A long and rambling post about women and war that's been ambling around my brain for a long time without ever settling comfortably into any known essay structure, even by the loose standards of blogs, but which perhaps can be defined as a small stab at a still developing genre -- the quiet and hesitant rant
One of the things that struck me watching the crowds tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein was that I didn't see any women. Another thing that struck me was that no one commented on this -- as if streets without women were entirely normal. Pardon my stereotypically feminist response, but to me a world wiped clean of women is a little disturbing. It seems to say, "Here is the future of Iraq. And people of your gender aren't in it." I don't want to be a party-pooper, but it seems that about 65% of Iraq didn't get its invitation to the party.
I hope that's not the future of Iraq.
It's not just what it says about Iraq that makes me uncomfortable. I don't like what it tells me about my own country either. At some point in my life, I'd like to live in a country where people looked at a place devoid of women and noticed that there was something strange about that, and where I didn't feel like I was committing a faux pas by bringing it up. I'd like at least one talking head to stop and comment, "Did anyone notice there are no women? Doesn't that seem eerie?"
the women? To me, that was the first sign that there was more chaos than joy. If it's a party, women will be there. But if women are staying away, I thought, maybe they are reading it as a far more dangerous and threatening situation than what the American press was suggesting. Maybe the women of Iraq know something that Wolf Blitzer doesn't. The lawlessness that followed tells me that if that was
their reading, Iraqi women are pretty smart, in a way that potential victims have to be if they're going to survive.
recently pointed out this statement
by Howard Dean: We don't know yet whether the Iraqis will be better off without Saddam Hussein. I like a man who can be both obvious and stunning in the same sentence. I've been waiting for someone to say that, especially after some smart people
simply accepted the "things will be better" motif. I'd like to think so, too. And there's certainly a possibility that will happen. But when you look at the options,
there aren't any really good ones, a few don't seem to offer much improvement,
and at least one definitely falls into the category of worse than Saddam Hussein.
At this point I figure anyone who'd hazard a guess as to what Iraq will look like in a year, let alone a generation, is braver than I am. Looking at the options, I see a range from frightening to lousy but not quite as bad as some of the other possibilities, and I don't want to make any guesses about which ones will pan out.
But among the sad, and not unreasonable, speculations is this article
(Via Alas, a blog
) on what could easily be a loss of rights for women in post-Saddam Iraq. There was a similar article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times,
about the fear of many Iraqi women that as horrible as Saddam Hussein was, the future may be, for them, no better, if not worse.
That seems counter-intuitive. Gender equality doesn't mean a lot when it's combined with contempt for human rights. What could be worse than beheadings, rape, torture and murder?
Not much, obviously, but that description is a bit misleading. Some of what you see in the State Department report is proof that Saddam was an equal opportunity criminal. But some requires a little reading between the lines. As proof of Saddam's brutal treatment of women, for instance, the State Department cites a 1990 change in the Iraqi Penal Code exempting men who kill women in so-called "honor killings" from prosecution. Since 1990, more than 4,000 Iraqi women have been victims of honor killings. It also cites an Amnesty International
report describing beheadings of women accused of prostitution. But beheadings
and unpunished honor killings
are not exactly rare phenomena in the countries of some of our allies. I'm not raising an issue of hypocrisy as much as pointing out that such brutalization was part of an attempt to placate fanatics and tribal leaders. The same fanatics and tribal leaders we now get to try to figure out how to deal with. I doubt we'll be as placating, but I don't see the Bush administration really standing up for women's rights either. They didn't in Afghanistan,
and they won't in Iraq. The temptation to give in on something not terribly important -- the lives of women -- will be enormous. Religious nuts can be a nuisance, and women's lives and health
are expendable -- no matter what the creed of the nut you're placating.
One of Iraq's oddest "little secrets" -- which Nicholas Kristof
wrote an interesting piece about last year -- was that Iraqi women were probably more free and better off than women in most Arab countries. Because of general economic growth in the '70s and '80s, combined with widespread literacy programs, and programs to educate women, improve health care, and get women into the workforce, Iraqi women are among the best educated and most professional in the region. Two things cut into that progress. One was Saddam's attempt to control fanatics by tossing them a bone -- women's rights. The second was sanctions.
Besides its effect on the health of all Iraqis, the crushed economy under sanctions caused many women to lose jobs and abandon education. The drop out rates
became much higher for girls than for boys.
Look at the realistic options for Iraq and try to imagine which ones would actually result in improvement of the lives of women.
The Women's E-news
article quotes a number of women who put their faith in the State Department's pledges of concern for women's rights, but who fear that the Pentagon has greater clout. That would be this
State Department and Pentagon:
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday that the United States would not tolerate Shiite rule in Baghdad. "If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," he said Thursday in an interview with Associated Press.
Pentagon planners are increasingly committed to Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shiite leader of the Iraqi National Congress, as a means of countering the prospect of a theocratic government, despite new signs that Chalabi is not widely popular, according to administration sources.
In contrast, the State Department argues that the recent emotional Shiite commemorations of a martyred saint and the rise of religious leaders as the new local authorities are not a cause for long-term concern.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell even suggested Thursday that the United States could accept a new government with an Islamic identity.
"Why cannot an Islamic form of government that has as its basis the faith of Islam not also be democratic?" Powell asked, pointing to Turkey and Pakistan as Islamic countries that hold elections.
Iraq could serve as a model, he suggested.
I have to admit a few days ago, I was thinking in the same direction as Powell, although I wasn't thinking of Turkey and Pakistan, but Iran, and the idea that Iran may be closer to democracy than Iraq, and that democracy may have to develop after people live with a lousy choice for awhile and decide to eliminate it themselves.
Maybe a theocracy wouldn't be the worst possibility.
My brain wandered around in the dark and found its way back to the real world eventually. Democracy in Iran is a hope -- a fairly realistic one, I think, but one that hasn't proved itself yet. Theocracy might be a stage Iran had to pass through, but then again, it might turn out to be more tenacious than it currently looks. A theocracy in Iraq might, in fact, strengthen the theocracy in Iran.
And then there are the consequences for women, at least a generation of Iraqi women.
If I were an Iraqi woman, I wouldn't be terribly comfortable with Colin Powell's suggestion that we could live with a theocracy.
But American promises and alliances with Iraqi exiles don't look very promising either. Notice anything wrong with this picture?
Garner starts talks on Iraq future
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S.-led team in charge of Iraqi reconstruction has begun talks on the future of the country with Baghdad academics and community leaders saying it did not want to see fundamentalists come to power.
"You have a great pride, blood in your veins that comes from the birth of civilisation, the birth of government in Iraq," retired U.S. general Jay Garner, head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, told about 60 men invited to the meeting on Thursday.
No women attended the talks.
At some point in my life, I'd like to live in a country where a sentence like that last one makes everyone very uncomfortable.