Women's rights another victim of the Iraq catastrophe

December 22, 2006|By Kavita N. Ramdas

The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq recently issued a frightening report documenting the growing practice of public executions of women by Shiite militias. One of the report's more grisly accounts was a story of a young woman dragged by a wire wound around her neck to a close-by soccer field and hung from the goal post. They pierced her body with bullets. Her brother came running, trying to defend his sister. He was also shot and killed. Sunni extremists are no better: Organization of Women's Freedom members estimate that at least 30 women are executed monthly for honor-related reasons.

Almost four years into the Iraq war, Iraqi women are worse off than they were under the Baathist regime in a country where, for decades, the freedoms and rights enjoyed by Iraqi women were the envy of women in most other countries of the Middle East.

Before the U.S. invasion, Iraqi women were highly educated. Their strong and independent women's movement had successfully forced the government to pass the groundbreaking 1959 Family Law Act, which ensured equal rights in matters of personal law. Iraqi women could inherit land and property; they had equal rights to divorce and custody of their children; they were protected from domestic violence within marriage. In other words, they had achieved real gains in the struggle for equality. Iraqi women, like all Iraqis, certainly suffered from the political repression and lack of freedom, but the secular - albeit brutal - Baathist regime did not impose tribal and religious fundamentalist laws that are now in effect and are contributing to women being kidnapped, raped and executed.

The invasion of Iraq, however, changed the status of Iraqi women for the worse. The United States elevated a new group of leaders, most of whom were allied with ultraconservative Shiite clerics. Among the Sunni minority, the quick disappearance of their once-dominant political power led to a resurgence of religious identity. Consequently, the Kurds, celebrated for their history of resistance to the Iraqi dictator, were able to reclaim traditions such as honor killings, putting thousands of women at risk.

Iraqi sectarian conflict has exacerbated violence against women. My organization, the Global Fund for Women, and the humanitarian community have long known that the presence of military troops in a region of conflict increases prostitution, violence against women and the potential for human trafficking.

Although many believed that interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq would result in greater freedoms for women, international women's rights organizations, including the Global Fund for Women, were highly skeptical of the Bush administration's claims from the start. U.S. representatives in Iraq failed to listen to the voices of independent and secular Iraqi women leaders like Yanar Mohammed, co-founder of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, during the process of drafting the constitution. As a result, the Iraqi constitution elevated Islamic law over constitutional rights for matters pertaining to personal and family matters.

For the first time in more than 50 years, Iraqi women's right to be treated as equal citizens has been overturned. This disgrace has happened on the watch of the United States. In many ways, it is no less shameful than the human rights abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib. If left unchallenged, it has the potential to affect many thousands more innocent lives.

Because the United States has failed to protect Iraqi women, United Nations Secretary General-designate Ban Ki Moon should step in and make this cause a priority of his new tenure. The women of Iraq deserve nothing less.

Kavita N. Ramdas is president and chief executive officer of the Global Fund for Women. Her e-mail is gfw@globalfundfor women.org.

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