Women’s Rights In Iraq and at Home Going Backwards

by Carol Norris
January 22nd, 2004

In his State of the Union address, George Bush proclaimed that with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, “the people of Iraq are free.”  He told us, ”Today our coalition is working with the Iraqi Governing Council to draft a basic law, with a bill of rights.”  He then introduced Adnan Pachachi, the President of the Iraqi Governing Council and promised him “America stands with you and the Iraqi people as you build a free and peaceful nation.”

As he was waxing poetic about the freedom and rights of the Iraqi people, what he neglected to say is that just a few weeks ago on December 29th, Pachachi and his Governing Council voted in a closed-door session to curtail the rights of Iraqi women as part of that basic law.

What is often not understood is that since the inception of 1959's civil family law, Iraqi women have had, in varying degrees, some of the greatest freedoms in the Muslim world.  And, while he was brutal and unspeakably unjust to so many, Saddam did not touch these freedoms.  The San Francisco Chronicle notes, [Iraqi women] “had personal rights and freedoms unparalleled in the Persian Gulf.  Women could drive, travel abroad alone, study in universities, serve in the army and work side-by-side with men.  Iraqi women, who make up at least 55 percent of the population and are among the most educated in the region, can become anything, from college professors to lawyers.  They choose whom to marry and whether to marry at all.”

If this new decree becomes law the legal status of women could be wrenched back to the dark ages, their lives unspeakably changed. 

But, it isn't just the women in Iraq who are under siege.  Women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, are being brutally tortured and murdered as the Mexican government and the U.S. factory owners, where many of the women work, are hardly batting an eye.

Just a few months ago, Amnesty International reported, “Two years after the beginning of the military action against the Taleban, the women of Afghanistan are still subject to horrific abuses, from honour killings to forced and underage marriage, virginity testing, and prosecution and imprisonment for adultery.”

Oh yeah…Afghanistan.  Remember?

And in developing countries, seemingly ignoring the reality of AIDS and the mushrooming population there, the Bush administration is pushing abstinence programs, trying to block the dissemination of vital, life-saving information about condoms and family planning.  In fact, he prohibits federal funding to any organization that performs or even advocates abortion laws similar to those in the U.S, preventing those organizations from getting condoms as part of a pregnancy-prevention program.

What he is doing abroad belies plans here at home.  In the U.S., reproductive rights are slowly but surely being chipped away by the Bush administration.  Bush has made law the partial abortion ban.  (Very telling is in the photo of the signing of this law, Bush is surrounded by dark-suited men.  There is not one woman standing at his side.)  This new law should've sounded alarm bells for all women (and men), as it's just the beginning of the slippery slope of the eradication of Roe v. Wade.  Although it enjoys its 31st birthday this week, Roe has the very real potential to see an untimely death with the appointment of up to four - yes four - ultra-conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices if Bush is reelected. 

Many claim that similar to Bush's family planning policies, as well as his thinly veiled pro-marriage initiatives, at the core of the Iraqi's Governing Council decree is a directive by religious ultra-conservatives who are threatened by a world become increasingly more modern and tolerant, and thus, less under their control.  So, when Bush tells us his administration is working with the Iraqi governing council to help them craft a new freedom and democracy, it gives one pause.

But, let's hope the more tolerant and just voices of the world rise up.  Let's hope on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade women and men around the world take a stand for women's rights.  Let's hope the countless other stories of abuses of women worldwide get the attention they deserve.  And, let's hope Paul Bremer, the head U.S. administrator in Iraq, who must approve the Iraqi Governing Council's vote, will flatly object to such a backward, unjust decree and be a model for Adnan Pachachi and the newly self-governing Iraq as it takes over at the end of June.

Because as Kurdish lawyer, Hassan Abdullah, said, "Iraqi women will accept [the new decree] over their dead bodies."  But, there are already enough dead women's bodies worldwide from war, abuse, botched abortions and AIDS.  The world doesn't need anymore.