In 2005, following the invasion of Iraq and ouster of Saddam Hussein, Iraq held its first democratic election. Voter turnout was at over sixty percent, despite attacks targeting voters. Newspapers and television channels were flooded with pictures of smiling Iraqi women holding up purple stained fingers. I myself witnessed voting stations in Dubai fill with equal numbers of men and women casting their ballots. However, the degree to which high female voter turnout has translated into changes in favor of gender justice is questionable. As of 2009, 55 percent of Iraqi women had been subjected to violence.
The Ba’ath regime and the invasion of Iraq are the historic circumstances that led to an upsurge in violence on women, both in the domestic sphere and as part of conflict. The state feminism of the Ba’ath was the first impediment to gender equality. The desire to make a 180-degree shift from the secular Ba’ath regime manifested in violence against women, arguably more than that they had been subjected to under Saddam; this violence has taken many forms, including institutional violence that alienates women and removes women’s issues from the political agenda, domestic violence, and violence as a result of conflict.
According to a survey conducted by Oxfam, of the 55 percent of women who were subjected to violence in recent years, 25.4% were victims of random ‘street’ violence, 22% were victims of domestic physical abuse; 14% were victims of violence inflicted by militias/armed groups; 10% had been victims of targeted abuse or abduction; 9% had been victims of sexual abuse; and 8% had been victims of violence inflicted by the Multi-National Forces in Iraq.
Much of the rhetoric behind the US invasion of Iraq had to do with liberating “the people”, especially women. But a slave is not liberated if she has a new master. Iraqi masculinity was threatened with the invasion of Iraq, and retaliatory measures were taken by Iraqi men. The Abu Ghraib scandal exposes the barbaric underlying message of the invasion of Iraq – ‘democracy’, with all its underlying values, including gender equality, comes to equal humiliation and symbolic castration, says Zizek. Despite the fact that the women’s movement predated the Western invasion, women’s freedom was thrown into a pile of unwanted Western ideas, and women’s movements were pushed aside.
The forced democratization of the state by outsiders did not result in the democratization of the family and family relations. The invasion of Iraq by the United States set Iraqi women back decades from the days when they had the highest literacy rates amongst women in the region.
In light of the many obstacles Iraqi women have been faced with, the existence of women’s movements in Iraq today is an amazing achievement in itself. Feminist organizations such as the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, the Iraqi Women’s Network, and the Iraqi Women’s League have led powerful campaigns to fight for empowerment of women and fight against gender-based violence.
Spurred by the wave of women’s interest in elections, women have also striven for change in office. Safia Al Sohail is a fierce, secular parliamentarian. Despie threats from anti-democratic groups, she continues to fight for Iraqi women’s rights. However, Sohail’s initial appreciation of the US occupation led to criticism against her from many. Sohail has run with secular parties and sees no connection between Islam and feminism. Within Iraq, lack of national unity is, unfortunately, reinforced by the likes of Sohail as they alienate the religious majority from the political process.
Salama al-Khafaji is one of the most popular female leaders and is a devout Shi’ite Muslim. To date, she has survived three assassination attempts. Khafaji has been criticized by feminists for voting for the removal of Iraq’s moderate personal status laws. The previous personal status laws included a ban on polygamy, a minimum marriage age of 18, and a ban on arbitrary divorce. These matters are now determined under sharia law. Khafaji defends her stance, arguing that Islam protects women, especially in matters of custody and divorce.
Khafaji and Soheil represent the Islamic feminist and the secular feminist. Yet another brand of woman threatens the very credibility of the women’s quota system. In rural provinces, the most popular parties are clan-based and many women are forced into candidacy by their male relatives. This is the consequence of the foreign imposition of democracy on deeply conservative rural areas in Iraq. Although these women threaten the quota and make it vulnerable to criticism, the answer is not to blame it. These women represent the wide gap between rural and urban.
A real issue is that secular and Islamic feminist parliamentarians are unable to work together, despite their differences, and thus action against gender-based violence is hindered. Although politicians have voiced demands for Iraq to be a secular state, it is important that female parliamentarians work within the framework of Islamic law to fight violence on women.
Action against violence on women must be accompanied by reversing the proliferation of small arms, a result of the US invasion; a crackdown on state corruption, which has hindered aid to Iraqi widows and thus made them more vulnerable to violence; initiating dialogue between sects to decrease displacement and sectarian conflict, in which women have become objects to control; and investment in the creation of job opportunities.
Why? Employment for women increases a family’s dependence on women and thus women are less vulnerable to domestic violence. Further, since employment improves men’s sense of achievement of masculinity, employed men are less prone to lash out against female relatives.
The challenge now is for women to engage in real dialogue. Secular feminists must work together with Islamic feminists to reform law. Women of the parliament must support women working in civil society, and not simply react to them. Iraqi women in the diaspora must work together with women living in Iraq.
With effective dialogue between women in government and women at the grassroots, concrete steps can be taken to empower women and end gender-based violence. With honest dialogue, those purple stained fingers can lead to an end in purple stained bodies.
Dana Khalil Ahmad is studying International Relations and English at the American University of Sharjah. Her research interests include Middle Eastern politics, history and women’s movements.