Iraqi women face tougher lives under new regime

Guest Columnist

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The new generation of Iraqi women under the clash of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds are more susceptible to inequality than were the previous generations under Saddam’s rule. There is no question that Saddam was a brutal dictator. We all know that, and apparently, can’t hear enough of it from the Bush administration.

But here’s the issue: Would Iraq really see the benefits of freedom from an unnatural democratic structure? After all, if one describes democracy by elections and voting, one can consider Iraq’s neighboring country, Iran, a democracy, too.

Following the fall of Saddam, there has been a movement of conservatism among Sunni and Shia radicals. These groups are targeting hopefuls who yearn for equal rights and freedom for all in the new government. Many women who are active in organizations that promote gender equality have been threatened, assassinated, shot at, or abducted.

Conditions for Sunni women in Iraq were relatively not that bad compared to conditions in other countries in the region. It is simply because Saddam was not a traditional or religious leader, and his brutality was equal toward all minorities, not just women. Under Saddam’s Ba’ath party, women could initiate divorce, hold high-ranking jobs, inherit property, and did not have to wear headscarves.

This could all change, however, as newly elected officials, such as Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, adhere strictly to Islamic law, especially in the areas of family matters. Jafari, who is a loyal Shiite, has returned from exile in Iran. He has been very fond of the Iranian government structure — he might as well wear a robe and call himself a Mullah — and is receiving substantial support from senior cleric Grand Ayatolla Ali Sistani, who is of Iranian roots. It’s easy to see a pattern here.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran promotes equal rights for all women and all religious minorities. Yet women and non-Muslim citizens have minimal rights. An Iranian woman cannot object if her husband engages in polygamy, cannot have custody of her children after divorce, and her husband is entitled to all her financial belongings. In other words, a constitution in a religiously dictated nation is just a formality — a cluster of words that have no significance.

The perilous situation in Iraq has not only brought torment and death to American military and civilians, but to Iraqis as well. The media has failed to cover the rape allegations of Iraqi women against United Nations Peacekeepers, military forces, and insurgents. Even during the past few months, several women, one of them an educated and outspoken television presenter, were discovered lying on the side of the road, bullets having ravaged their dead bodies. What was their crime? Not having “hijabs” (traditional headscarves), or advocating for equal gender rights.

In many cases, the dead bodies were found wearing headscarves, something that many of these women had never worn in their lives.

Consequently, women are afraid to leave the house, to take jobs, to attend schools and universities. Women who do go out into the streets now have to wear headscarves for fear of harassment. Religious minorities, such as Christians and Jews, will now have to abide by Islamic law, and face a rise in anti-Semitism.

The situation is not entirely dismal, however, as there have been some indicators of positive change. The newly-elected Legislature is one-third women, which is astonishing compared to Saudi Arabia’s seclusion of females in the most basic of public affairs: voting.

However, it may not guarantee that the new constitution will allow a woman to take a job against her husband’s wishes. Women will be obligated to abide by Islamic law, which includes dressing conservatively. They will have to bid farewell to their old modern lifestyle of wearing T-shirts and jeans because that clothing promotes Western values, something conservatives strongly oppose. Despite what the Bush administration calls a “free Iraq,” there is no freedom and democracy in a theocratic government, and its installment may possibly rekindle a partnership with Iran.

I’m not an anti-war and/or anti-American liberal, nor a feminist. But I can see that the worth of women and children is irrelevant now, as it was in the U.N. Security Council Resolution 661 sanctions of August 1990, which resulted in the death of millions of children. Many women activists have been abducted, and death threats from insurgents are, alarmingly enough, on the rise. These women are now presumed dead by their families, as no apparent efforts are made to rescue them, or at the least, retrieve their bodies. While Iraqi women activists may not convey the same symbolic value or worth as our female prisoners of war do, they too are fighting to improve conditions in Iraq and make a difference. Nonetheless, they are treated inhumanely by insurgents, and ignored by the rest of us.

It is up to Americans to determine whether the war was worth it or not, but one should also consider whether it was worth it for the general Iraqi population.

Last year, in his State of the Union speech, President Bush said, “Iraq’s only law was the whim of one brutal man”. Now, it’s of many.

Dorna Basiratmand is a junior political science major and president of the Political Science Student Association.