Iraqi women expected much when America and its allies invaded Iraq 10 years ago. I remember being in meetings with newly formed women’s organizations where they would talk about how America was going to give them freedom and equality. Ten years later, women find themselves combating religious zealotry, more violence against women, limited legal protections and rights, increasing child marriage, and absence from the work force, to name a few challenges.
In another meeting of women activists 10 years later, women talk of lost of hope for a better future more than anything else. “We gained things and we lost things,” one woman corrects the others. “Politically, we may have secured 25 percent of the seats in parliament, but there is no political will for women’s full participation.” There is only one woman minister out of 29 ministries, and women have no leadership roles in universities or the legal and business sectors.
“During Saddam’s time I used to fear his sons, Uday and Qusay,” one woman says. “Now I fear everyone.” Asked how women are faring in Iraq today, she continues: “We could roam around and go wherever we wanted without worrying during Saddam’s time. Our fear was political. We couldn’t talk. We couldn’t express our views. We couldn’t forget the fear we had of Saddam’s son Uday. But that fear hs now spread to the streets. I can no longer walk there.”
Women are a bellwether for society as a whole. What happens to them is telling about the national direction. With that in mind, Iraqi women have a sad story to tell. The historic rise of religious and tribal parties, and their influence on the country, has almost defeated any sense of equality for women. A national law that regulates family status no longer protects women. Today that law is subject to varying interpretations, depending on the religious scholar or tribal leader who has the legal authority to rule his region. That authority trumps any other constitutional law, leaving most women more vulnerable than ever and with varying rights, depending on their sect, religion, or place of residence.
They attribute the impact of sectarian fighting to an increase in the divorce rate, economic pressure to an increase in domestic violence and trafficking of women and girls, and lack of security to an increase in girls leaving schools. Today more women and girls in Iraq are illiterate than 25 years ago. Child marriage, something that had almost disappeared in the past, is now on the rise, with an average marriage age of 13 to 15 years old. Minor marriages are often not registered, leading to many unregistered children. Three decades of war, along with sectarian fighting, has left more widows than the country has ever had. Some estimate that Iraq has a million widows.
“America gave us freedom,” says an older woman who comes from an area that suffered much under Saddam’s oppression, “but took away from us security. If we had to choose between freedom and security, we would choose security.” She stops for a second and adds, “For in truth we do not have real freedom either.” If what is happening to women is telling a national story, then Iraq has a sad story indeed.