Iraq: Nadje Al-Ali's new book shows how US invasion set women's rights back 70 years
Al-Ali's new book, written with the political scientist Nicola Pratt, is based on interviews with 120 women, including Iraqi women's rights activists, NGO workers and international policymakers. The climate that they describe in Iraq is one of lawless "hyper-patriarchy", and with this evidence in tow, Al-Ali and Pratt take aim at a wide range of targets. These include the occupying powers, extremist Islamist militias, Iraqi leaders and "imperialist feminists" (those who claim solidarity with women from developing countries while stereotyping their cultures as barbaric).
Al-Ali, 42, is a second-generation Iraqi immigrant whose extended family has seen the sharpest end of both Saddam Hussein's regime and the post-invasion chaos. An established author and academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, she is staunchly "anti-imperialist and anti-war" but finds herself regularly at odds with some of her natural allies, who object to her speaking out against Iraqi resistance fighters. Still, Al-Ali believes it's important to take this stance. "A significant proportion of Iraqi groups engaged in armed resistance against the occupation are also harassing, intimidating and even murdering ordinary Iraqis," she says, "particularly women and vulnerable groups."
The fact that George W Bush depicted the invasion of Iraq as a path to women's empowerment makes the situation even more outrageous. In her book, Al-Ali meticulously explains how Condoleezza Rice and Laura Bush were deployed to reassure the world that the US was concerned with women's liberation - Laura Bush being wheeled out for photo-opportunities with US organisations such as Women for Free Iraq.
How has such posturing in Washington affected women's lives in Iraq? "It helped to legitimise the invasion in the first place," says Al-Ali. But surely no one really believed that the war was about liberating Iraqi women? "There's an imperialist brand of feminism that's very widespread in the States," she says. "When I give talks there, women's rights [in Muslim culture] are always the one big 'but' for anti-war peace activists." Al-Ali feels that the cynical use of the women's rights discourse by the US has also led to a backlash against feminist activists in Iraq, who can be easily undermined, or even vilified, by being accused of supporting an American agenda.
Does she see the establishment of a 25% quota for women in the Iraqi parliament as a sign of progress? "Yes," she concedes, "but who are the 25% in practice? They are the sisters, daughters and wives of the male conservative leaders. They've no political background and when there's a vote they look around to see what the men are doing before they lift their hands. However, yes it is a positive because it has allowed six to eight secular women's rights activists into parliament who wouldn't have got in otherwise."
The book repeatedly suggests that extremist Islamist groups are forcing Taliban-like conditions on Iraqi women - surprising given the cultural differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, where women have typically been well educated. How real is this threat? "It's very real," says Al-Ali. "In 2004, it was simply leaflets telling women to veil, and many of the women I spoke to said, 'If this is the only thing I have to do to go on with my life as normal, OK.' Soon it moved on to students at Basra university being threatened if they didn't agree to gender-segregated classes." Now, article 41 in the new Iraqi constitution effectively repeals the existing, and relatively progressive, laws governing marriage and divorce.
When I point out that throughout the book Islam only ever appears as a destructive force Al-Ali is rattled. Her use of the slippery term "Islamists" at times seems interchangeable with "terrorist insurgents", and progressives are invariably tagged with the approving "secular" but never "Muslim". She defends herself by saying that in the past she has "clashed with fundamentalist secular groups [in the anti-war movement] who say the problem in Iraq is Islam. Most of the secular women activists we refer to are practising Muslims."
Al-Ali was born to a German mother and an Iraqi father who had moved to Europe to study. She grew up in a non-religious household in Germany, and it wasn't until she attended university in Tucson, Arizona - where she met a circle of confident second-generation Arabs - that she began to think about her roots. On graduating, she moved to Egypt and became involved in the women's movement, before starting a PhD in London. By chance, she rented a room from the feminist sociologist Cynthia Cockburn and for the next few years found herself at the hub of an international network of peace activists.
In 2000, she established Act Together - Women's Action for Iraq - a group opposing economic sanctions against Iraq, and then against the invasion. This was followed, in 2007, by her book Iraqi Women - Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present, a social history of the women's movement. Al-Ali dedicated the book to her aunt Salima, a cancer patient who died in May 2003 after she developed severe breathing difficulties and a curfew in Baghdad prevented her from getting to hospital.
The short description of the night of Salima's death - when one of her male relatives went out into the neighbourhood, risking his life to find oxygen - fizzes with fury. The family had already coped with one of Al-Ali's uncles being executed under Saddam, and they remained in Baghdad until the murder of her nephew and another uncle in August 2007 at the family home, for what she now believes to be either political or sectarian reasons. "They thought they were safe, knowing all their neighbours, so they were just sitting in the kitchen when they strolled in and shot them." The rest of the family fled from Iraq to Jordan, thereby joining the two million Iraqis abroad. They put the three young men of the family on a plane to Syria for safety but they were turned back, forced to return to Baghdad. "We were very, very scared," says Al-Ali, "and there's only so much one can do from the outside."
Al-Ali treads a difficult path with caution. Like many, she believes that Iraqi women can never be "liberated" by western military intervention, but by speaking out against the Iraqi resistance, she has often alienated those in the anti-war movement. Ultimately, she doesn't know how much difference her work can make - she tells me that she often feels impotent watching atrocities in Iraq unfold on the news. But she is adamant that the future of Iraq depends on the energy and fearlessness of the grass roots women's groups that were much in evidence just after the invasion. It was they who went into hospitals and schools to salvage them and who have managed to co-operate across sectarian battle lines. "I hate the picture of Iraqi women as passive victims of honour crimes and bombs," she says. "I really want to break this".
28 January 2009
By: Sara Wajid
Source: The Guardian