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(en) Britain, Organise* #64 - women's struggles in iraq

Date Thu, 07 Jul 2005 07:47:05 +0300

The Islamist victory at the Iraq elections of January 2005 show
that political Islam is not just an opposition force to the Allied
occupation but also a powerful force for collaboration, putting
in place a reactionary regime where women will be some of
the first victims.
In relationship to other countries in the
Middle East, Iraqi women benefited from a
greater amount of liberty, without of course
a true equality with men. This was not due
to the "secular" nature of Baathism, but to
the struggles of women themselves in the
1950s, before the coming to power of
Saddam. The law on personal status of
1958 passed by the Baathists, guaranteed
education, divorce and the right of women
to keep their children but suffered from
amendment after amendment. In fact
Saddam spelt out that in the cases
unforeseen by law, the sharia (Islamic law)
would take precedence.
The degradation of women's rights really got
under way with the Iran-Iraq war started in
1980. The Iraqi feminist Huzan Mahmud
explains:" Iraq," said Saddam, "has need of
women at home, making food for their
husbands and children, making economies
and not spending too much, they must help
the country to overcome." All that ended up
in permanently violating women's rights. In
par ticular during the war between Iran and
Iraq, women represented more than 70% of
the civil service, but when the war ended
women were sent home". Women's
organisations were banned outside of the
Union of Iraqi Women, the female branch of
the Baathist Party.
With the first Gulf War, the situation
deteriorated further with Saddam adopting
a style that conformed more with Islamic
values, in order to win the support of Islamic
regimes and organisations. He started the
"Campaign for Faithfulness" which led to the
elimination of prostitutes by beheading. At
least 130 women were beheaded in one
year alone, and the figure probably ran
much higher than that. Most of those
executed were not prostitutes but women
who criticised the regime or were wives of
oppositionists. Among them were wives of
Shi'ite imams, TV presenters, doctors and
Another symptom of the attack on women
was the rise of illiteracy during the period of
embargo between 1991 and 2003.
Literacy,which had risen from 75 [per
thousand?] to 755 with the proclamation of
the Republic, fell to 255 [per thousand?]by
2000. This was not just due to the politics
of the regime but to the hard conditions of
the embargo, where everyday survival came
first. War widows and the poorest women
suffered the most. In 1998 a survey
showed that out of 4,600 women and girls
in Baghdad, 16% suffered from severe
malnutrition and 41% from chronic
malnutrition. This resulted in a fall in
women's height. Men and boys suffered far
less from the embargo. Saddam put
through measures legally tolerating "honour
killings". A law passed in 1990 exempted
men who had killed women "to defend the
honour of his family". So men could kill
their wives, their sisters or their daughters
suspected of adultery, immorality or for
having let themselves be raped!
In the Kurdish region of Iraq that had in
ef fect become autonomous from 1991 to
2003, Baathist legislation on women
continued for a long time, despite the
participation of women in civil society, in
government and in the peshmerga (militia
forces). Officially, the law on honour killings
was not abolished in the zone controlled by
the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan until 2000.
In the zone controlled by the Democratic
Party of Kurdistan, more than 500 honour
killings took place in 2000 alone, and the
Baathist law appears not to have been
abolished. The Kurdish nationalists have
tolerated this practice and have made no
ef for t to alter it. On the contrary the offices
of the Independent Organisation of Women
(IOW), and the shelter set up by them at
Sulemaniah to protect women fleeing from
honour killings, were shut down by the
Patriotic Union. Opened in 1998, this
shelter was supported by European women's
organisations and sheltered more than
4,000 women while open.
On the 14th July 2000, the armed forces of
the Patriotic Union invaded the IOW offices
and the shelter, arrested some militants,
seized its archives and funds. Three of the
shelter guards and the shelter's residents
were imprisoned. A day later a man
murdered his sister. A few days after that, a
former resident of the shelter was murdered
by her brother.

Since the occupation

Despite the boasts of the Americans and
their allies of introducing "democracy" into
Iraq and liberating women, the situation has
not got any better. The veil, considered old-
fashioned before, has become a necessity if
women want to go out in the street. The
Islamists have used insults and violence to
intimidate women, including throwing vitriol
in women's faces. Rape has multiplied, as
well as the kidnapping and sale of women.
Price on the market: $200 for a virgin, half
if she isn't. The puppet government put
into place by the Allied coalition is under
pressure from the Islamist groups who take
part in it. These parties, linked to the
regime in Iran (al'Dawa, Supreme Council
for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), share
with their opponents of the religious
resistance the project of establishing an
Islamic state in Iraq, even if their tactics
differ. The attempt to introduce the sharia
was met by demonstrations called by 25
women's organisations, despite the danger
this represented. Yannar Mohammed, one
of the founders of the Organisation for the
Freedom of Women in Iraq (OFWI), received
death threats from the Army of the
Companions of the Prophet, a pro-Taliban
group. Honour killings have not disappeared
with the occupation. The kidnapping of
young girls for prostitution are equally
common. These supply networks of
prostitution, particularly in the the Yemen.
The OFWI is involved in setting up shelters
for women who are victims of violence and
threatened by honour killings. Two were set
up, one in Baghdad and one in Sulemaniah,
in the North. Here the Patriotic Union has
made threats against it.

The Kurdish situation

The Patriotic Union is considered more
progressive than its rival, the Kurdish
Democratic Party, notably because of the
number of women involved. But they have
not forgotten the March 1991 insurrection,
when workers councils were set up. The two
nationalist parties regained control of the
situation, re-establishing control of the
factories. The militant feminist Sakar
Ahmed was beaten by her brothers as she
was in the process of writing a book against
honour killings. Her father approved this
act. The dancer Hinadi, member of the
dance group el-Portoqala, was murdered
during Ramadan by an Islamist gang who
regarded her videos as "pornographic",
because they evoked love between boys and
girls. Other women have been beaten for
wearing jeans, or for going to the
hairdresser rather than hide their hair under
a veil. More than 1,000 female students
have abandoned university since the
campaign by the Islamists for control of the
universities. At Mosul, the dean of the
University of Law was shot dead then
beheaded, along with her husband. The
director of the Department of Translation
suffered the same fate, as well as a dozen
women in public life who were doctors, vets,
and civil servants.
Hatred of women is to be found equally in
the religious resistance groups as in the
parties allied with the Americans. The Iraqi
State is unable to put an end to the endemic
violence. This violence is proportionally due
more to the criminal gangs than to the
religious resistance. And even where they
are able to act, the governmental forces are
unwilling to do so, because they often share
the same outlook towards women, as with
the regional government of the Kurdish
Only the autonomous action of women
allying themselves with the Iraqi radical
workers movement shows any possibility of
progress on this front. The so-called
"democratisation" and "modernisation"
promised by the Allied forces has proved to
be a sham.
Adapted from an article in the French
magazine Courant Alternatif.
* Organise is the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.
It is published twice times a year to promote discussion
and the development of anarchist communist theory.

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