February 25, 2005 // by admin

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.

— Frederick Douglass, “Letter to an Abolitionist associate,” 1853

The photo in February 24th’s New York Post shows a beautiful Iraqi woman with a proud smile and a dyed index fingertip.  This is the face of Iraqi democracy, the image seems to say.  The fact that she appears sans voile indicates that she is probably an ex-pat who voted beyond the borders of Iraq.  And that’s important, because the caption of the photo reads:  “Iraqi voter:  she’s not worse off.”

If this unidentified Iraqi woman lives in North America or Europe, no doubt that is true.  But if she lives in Iraq–sorry, Mr. Murdoch, she is worse off.

The photo illustrated “Democracy v. Women?”an op-ed piece by Collin Levey.  In the piece, Levey, an assistant editor for theWall Street Journal, takes issue with a recent Amnesty International Report entitled Iraq:  Decades of Suffering. Rather than criticize the report directly, however, she notes two newspaper headlines:  the Toronto Star’s, Rights Reduced, Security Worse since Occupation,” and Al Jazeera’s “Iraqi Women Still subject to Abuse.”  As Levey asserts,

In each case, the subtext was clear:  Things have gotten worse for Iraqi women and America is to blame.

This is a classic rhetorical technique, perfected by Rush Limbaugh, and used by many pundits (including this one).  Instead of analyzing a particular issue or position, you attackpress coverage of the issue, which gives the appearance of a critique of the issue itself.  In this case, Levey picks on two headlines to assert that the Amnesty International report is wrong, and that women, in fact, are not worse off today than under Saddam.  But that just ain’t so.  Read AI’s report.

I discovered this inconvenient truth for myself in the fall of 2003.  Because of crime and spotty electricity, which turned city streets into menacing gauntlets for anyone out past sunset, women could not venture out of doors as much as they did under the fascist Baathist regime.  (You can read my story written from Baghdad at the time here.) “You should have been here in the 1970s!” they would tell me.  “We could stay out until three, four in the morning!”  When I returned to Iraq a few months later, the situation had worsened:  now women feared not only criminals, but terrorists and the growing power of fundamentalist religious parties.  Today, my Iraqi female friends tell me that when it comes to safety and general freedom of activity, their lives are much more circumscribed than before the fall of Saddam.  And a large portion of the fault for this debacle has to go to the United States of America.

My credentials as an advocate for the liberation and reconstruction of Iraq hardly need establishing.  But I believe, as I wrote in In the Red Zone, that supporting the war does not mean ignoring or sugar-coating problems the conflict has inflicted on the Iraqi people.  The plight of women is one of those problems.  Not only has the end of Saddam made the day-to-day lives of Arab (as opposed to Kurdish) women more difficult, the rise of the Shia religious establishment promises to make their existence even more onerous through shari’a law.  (I refer the reader to my post last month, “Left Behind.”)

Despite the manifold evils of their regime, the Baathists brought economic and social advancement for women.  After seizing power in 1968, the Nazi-inspired party declared its commitment to equal rights. Article 12 of its constitution states

The Arab woman enjoys the full rights of citizenship. The Party struggles for elevating woman’s standard until she becomes worthy to enjoy these rights.

Most amazingly, the constitution tackled perhaps the primary social phenomenon that limits women’s lives, freedom and futures:  tribalism.  According to article 43:

Bedouin life is a primitive social status that undermines the national production and renders a large portion of the nation paralyzed. It is a factor that precludes the development and progress of the nation. The party is striving to modernize Bedouin life and give Bedouins lands together with the cancellation of the tribal system and the enforcement of the State’s laws on them.

Who on the right or left says today?

In 1970, Baathists declared women equal to men under the law, even as the Party drove down literacy rates and brought females into the work force.  In 1980, one year after Saddam seized absolute power, women won the right to vote.  Within a few years, their participation in the civil service rose to 40 percent.  By 1987, women held 13 percent of the seats in the National Assembly (an unheard of percentage then in the Middle East); in 1990, they made up 22 percent of university teaching positions and 13 percent of administrative and managerial jobs.

Today in nearly every category (except, interestingly, the number of seats in parliament), the condition of women has deteriorated.   This is particularly true in literacy, health and crime rates.  To be fair, this problem began years before the U.S. invasion:  in the 1980s, as Saddam began to lose the Iran-Iraq war, he turned to support from his country’s tribal sheiks, re-introducing patriarchal social customs the Baathists had tried to suppress.  Worse, as his regime begun to crumble in the mid-1990s, the tyrant attempted to garner support from the Shia by allowing shari’a regulations regarding women and family life to permeate, and in some cases, supplant Iraqi laws.

Again, I am no apologist for the Saddam years.  And to be sure, many Iraqi women prefer the chaos of today to the “stability” of the past.  “What kind of freedom did we have under Saddam?  The freedom of the grave,” Baghdad feminist Hanaa Edwar told me.

Still, we must be honest here.  By destroying Baathist authority and letting the Shia genie out of the bottle, the U.S. has exacerbated social tendencies and conditions that impact women’s lives for the worse.  This is the cost–or perhaps the birth pangs–of democracy, one might say, and I believe the Iraqi people will bear them, as they have so many other disappointments, setbacks and torments.  But for right-wing pundits to declare victory and ignore what this new Iraqi society means for females, seems shallow and morally questionable.

A century ago, the North abandoned the cause of black enfranchisement in the years after the Civil War and allowed apartheid to resettle in the southern United States.  We have far less influence over Iraq, of course, but we must take steps to insure a similar catastrophe does not take place in that newly liberated land.  If the plow of democracy only churns up the topsoil of Iraqi society, and does not dig deep into the substrata of tribalism and patriarchal domination, then our efforts in that land will be half-measures at best.  We must continue, in modern form, Douglass’ concept of abolitionist “agitation.”  Women must be free–religious and social customs be damned.

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