September 1, 2005

September 1, 2005 | Commentary on Middle East

Women in Iraq

One of the chief charges leveled against the Bush administration and against the framers of the Iraqi constitution is that it will be a major set back for the women of Iraq. With Islam declared the state religion in the Iraqi constitution and "a major source" of its legal framework, many here have wondered critically whether we invaded Iraq so that Shi'te clerics can now issue retrograde dictates to a population of previously westernized women.

This idea rests on two fallacies that deserve to be dealt with, having become part of the mantra of the anti-war critics. The first relates to the Iraqi constitution itself. Rather than foster oppression, it actually mandates that women occupy 25 percent of the seats in the federal assembly. It also includes numerous protections for women, protection against "forced labor, slavery, and commerce in slaves, " for instance, " which includes also "trading in women and children." Protection is also written for "motherhood and children" and for "family," providing the basis of a social welfare system.

As for Iraq's Supreme Federal Court, it will be a mixed body, not a religious court, "made up of a number of judges and experts in Sharia (Islamic Law) and law." A law passed by two-thirds of parliament will determine the exact composition of the Court. In other words, the system as designed here does come with checks and balances.

"Iraqi women feel empowered," said Charlotte Ponticelli, Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State, Monday at a Heritage Foundation event on "Freeing Women from Exploitation and Despair." "Iraqi women are a thousand times better then the men when it comes to politics because they know how to work together despite religious and ethnic differences." And they have taken courage from the example of the women of Afghanistan, who against all odds have taken up the challenges of political participation. "Iraqi women," said Mrs. Ponticelli," feel that their movement is unstoppable."

One reason for this optimism may be that - unlike the skeptics here in the United States -- Iraqi women recall their lives under Saddam Hussein only too vividly. Iraq had been a fairly open and progressive society before the arrival of Saddam. In fact, the Iraqi Provisional Constitution of 1970 guaranteed equal rights for women, more so than any other Arab country. But that all changed under Saddam, particularly during the decade of the 1990s. Under his intensely repressive and male dominated regime, Iraqi women suffered grievously.

In order to reserve employment for males and to make peace with religious and tribal leaders, laws were passed that restricted women's mobility and employment in the public sector. Beheadings, rape torture and murder of women became customary tools of the regime to preserve political control.

In 1990, a decree was issued that allowed male relatives to kill a female relative in the name of honor with impunity from the law. In 2000, according to Amnesty International, dozens of women accused of prostitution were beheaded without trial in front of their homes by the Fidayeen, paramilitary units headed by Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay. Their cruel behavior also included kidnapping women off the streets in order to rape them. Even children were tortured under this regime.

One Iraqi former government worker, Nidal Shaik Shallal, whose husband had been imprisoned and tortured under Saddam, spoke in October 2002 at the National Press Club. Those who think that Iraqi women had it better under Saddam Hussein ought to think hard about her words:

"The Iraqi woman has lost her loved ones - husbands, brothers and fathers. The Iraqi woman has endured torture, murder, confinement, execution, and banishment, just like others in Iraqi society at the hands of Saddam Hussein's criminal gang," she said.

"The heads of many women have been publicly cut off in the streets under the pretext of being liars, while in fact they mostly belong to families opposing the Iraqi regime. Members of Saddam Hussein's gang have raped women, especially dissident women. The wives of dissidents have been either killed or tortured in front of their husbands in order to obtain confessions of their husbands."

Yes, life for many people is still tough in Iraq, particularly where insurgents, Jihadists and Saddam loyalists are still wreaking terrorist havoc in their lives. But it is an insult to all the women who suffered and lost so much under Saddam Hussein to suggest that they were better off back then. Today they have hope for a better future, as have their families and their men.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the Washington Times