“We used to have a government that was almost secular. It had one dictator. Now we have almost 60 dictators—Islamists who think of women as forces of evil. This is what is called the ‘democratization of Iraq’.”
-Iraqi Activist Yanar Mohammed
When I heard the news that President Obama is keeping good on his campaign promise to withdrawal all 13,000 remaining US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, I was pleased. Finally, this nightmare war, which so many of us protested against, is drawing to a close.
My next thought, however, was what kind of Iraq are we leaving in our wake? Have we met our purported responsibility to the establishment of a new, democratic Iraqi society, the very people we claimed to be “liberating” from the evils of Saddam Hussein’s regime?
As a human rights activist who has worked with women in war zones over the last decade, I know too well that the imprint of war is etched on the backs of women and children. In the dust left behind by the bullets and the bombs, it is women who stitch together the remnants of society, scattered amongst the shrapnel, and rebuild. Sadly, in the post-war environment, women and girls are often re-victimized, as years of pent-up anger, militarization and a ruined economy leads to a sharp increase in the amount of rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.
Present Obama talks about a “New Dawn” for Iraq, claiming that this war is finally over. But we need to recognize that ending the presence of US soldiers doesn’t mean ending the war for Iraqis. In fact, my first-hand experience tells me that the war for Iraqi women is just beginning.
I wondered, how are Iraqi women activists reacting to the impending US troop withdrawal and the end to an armed occupation that has cost the lives of at least 150,000 Iraqis? The media has reported on the reactions of US soldiers, US politicians, Iraqi government officials and US military families but, once again, almost nothing covering the opinions and perspectives of Iraqi women leaders.
Thus, I turned to my colleagues at Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, a non-governmental organization that supports women’s groups and individual activists working to advance the human rights of women in areas of armed conflict. I wanted to know what types of activities they were supporting on the ground by Iraqi women, searching for an outstanding individual to feature in this month’s Faces Of Change blog.
Unfortunately, the majority of what they are funding right now are protection and evacuation grants for a number of well-known women activists who have become the targets of violence as a result of their political organizing under the newly established Iraqi government.
According to one of their grantees, well-known Iraqi activist Yannar Mohammed, women’s efforts to peacefully protest in Iraq earlier this year were met with government hired “gangsters” who humiliated them, sexually abused them and severely beat them. Just last month, a young woman activist was kidnapped and beaten by “a group of security men dressed in civilian clothing” after participating in a non-violent protest in Baghdad.
The fact that Iraqi women are being singled out and targeted for their political opinions made my objective difficult and even dangerous for the very person I was hoping to feature. It was just too risky to highlight a specific woman working in Iraq today, which in itself says a lot about the political environment for Iraqi women.
Instead, I spoke with an Iraqi activist living in exile, a woman forced to flee from Saddam Hussein’s regime with her three young daughters thirteen years ago. Awatef Rasheed has spent the last decade in exile in Canada, working hard on behalf of Iraqi women’s rights. She has gone from being an evacuation grantee of Urgent Action Fund to working now as one of their chief Regional Advisors. I asked about her reaction to the troop withdrawal and the recent violence against peaceful protesters in Baghdad.
Both decisions, to wage war on Iraq and now the withdrawal of American troops, have always been a double-edged sword for Iraqi women. When the war started in 2003, there were many excuses utilized to legitimize the war, including women’s rights and the victimization of women living under the authoritative and sexist regime of Saddam Hussein. Unforgettably, in 2003, President George W. Bush announced, ‘We are going to liberate Iraqi women!’
President Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq now is also not the right decision. Exactly like the war’s inception, strategic planning by the American Administration is absent. In my mind, women are the first to be victimized in war and all women of the Middle East stand to lose their rights, freedoms, and security in the new Iraqi political landscape.
How ironic. According to Awatef, Iraqi women did not support the invasion of Iraq, nor can they support the troop withdrawal at this time, given the current political climate. Iraqi women have had to bear the brunt of this war, are the largest victims of this war, and yet they have not been included in any of the decisions that will govern their lives or determine their future. And now, those who speak out against destructive government policies are being hunted down and silenced. Where is the liberation in that?
Read more: Awatef Rasheed, Faces Of Change, Hanaa Edwar, Hillary Clinton, international human rights, iraqi women, Kiri Westby, urgent action fund for women's human rights, US Troop Withdrawal, war iraq, Yannar Mohammed
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