The saddest part of the story is the lost memory of what Iraqi women once were. I grew up in Baghdad with a working mother who drove herself to the office and always told me that I could anything I wanted with my life. My mother’s friends were factory managers, artists, principals and doctors.
It has been just over 20 years since I left Iraq. Today, female college students ask me if it is true that the streets of Baghdad were once full of women driving, that women could walk around in public at all times of the day without worry, that university campuses were once filled with women who did not wearing headscarves. -Zainab Salbi
Yesterday marked the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. In the media, there’s much discussion about the impact of the war on America’s economy, politics and veterans, as there should be. But the war’s impact on Iraqi people and especially Iraqi women has received scant attention.
Though Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator (whom the United States was happy to support), he and his Ba’ath Party advanced women’s rights. The Constitution drafted in 1970 guaranteed women the right to vote, attend school, own property and run for political office. The Personal Status Law, enacted in 1958, gave women equal rights to divorce and to inherit property, restricted polygamy, and prohibited marriages under age 18. But the new Iraqi Constitution replaced these status laws with an article stating that “Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation” and that ”No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.” Thus, the delineation of women’s rights is in the hands of religious leaders. As Hillary Clinton has explained, “Now, what we see happening in Iraq is the governing council attempting to shift large parts of civil law into religious jurisdiction.” In the words of Iraqi feminist Yanar Mohammed, “We used to have a government that was almost secular. It had one dictator…Now we have almost 60 dictators—Islamists who think of women as forces of evil. This is what is called the democratization of Iraq.”
The lack of security and rule of law, and abundance of religious extremist groups have terrorized women. Mohammed explains that “because of the chaos on the streets and in the government, women have been forced to leave work and hide at home…. We live in a state of continuous fear—if our hair shows on the street, if we’re not veiled enough at work…. It’s a new experience for women in Iraq. After four years, it’s turned into Afghanistan under the Taliban.” Zainab Salbi, a Baghdad-native, who founded the organization Women for Women International, agrees that the violence against women has worsened: “The violence during Saddam’s time was…committed by the government, Saddam’s family, people in power. Now the violence is…being committed by everyone around you.”
Under Saddam Hussein, women were represented in most professions. In 1976, the Iraqi Bureau of Statistics reported that women constituted approximately 38.5 percent of those in the education profession, 31 percent of the medical profession, 25 percent of lab technicians, 15 percent of accountants and 15 percent of civil servants. Today, in contrast, women professionals are an endangered species: “Insurgents and militias want us out of the work environment for many reasons: Some because they believe that women were born to stay at home—cooking and cleaning—and others because they say it is against Islam to share the same space with men who are not close relatives,” Nuha Salim, spokeswoman for the Baghdad-based NGO, Women’s Freedom, said. Other women, who don’t heed the warnings to stay home are being assassinated. Salbi explains, “At first I was able to say I knew 10, 20 women who had been assassinated….Now, I’ve lost count.…They are pharmacists, professors, reporters, activists…” The Human Rights Office of the U.N. Mission in Iraq has reported an increase in kidnapping and killing of women and has received reports of young women being abducted, sexually abused, tortured and murdered by armed sectarian militias.
The invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation was called Operation Iraqi Freedom. But this war, based on lies and disinformation, was never about freedom for the Iraqi people, not least of all the Iraqi women.