March 14, 2006

Spreading freedom to Iraq's women.

It hasn't been any secret that the increasing violence since the US-led invasion of Iraq has hit Iraqi women hard, and that this climate of violence certainly hasn't been helped by the increasing public power of Islamic fundamentalists. While the Western press has taken only episodic notice of this violence against women, Iraqi bloggers such as Riverbend at Baghdad Burning have chronicled how the daily world of Iraq's women has shrunk as the threat of violence has grown.

So it was no surprise when I ran into this item at Feminist Daily News today. According to the story, acts of violence against Iraqi women who fail to wear headscarves have tripled since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Given that Feminist Daily news is basically a headline service, I immediately went to the source of their info, the UN's IRIN news service, where I found many more details:

"Women are being killed because they don't wear headscarves and veils," said WRA [Women's Rights Association] spokeswoman Mayada Zuhair. "A life is being taken because of a simple piece of cloth, and someone should prevent more women from being killed by these ignorant people who that believe honour depends on what you?re wearing."

According to WRA, there have been 80 attacks to date against women and reports of four women being killed by their families in 2005. This is compared too 22 attacks between 1999 and March 2003 and one death....

Zuhair explained that the choice not to wear headscarves is much more pronounced in the capital because society there is more open to modernisation. This is opposed to the south of the country, where traditional family life has changed very little since the war in 2003.

"It's difficult to say how many women wear headscarves and veils," Zuhair added. "But, before 2003, roughly, seven out of 10 were wearing scarves and coverings, whereas now, four in 10 do." [Emphasis added]

According to Zuhair, many women are afraid to report harassment and violence to authorities, and WRO is often approached by these women [or their families] for help. There's usually little WRO can do, however:

"Police interference is very difficult. In most cases, the husband is the one who has to search for help because we can't interfere in issues related to traditional values," Zuhair noted. "The husband is the only one who has this right."

According to Sheikh Ali Muthilak, a spokesman at the Rahman mosque in Baghdad, women become the "property" of their husbands after marriage. "The husband makes decisions about their lives," he said. "Sometimes you get the impression that women are vegetables that can be easily exchanged, without feelings or ideas."

Compounding the problem, the law allows for abuses against women, say women's rights activists. The Iraqi Penal Code, for example, states that "the penalty for killing a woman should be reduced if a crime was committed for reasons of honour". A so-called "honour killing" is where a woman's relative kills her for what is described as an act which brings dishonour to the family. Not covering up, according to Zuhair, can be perceived as such an act....

Meanwhile, the Iraqi police describe the issue as "delicate," involving a volatile mix of religion and tradition cultivated by Iraqi Muslim families for decades. "We're in a Muslim country — if you interfere in family cases concerning veils, you're considered a betrayer of Islam," explained police officer Ali Zacarias. "We cannot touch such cases."[Emphasis added]

Lovely, huh?

But it doesn't stop here.

After I read the story about the headscarf-related violence, I noticed a week-old story in IRIN's sidebar. That story reported on statistics compiled by a different Iraqi women's organization that show that all types of violence against Iraqi women have increased since the 2003 invasion.

"We've studied reports from local NGOs on women's rights in the past three years, including violence, kidnappings, forced prostitution and honour killings," said WFO [Woman Freedom Organisation] President Senar Muhammad. "And the extent to which women have lost their rights in Iraq is shocking."

According to the study, released on 9 March, the most worrying trend was the large number of kidnappings of women, many of whom reported being sexually abused or tortured. While such occurrences were largely unknown during the Saddam Hussein regime, more than 2,000 women have been kidnapped in Iraq since April 2003, the report noted....

The report also noted that many Iraqi women were also being sold as sex workers abroad, mainly to the illicit markets of Yemen, Syria, Jordan and the Gulf States. Victims usually discover their fate only after they have been lured outside the country by false promises....

The WFO report also pointed out the large number of female inmates currently held in prisons controlled by occupying powers the US and the UK, mentioning the Al-Kadhimiya and Abu-Ghraib prisons in particular. "Based on our records and from anonymous information, we estimate that there are more than 250 women in these two prisons alone," said Muhammad, "who are exposed to different kinds of torture, including sexual abuses."

The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, denied that female prisoners were regularly subject to mistreatment, but added that information on female detainees was confidential. "We're Muslims, and we know very well how to treat our women prisoners," said senior ministry official Ahmed Youssifin....

According to the WFO's Muhammad, government claims that female inmates are not mistreated is belied by abundant physical evidence to the contrary. "It's very difficult to believe women are being well-treated in Iraqi prisons," he said. "Many times have I seen signs of torture and beatings on their faces after they were released."[Emphasis added]

So why isn't the 'mainstream' press all over these stories? We just searched Google News on the terms 'Iraq women violence' and couldn't find anything recent of consequence.

And, given the Dubya administration's lip service to helping the women of Iraq [an example is this 9 March statement by under-secretary of state Karen Hughes], why isn't the US government raising its voice against the violence? [Okay, so that's just a rhetorical question — we all already know the answer, I'm certain.]

More: Inter Press Service has a good story on the difficulties faced by women in post-Saddam Iraq, and has some info not in either of the IRIN stories. You'll find the IPS story here.

Posted by Magpie at March 14, 2006 12:20 AM | Women | Technorati links |