Nadje al-Ali, senior lecturer in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter

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Mother Jones: What would a withdrawal of U.S. troops mean for women in Iraq?

Nadje al-Ali: Women have been the biggest losers of the post-invasion period. I worked on the modern history of Iraqi women, and of course there were horrible problems related to living under a dictatorship, living with wars, living with sanctions. But one of the most tragic things is that really, women have been pushed back and have lost out quite a bit. And what I am seeing in Iraq is what one might call the Talibanization of Iraqi society. And of course everybody is experiencing the suffering from the deterioration of the infrastructure, lack of electricity and all this, but it is women who bear the brunt of it. And in terms of violence, again, while it is probably more men who are being killed as a result of sectarian violence, as a result of the occupation, as a result of criminal gangs, women are especially vulnerable to gender-specific violence. Women have been harassed by soldiers at checkpoints, during house searches, and have also experienced harassment and actually sexual abuse in prison. And one of the big problems in Iraq, and it is a problem that has been on the increase, is so-called honor killings, which even happen to some women who might have been arrested because they are suspected of being related to insurgents. Then when they come out of prison, if they come from families that are quite conservative and who suspect that they might have been victims of the sexual harassment or even rape in prison, they might end up being killed by their families.

Many of the women I have spoken to are very, very worried about Islamist groups both on the Shiite side and the Sunni side. The way these Islamic extremists treat women is very much the same; they have very similar strategies. We saw shortly after the occupation some of the initial signs that something was going very wrong—just basically women being bullied to wear Islamic dress, cover up, wear a headscarf. There were leaflets given out on the streets and basically they were saying if you don’t do that you will be punished. But it didn’t stop there. In Baghdad University leaflets are given out that male and female students should not sit together in a classroom. I mean, this was unheard of in Iraq. Students had always been together in universities and studying together and working together. Professional women were threatened not to go out to work. Women who were playing a public role were threatened. Then you started to have systematic assassination attempts and also successful assassination of women who were playing a public role. I know lots of women’s rights activists who have received death threats and either had to flee the country or had to stop their activities or move underground or have to move around with bodyguards if they can afford it. And when a woman is kidnapped for ransom, you have the risk that that woman is sexually abused and if that happens then there is the risk that, again, if she is from a conservative family, she might be a victim of honor killing.

All this has created a situation where many women don’t dare to leave the house anymore. In a country where, historically speaking, whatever you want to say about the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, you know in the past Iraqi women were among the most educated in the whole region. You could find them in all professions. You could find women doctors, engineers, you name it. But now, women are worried to leave their homes. Parents are worried to send their daughters to school or university.

MJ: I’ve heard that the new constitution reversed many of the rights that women enjoyed in the past under Saddam.

NAA: Yes. The main issue, which is part of the constitution, is Article 41, which is an article that relates to what is called the Personal Status Code. The personal status code in Muslim society is a set of laws, Sunni laws. In other words, laws that govern marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. In Iraq, since there was a revolution in 1958 that changed Iraq from a monarchy to a republic, there was a new constitution drafted in 1959 and there were lots of women activists who at the time were very much involved in the drafting of the constitution. They managed to get in one of the progressive personal status codes into the constitution. They managed to get a law that was based on a progressive reading of the Sharia.

Given the ways things are moving in Iraq, the people in power are not moderate progressive Muslims. We are dealing with Islamic extremists here, and the law is wide open to interpretation so that someone who is really conservative and does not believe in women’s rights can say, “Ok, this is how it is.”

The first part of the justification of occupation is that the United States and Bush are bringing democracy, human rights, and women’s rights to Iraq. The louder more people like President Bush say “women’s rights” while the country is under occupation, the more people inside Iraq will actually reject the idea of women’s rights. People who under different circumstances would be totally happy with the idea of women’s education, women’s lib for participation, women’s political participation, all kinds of things. There’s a backlash against anything perceived to be coming from the outside. Although there’s a long history of the women’s rights movement in the Middle East, people don’t think about it. They think that they’re trying to change our culture. That actually makes it very difficult for women’s rights activists right now because people say, “Well, you are imitating the West.” In a way, it becomes more difficult to actually speak about women’s rights as long as there are troops on the ground.

I do understand my friends and colleagues who say, “No, we can’t have a withdrawal of troops right now because the Islamists will become stronger and there will be nothing to stop the Islamists.” And I think that there is a real danger that we could fall into kind of Talibanlike circumstances in Iraq, where some very crazy laws are being implemented. But actually, in terms of more long-term protection of women’s rights, I don’t think that one can really make that case given that they have failed. Politically the United States and Britain have failed terribly to protect women and to protect their rights.

MJ: In that sense, you could almost even argue that were the U.S. and Britain to withdraw, nothing directly would happen, since we haven’t been doing much.

NAA: I think what might happen is that we would experience a sort of initial period of worsening and escalation of violence. But I think that for a national reconciliation to happen, for people to realize or listen, we have to somehow sort this out. They will only be doing that when they are left on their own, because now one of the problems is that the troops give justification to some people who are creating all kinds of chaos and engaging in terrorist activities. They are getting some support because they say they are fighting the occupation. Having ten thousand troops or twenty thousand troops more is not making the difference. You would need a hundred million soldiers to make a difference and that is not going to happen. And since you don’t have that, you might as well leave.


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