24 March 2008

The Legacy of War for Iraqi Women

Last week, Nadje Al-Ali wrote a brilliant and scathing analysis in the Guardian of the ways in which Iraqi women have been most disastrously affected by the Iraq War--an especially sad critique given that support for the war among Americans was drummed up using the plight of oppressed Iraqi women who would supposedly be "saved" by the fall of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of American-like democracy.

Instead, Al-Ali argues, Iraqi women have experienced the most devastating fallout from violence:

While men have borne the brunt in terms of direct armed violence, women have been particularly hard-hit by poverty, malnutrition, lack of health services and a crumbling infrastructure, not least chronic power cuts which in some areas of Iraq see electricity only available for two hours a day.

What's more, "70% of the four million people forced out of their homes in the past five years in Iraq have been women and children." Displacement, as we know all too well along the Gulf Coast in the U.S., creates instability and often leads to rises in domestic and sexual violence.

Further, the Islamist militias and extremist groups that have taken control have consistently pushed women back into their homes, enforced strict dress codes and unleashed a flood of gender-based violence against Iraqi women. The "liberation" touted as the inevitable result of Hussein's fall, doesn't look so free. In fact, Iraqi women who were once proud and active doctors, lawyers and teachers claim it is impossible to continue amid the chaos and threats that have now engulfed the region. They risk death if they pursue their public works too boldly--or quite simply, because they are women:

According to a study by the Basra Security Committee, 133 women were killed last year in the UK-controlled city, either by religious vigilantes or as a result of so-called honour killings. Of these, 79 were deemed to have "violated Islamic teachings", 47 were killed to preserve supposed family honour, and the remaining seven were targeted for their political affiliations.

And there is so much more… Al-Ali, the director of the Gender Studies Centre at SOAS, University of London, the author of Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (Zed Books, 2007), and the founder of Act Together: Women's Action for Iraq, offers a frightening, but comprehensive account of what Iraqi women have been experiencing since the latest U.S. invasion.

While it is impossible to compare the scope and nature of violence experienced by Iraqi women to that suffered by women in the U.S., Al-Ali's conclusions underscore the main point of my recent piece marking the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion: that women are disproportionately impacted by war. In the U.S, women are subjected to rising domestic violence, sexual assault, and even murder by veterans--who are, in most cases, receiving inadequate mental health interventions for their post-traumatic stress. And the economic fallout of the war affects women most acutely.

The heightened incidence of gender-based violence attributed to the war is not separate from the violence that the Ms. Foundation and our grantees are dedicated to fighting day in and day out--it only serves as a reminder of how pervasive violence against women--and all forms of violence--are throughout our society. Just as Hurricane Katrina does not mark the day that a gaping race/class disparity was born in this country, but instead made it undeniably real, the Iraq War reminds us all that gender-based violence, both at home and abroad, is still far too common--and like war, entirely preventable.

Sara K. Gould
President & CEO

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