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Iraqi Women Speak: US Troop Withdrawal A Double-Edged Sword

Iraqi Women Speak: US Troop Withdrawal A Double-Edged Sword
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“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.

She explained,

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?

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7:22PM PST on Jan 14, 2012

Horribly tragic, yet how is this any different than any other country ruled by Islam? Getting rid of one dictator has made one yearn for the "good ole days of Saddam"? Hardly. It is the story of war throughout the centuries...women and children have paid the price. In countries with Sharia law, women will always pay the price. You cannot change the hearts and minds of evil. We shouldn't have been there, but then Saddam and his thugs would still be raping, torturing and killing... I'm not sure there is a real difference. My heart breaks for these women and their children. What is the answer? Stay there forever and lose how many more American lives while the rest of the Islamic world hates our guts???

8:50PM PST on Jan 9, 2012

I've always been of the mind that we should have stayed out of Iraq as I knew that the outcome could be but one of two things.

A.) Stay there basically FOREVER


B.) Leave the shattered pieces and go home.

I suppose the next step will be for the IMF (or sister agency) to come in offer a huge loan to build some grand project with all the money going to firms outside of Iraq. Then when they cannot pay back the loan , foreclosing on all their natural resources.

At least that is one of the all too common outcomes of these things

1:24PM PST on Jan 1, 2012

I fear the only freedom these women will know is the freedom granted by death. It is so sad, and even with our problems, I am glad to live in America.

6:27AM PST on Dec 14, 2011

Thank you for the article

5:46AM PST on Dec 14, 2011

So why should we be surprised by the disastrous result of yet another bit of US/ UK Foreign policy involving wars that went horribly wrong? I learned long ago when a teenager in Africa that most people would rather be ruled badly by their own people than be ruled (even fairly if that is possible) by foreigners. Why can the USA, UK or Europe not learn this lesson with all the wonderful intelligence and educational resources at their fingertips? We can look forward to another bunch of long-term disastrous aftermaths in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia and of course our power crazed politicians with turds for brains will not be able to resist interfering in Syria in a month or two.

4:52AM PST on Dec 13, 2011

Thanks for the article.

2:43AM PST on Dec 13, 2011

Hate to break it to our politicians, they cannot rule the world. I think China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and several other countries would have something to say about that. And we cannot take care of the whole world. Dam* fools!!

11:05AM PST on Dec 11, 2011


8:35AM PST on Dec 11, 2011

My heart goes out to Iraqi women and I wonder how our government can be so obtuse. It may take the women of America to let our voices be heard that this treatment is horrendous. To hold our government accountable for actions they take. No longer can they simply blame the previous administration -it's no longer relevant who started the war. What matters now is how we leave this country.
For more stories about how war effects women and children PBS has a sad but good documentary ---women, war & peace.

5:12AM PST on Dec 11, 2011

thanks for sharing this article

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