A US soldier stands over an Iraqi woman in her home, May 2008. (Jason Fudge)
More than seven years after the US- and UK-led invasion of their country, Iraqis continue to endure an occupation that has systematically violated their rights to life, dignity, self-determination and economic development. The occupation has been and continues to be so destructive and so violent that one in four Iraqis are estimated to be dead or displaced. One in five Iraqis has been made a refugee or an internally displaced person (IDP).
In particular, the role and situation of women and girls has declined precipitously compared to prior to the invasion. From torture to rape to assassination, from forced separation for mixed couples to women and their children enduring the death of their husbands and fathers, from a loss of educational rights to expulsion from the workplace and public life, and from sexual slavery to forced flight or enforced disappearance, for the past seven years Iraqi women and girls have endured the most terrifying of fates. They are living at the mercy of an occupation that both seeks to terrorize them into submission, and to use them as objects for the terrorization of the whole of Iraqi society.
Dr. Souad al-Azzawi, who authored a study on Iraqi women entitled “Deterioration of Iraq women’s rights and living conditions under occupation,” published in January 2008, told The Electronic Intifada: “The most significant loss that Iraqi women have suffered is a complete and total loss of security.” She explained that the loss of security entails both the loss of physical security and “the economic, social and civil securities Iraqi women were so accustomed to prior to the occupation.”
In fact, it appears that the loss of physical and other aspects of security have a Catch-22 effect on the lives of women. The lack of legal and institutional support for women by an Iraqi puppet government which is at best ineffective has meant that in the vast majority of cases the criminals, mafias, militias, death squads, US occupation forces and Iraqi police and army forces committing crimes against women are not held accountable for their actions. This has in turn encouraged the development of a situation characterized by lawlessness and criminality, in which women are prime targets. As such, many women have been forced to leave their jobs and quit their education, for fear that they may be the next victim of rape or assassination.
According to al-Azzawi, Iraqi women have had to resort to “the relative security of their homes,” often taking their children out of school too if they were the only parent able to accompany them there and back.
Echoing al-Azzawi’s words, an Iraqi refugee speaking on condition of anonymity said that she was forced to leave Iraq precisely because of death threats issued against her by militias who had found out she was actively working as a journalist seeking to expose the injustices taking place against women. Had she stayed in Iraq, the threats likely would have been fulfilled.
“Not only was I being targeted, but I was also without protection, given that Iraq has no government to speak of,” she explained. She added that “I could have been killed at any moment, and no one would have been held accountable for it. It was for one reason alone that I fled: because I had no choice.”
Criminal levels of poverty
The figures speak for themselves. According to a dossier on Iraqi women published by the BRussells Tribunal, prior to the invasion 72 percent of working women were government employees. The dismantlement of state institutions immediately after the invasion meant that these women became unemployed. Instability and ineffective institutions in Iraq render it impossible to pinpoint the total rate of unemployment today, but estimates range from 15 percent to 70 percent. The few stable jobs that exist, according to the dossier, are usually given to men, though a growing number of female-headed households means that many women need to take extraordinary risks in order to try and cater for their children (“Iraqi Women Under Occupation” [PDF]).
The same economic insecurity affects Iraqi refugee families. Aseer al-Madaien, the Protection Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - Syria, says that out of 139,000 registered Iraqis in Syria, 28 percent are households headed by women. In total, estimates for the total number of displaced Iraqis, including both refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), range up to almost five million, according to the international organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, which believes that there are 2.5 million Iraqi IDPs and 2.3 million refugees.
IDPs suffer both extreme vulnerability and insecurity, as they seek refuge in the homes of relatives and friends, said Hana Al Bayaty, member of the Executive Committee of the BRussells Tribunal. Many of them are the victims of ethnic cleansing, whereby a country once free of sectarianism is increasingly witnessing the targeting of persons on the basis of their religion or ethnicity. Mixed marriages in these conditions are all too often broken up by force, according to a report published by the UN-affiliated IRIN humanitarian news agency (“Mixed Marriages confront Sectarian Violence,” 6 April 2006).
The majority of Iraqi refugees have headed to neighboring countries Syria and Jordan, where they are not allowed to work, as they are legally considered “guests.” In 2007, the UNHCR reported that an estimated 40 percent of Iraq’s middle class had fled the country. Not only have almost half of those with the qualifications and experience to help rebuild Iraq left the country, but they are also suffering from the most extreme form of disempowerment, according to Al Bayaty.
Al-Azzawi explained that “For the educated middle class, this situation is shattering as everything we have worked so hard to earn and build up over decades of war and sanctions is being brought down by military force before our very eyes.”
Unable to work legally, it is often refugee women who take upon themselves the burden and the risk of working as they are less likely to be asked for documentation on the streets of Amman, Damascus and beyond, and they thereby hope to be less likely to be deported.
Unemployment levels in Syria and Jordan, however, mean that even illegal work is hard to come by. It is because of this that the phenomenon of forced prostitution is becoming increasingly rife. The growing problem of sex trafficking is partly caused by poverty.
According to al-Azzawi, the lack of work permits, qualifications and opportunities “leads some women to prostitution in order to feed their children and their families.” In other cases, the sheer lack of protection faced by some women push them into prostitution. Problems in such cases include threats of kidnapping issued against women should they not accept to prostitute themselves. These threats are issued especially against women whose husbands are dead or missing. “The women of Iraq live in a very fragile situation as a result of the American occupation’s crimes,” al-Azzawi said.
Death, torture and enforced disappearance
No statistical reference can adequately convey the sheer suffering experienced by the people of Iraq, as a whole, from the genocidal sanctions period through the invasion and ensuing occupation. Current estimates place the number of dead at anywhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million.
According to Iraqi human rights analyst and advocate Asma al-Haidari, “Up to one million Iraqis have been forcibly disappeared.” Behind the enforced disappearances are the US army, Iraqi government forces including the army and police, and al-Qaeda and other militias that operate freely across the country, according to a presentation given by Dirk Adriaensens, member of the BRussells Tribunal Executive Committee, at a London conference organized by the International Committee Against Disappearances on 9-12 December 2010. According to calculations by Adriaensens, based on UNHCR statistics, 20 percent of internally displaced Iraqi families have reported cases of missing children (“Enforced Disappearance. The Missing Persons of Iraq” [PDF]).
It is also understood that, given that there is a very real and justified fear of retaliation against families who report the disappearances of their loved ones, many others suffer in silence. Thousands of detainees, some of them in secret, illegal prisons, according to al-Azzawi, are women. Estimates published in 2008 by the Iraqi Parliamentary Women’s Committee and the Iraqi Ministry of Women’s Affairs indicate that between one and two million Iraqi women are widows.
Inside Iraq’s jails, legal or not, cases of torture and sexual abuse have been widely reported. Revelations by WikiLeaks published on 22 October 2010 were described by Iraqi activists such as Sabah al-Mukhtar, president of the Arab Lawyers’ Union, as just “the tip of the iceberg,” as he said on an Al-Jazeera English interview on 24 October. According to al-Azzawi, women are usually jailed on trumped-up charges of terrorism, where there is no proof and while there is no adequate legal system to ensure their right to a fair trial. “Many are awaiting execution,” al-Azzawi added.
Further, when it is the man who disappears, whether he is dead or missing, women and their families have to fend for themselves in a hellish situation. Out of this horror comes forth one of the more obtuse trends, inexistent in Iraq up until 2003, of families giving their daughters away in early marriage for fear of being unable to adequately support them.
One immediate effect of this phenomenon is the fact that girls aged 13, 14 and 15 sold into early marriage lose their right to education. As figures currently stand, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report published on 1 September 2010, for every 100 boys in school, there are only 89 girls (“Girls Education in Iraq 2010” [PDF]).
“Lots of those little girls are very bright and are willing to finish their education if they are allowed to,” said al-Azzawi.
Worse still is the flourishing of what are known as “pleasure marriages.” These are short-term marriages conducted out of court, whereby separation is also very simple. It is a practice that Iraqi women’s rights advocates describe as linked to prostitution, because of the wrongful abuse of the practice by men in power, often blackmailing fathers into giving their daughters away in a “pleasure marriage,” and also because once a girl or a woman has married in this way and has received alimony for her short-term commitment, she will find it very difficult to reintegrate back into her family.
“Many girls are forced into prostitution and ultimately sex trafficking this way,” al-Azzawi added.
Forced Islamization of society
It is deeply telling that Iraqi society is becoming forcibly Islamized by militias tied to the Iraqi puppet government, which is dependent upon the United States for its survival. Meanwhile, Washington claims to be fighting a war on Islamic terrorism. The reality, as is frequently the case, is the precise opposite. Previously a secular state, Iraqi society is becoming forcibly transformed into a theocracy. In such systems, women and girls inevitably lose.
The results of the proliferation of fundamentalist militias are varied. While reports of Christian women veiling in order to avoid attacks are troubling in the Iraqi context, what is potentially much worse is that the notion of an Iraqi state for all its citizens is fast disappearing. Not only does this mean that Iraqi girls are no longer safe on the streets; it also means that if the occupation fulfills its goals, Iraqi “career women” may be a thing of the past.
Al-Azzawi notes that “Economically the country has lost a huge, skilled working force, which is exactly what the occupation planned to do, and the lives of millions of working women and families were shattered.”
Considering that there is not a single right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the US occupation has not violated — as the International Initiative to Prosecute US Genocide in Iraq team found when working in 2009 to bring a legal case for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against four US presidents and four UK prime ministers — it is amazing yet encouraging that the US occupation’s goals have failed.
Not only is the US administration under President Barack Obama still battling to maintain control over a country whose people resist in the name of their dignity and their love for Iraq, but many of the most outspoken and brilliant advocates for Iraqis’ rights in general are in fact women.
“I have much hope for Iraq,” said human rights advocate Asma al-Haidari, “Nothing will make me lose hope.”
Serene Assir is a Lebanese independent writer and journalist based in Spain.