Read an article by Zeina Zataari, Senior Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), on the ongoing war in Iraq and its enormous implications and consequences for Iraqi women. The article was first published in Project Syndicate last month:
BAGHDAD – Iraqi women’s organizations and international observers point to an escalating war against women in Iraq, aided by the widespread chaos and lawlessness under the US occupation. In addition to violence by US troops inside and outside of prisons, women in Iraq face daily violence from militants under the guise of religion and “liberation.”
In Iraq’s second largest city, Basra, a stronghold of conservative Shia groups, as many as 133 women were killed last year for violating “Islamic teachings” and in so-called “honor killings,” according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The methods are brutal evidence of a backlash by previously subdued tribal forces that have been unleashed by the occupation: women strangled and beheaded, and their hands, arms and legs chopped off.
With US forces in Iraq now funding both Sunni and Shia tribal leaders in an effort to stabilize the country, conditions for women grow deadlier by the day. Islamist leaders have imposed new restrictions on women, including prohibitions on work, bans on travel without a muhram (male guardian), and compulsory veiling.
According to the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), formed in Baghdad in 2003, women are harassed if they appear in the streets of most Iraqi cities and towns, educational institutions, or work places. Now there are even “no woman zones” in some southern cities controlled by Islamist parties and tribal leaders.
Honor killings of Iraqi women are justified by alleged promiscuity or adultery. In fact, the practice targets holders of PhD’s, professionals, political activists, and office workers. “Politically active women, those who did not follow a strict dress code, and women human rights defenders were increasingly at risk of abuse, including by armed groups and religious extremists,” Amnesty International said in its 2007 report.
Indeed, a top police official in Basra reported that as many as 15 women are killed every month in the city. Ambulance drivers in Basra, paid to “clean the streets” before people go to work, pick up many more bodies of women every morning.
Ironically, the forces leading this assault on women had little or no power under Saddam Hussein. But, following the US-led invasion in 2003, southern Iraq was opened to forces known as Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (PVPV) – militant gangs and individuals committed to archaic Islamic rule and suppression of women’s rights.
Some members of these groups now serve in government, others in militias or as self-appointed vigilantes or hired guns. The goal of the PVPV is to confine women to the domestic realm and end all female participation in public and political life.
To date, Iraqi officials have not been willing to deal with this escalating violence against women, or even to discuss it. But, as elected representatives, they are obligated to address these crimes. So must the US. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, the responsibility for protecting civilian populations in an occupied country belongs to the occupying forces, which, in this case, are clearly failing to protect Iraqi women.
Two measures are urgently needed. First, the Iraqi government must immediately establish “Protection of Women” security patrols in Iraq’s southern cities. These patrols must receive gender-sensitive training and prioritize women’s security over tribal or fundamentalist religious values.
Second, pursuant to its obligations under the Geneva Convention, the US must immediately take steps to protect the lives and freedoms of Iraqi civilians. Unless the US does so, it must withdraw from Iraq, because the occupation would merely continue to sustain a breeding ground for violence against women.
The timetable for action is not subject to debate. It must begin today.