Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy in Iraq
"It is a good thing that the Iraqi people are now receiving aid, instead of suffering under sanctions. And it is a good thing that the men and women across the Middle East, looking to Iraq, are getting a glimpse of what life in a free country can be like."
-George W. Bush, March 19, 2004
This is from a newly released report from human rights group MADRE called Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the U.S. War on Iraq. It looks at the incidence, causes, and legalization of gender-based violence in Iraq since the U.S. invasion.
Amidst the chaos and violence of US-occupied Iraq, the significance of widespread gender-based violence has been largely overlooked. Yet, Iraqi women are enduring unprecedented levels of assault in the public sphere, "honor killings," torture in detention, and other forms of gender-based violence. Women are not only being targeted because they are members of the civilian population. Women—in particular those who are perceived to pose a challenge to the political project of their attackers—have increasingly been targeted because they are women. This report documents the use of gender-based violence by Iraqi Islamists, brought to power by the US overthrow of Iraq's secular Ba'ath regime, and highlights the role of the United States in fomenting the human rights crisis confronting Iraqi women today. Some key points include:
Imposing Theocracy through Gender-Based Violence
Under US occupation, Iraqi women have endured a wave of gender-based violence, including widespread abductions, public beatings, death threats, sexual assaults, "honor killings," domestic abuse, torture in detention, beheadings, shootings, and public hangings. Much of this violence is systematic—directed by the Islamist militias that mushroomed across Iraq after the US toppled the mostly secular Ba'ath regime.
Like religious fundamentalists in the US and elsewhere, Iraq's Islamists see the subordination of women as a top priority—both a microcosm and a precondition of the social order they wish to establish. As in Iran, Algeria, and Afghanistan, a campaign of violence against women was the first salvo in the Islamists' war to establish a theocracy in Iraq.
First They Came for the Women
Attacks on women began within weeks of the US invasion in 2003. US authorities did nothing to stop the violence, and soon the attacks spread. Within a year, Islamists were killing Iraqi artists, intellectuals, professionals, ethnic and religious minorities, lesbians and gays—indeed, anyone whom the Islamists perceived as a threat to their agenda. Women, who are seen as the carriers of group identity, have remained in the cross-hairs of Iraq's warring sectarian militias. Iraqi women's organizations report that militias "are taking revenge on each other by raping women," and targeting Christian women with rape and assassination as part of a broader attack on that community.
Iraq's War on Women: Made in the USA
Women have been systematically attacked by theocratic militias on both sides of the sectarian divide, but the most widespread violence has been committed by the Shiite militias affiliated with the US-backed government—the Badr Brigade and Mahdi Army. These groups have waged their campaign of terror against women with weapons, training, and money provided by the US under a policy called the "Salvador Option."
Gender War, Civil War
Neither the mainstream press, the alternative media, nor the anti-war movement has identified the connections between the attack on Iraqi women and the spiraling violence that has culminated in civil war. But violence against women is not incidental to Iraq's mounting civilian death toll and civil war—it is a key to understanding the wider crisis. Indeed, the twin crises plaguing Iraqi civilians—gender based violence and civil war—are deeply intertwined. For example, in the legal arena, the same provisions of the US-brokered constitution that codify gender discrimination (Articles 39 and 41) also lay the groundwork for sectarian violence: these articles establish separate laws on the basis of sex and religious affiliation.
Democracy and Women's Rights: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Although most assaults on women occur in public, violence against Iraqi women continues to be perceived mainly as a "private" or family matter, somehow outside the realm of "politics." Moreover, the characterization of violence against Iraqi women as "cultural" in nature deemphasizes the ways that such violence is used as a means toward political ends and obscures the role of the United States in fomenting gender-based violence.
Contrary to its rhetoric and its legal obligations under the Hague and Geneva Conventions, the Bush Administration has refused to protect women's human rights in Iraq. In fact, it has decisively traded women's rights for cooperation from the Islamists whom it boosted to power.
A re-telling of the Iraq War from the perspective of Iraqi women illuminates the strong links between women's human rights and democratic rights in general and the Bush Administration's clear contempt for both.