Iraq’s “gender apartheid”

Jane Gabriel

Laura Bush said ” the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”.

Hiafa Zangana says ” the main misconception is to perceive Iraqi women as silent powerless victims in a male-controlled society in urgent need of ‘liberation’. This image fits conveniently into the big picture of the Iraqi people being passive victims who would welcome the occupation of their country. The reality is different”.

There was standing room only in the session on the 10th floor where Yifat Susskind, from the organisation MADRE, handed out copies of her report called Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-based Violence and the US war on Iraq. The report argues that the sharp increase in violence against women is the result of an organized campaign against women by Islamists who are using the war in Iraq to transform the country. The report is an attempt to ‘re-tell the Iraqi war story’ . It is the story of how ‘Gender Apartheid’ is being imposed on Iraq’s women.

Houzan Mahmoud, from the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) had flown to the meeting from London, where only last week she had received a fatwa informing her that whether she was in London or Baghdad she would be killed before the end of March. Houzan is accused of campaigning against Iraq; in fact OWFI is campaigning against article 7, and for the separation of religion from the state. Of the fatwa she said “I am here, we will not keep silent, we will be campaigning to keep religion a private matter” – and went on to say that ” just being a woman in Iraq is enough to be a prime target for violence – to be killed, raped or sold”.

OWFI runs two shelters for women who have nowhere else to go. It has outreach teams who look for the truth about the violence against women: Houzan told of one team working last October that had found nearly 100 bodies of women in a Baghdad hospital. The women had been beheaded or cut into pieces and their families had been too afraid to collect them. OWFI has a team that goes into the prisons to expose the rape and torture by Iraqi police under US supervision.

Houzan said that “we believe that in any society that is not secular, there is no room for women’s rights”. “Once” she said, “we had a secular society. We had rights. We didn’t have a theocracy”, but that the occupation of Iraq had opened up the borders to allow the fundamentalists the freedom to kill.

During questions at the end, one woman who had survived the wars that followed the break up of Yugoslavia, asked “What can we learn from the countries that have already gone through this? How do you walk out of this room with a sense that it is still possible to do something? What sustains you in this work? What helps you not walk away from this, but stay with it?

Houzan replied: “In Iraq the bright side is the youth movement and the women’s movement. Imagine if we didn’t exist, it would be complete barbarism: there is hope. We started this century with so much barbarism. The only alternative to this is us. We exist, we started with no support. Now we have support”.

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