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Iraq's Second-Class Citizens

Posted on: Thursday, August 18, 2005

Keywords: Iraq

This article was published by

By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Associate Director

This week’s constitutional crisis in Baghdad demonstrates again that the Bush administration’s drive to recreate the Middle East in its own image is producing theocracy, not democracy, in Iraq. On Bush’s watch, Iraq’s once-secular government has been delivered to religious parties (Dawa and the Prime Minister’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) that want Iraq to be ruled by Islamic law. In the provinces they control (which make up roughly half the country), Islamists have already imposed severe restrictions on the rights of women and religious minorities. Now, they are fighting to ensure that Iraq’s new constitution paves the way for the creation of an Islamic state.

Like religious fundamentalists in the United States and around the world, these parties use religion as a means of asserting a reactionary political agenda that begins with the subjugation of women within the family. That’s why the first battle over the new constitution concerns family status laws governing marriage, divorce and women's inheritance and property rights. The Islamists are pushing to replace Iraq’s current statutes—among the most progressive in the Middle East—with language that would subordinate women’s human rights to arbitrary interpretations of Islamic law.

The Bush administration bears direct responsibility for this crisis. Prior to the U.S. invasion in March 2003, Iraqi women in exile warned that religious extremists would step into any political vacuum created by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But rather than support Iraq’s formidable women’s movement and other democratic forces, the United States chose the politically expedient route of courting right-wing extremists. In summer 2003, Bush appointee Paul Bremmer—who headed the U.S. administration in Iraq—hand-picked several reactionary Muslim clerics to sit on the Iraqi Governing Council, empowering leaders with a stated commitment to restricting women's rights. Then, in the period leading up to this year’s election of the National Assembly, Bremer derailed a series of demands by Iraqi women's organizations, including calls to create a women's ministry; appoint women to the drafting committee of Iraq's interim constitution; guarantee that 40 percent of U.S. appointees were women; and pass laws codifying women's rights and criminalizing domestic violence, which has skyrocketed under U.S. occupation.

The administration’s decision to trade women's rights for support from religious conservatives has left Iraqi women worse off today under U.S. occupation then they were under the notoriously repressive regime of Saddam Hussein. The Ba'ath Party utilized women's rights only to consolidate its own power. Yet, for all its brutality, Saddam Hussein’s government guaranteed women’s rights to education, employment, freedom of movement, equal pay for equal work and universal day care, as well as the rights to inherit and own property, choose their own husbands, vote and hold public office. Ironically, these fundamental rights stand to be abolished in an Iraq “liberated” by the United States in the name of (among other things) promoting democracy.

Like all internationally recognized rights, women’s human rights are non-negotiable. That they have become a political football signals disaster not only for women, but for all Iraqis. Indeed, after two and a half years of U.S. occupation, it is doubtful that any rights at all will be protected by the new Iraqi government, which this week reinstated executions by hanging and now stands accused of torturing prisoners.

Despite the grim reality, the Bush administration’s rhetoric remains right on target: Last month, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, came out strongly against the attempt to roll back women’s rights in the constitution. But his very next move was to try and railroad the drafting process, demanding conformity to the arbitrary, U.S.-imposed August 15 deadline over any meaningful democratic process. This failure to recognize the interdependency of women’s rights and genuine democracy is a clear indication that the Bush administration is committed to neither.

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