women who bury the dead. Baghdad has become a city of bereaved women.”
According to Zangana, “Occupation has left no room for any initiative independent of the officially sanctioned political process; no room for a peaceful opposition or civil society that could create networks to bridge the politically manufactured divided.”
A more optimistic picture
Al-Ali, however, presents a slightly more optimistic picture, based on her discussions with a cross-section of Iraqi women. She says that despite these dire conditions, women are trying to do something to improve life for themselves and others. “Locally-based women’s initiatives and groups flourish, answering practical needs related to poverty and the lack of health care, housing and social services. Women have pooled resources to address the need for education and training (such as computer classes) as well as income generation. Many initiatives filling the gap in State welfare and health are associated with political and religious bodies, but independent, non-partisan professional women have also mobilised.”
Al-Ali quotes Leila, a woman’s rights activist who lives in Iraq as saying, “Initially many of us were very hopeful. We did not like foreign soldiers on our streets, but we were happy Saddam was gone. Once the general chaos and the looting settled down a bit, women were the first to get organised. Women doctors and lawyers started to offer free services to women. We started to discuss political issues and tried to lobby the American and British forces. But the Americans sent people to Iraq whose attitude was: “We don’t deal with women”. [Presidential envoy Paul] Bremer was one. Iraqi women managed to get a woman’s quota despite the Americans who opposed it. Their idea of women’s issues was to organise big meetings and conferences and build modern women’s centres. Do you think anyone went to visit these centres?”
Baghdad, according to the women interviewed by Al-Ali, had a vibrant secular culture. To think of it today as “a city of bereaved women” illustrates starkly the real cost of a “war without end”.