The fractious debate over Iraqi women's rights

Women vote in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in Dec. 2005. (Ann Scott Tyson/The Washington Post)

Women in Iraq had freer lives than women in other Arab states before the war erupted. Now, it seems, the clock has rolled backwards and women face tougher choices and narrowed horizons. In "Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family, and Survival in the New Iraq," published by Random House in September, Christina Asquith explores the lives of four women in Iraq -- two Iraqi sisters, one U.S. soldier and a U.S. aid worker -- to explain the new challenges.

GUEST BLOGGER: Christina Asquith

The Iraqi women's rights activists sitting in a hotel conference room in downtown Baghdad represented all regions of the Arab nation. Shia women from Najaf were covered from head to toe in black with no jewelry or high heels, while urban, career women from Baghdad wore business suits and had styled hair and heavy makeup. The latter women carried briefcases, the former carried the Quran.

When the discussion began, it was obvious the differences extended beyond appearance. The modern women welcomed the United States in Iraq, the ideas of democracy, and felt women should be able to choose if they wanted to veil. They wanted the post-Saddam Iraq governed by secular law, not Islamic law, and wanted women's rights strengthened in cases of divorce and inheritance.

The conservative women felt democracy dismissed the role of God and the Quran in government. The American presence in Iraq was equated with infidel invasions of the crusades. Islamic law would improve women's lives, they felt, by strengthening the family and providing more social services to women through the mosques.

After only a short while, the discussion grew heated. The conservative women criticized the modern women for wearing trousers and jewelry, which were considered immodest. The modern women shot back that the conservative women looked like "ninjas" in their black cloaks. The session broke up, and rather than unite the women, it served mostly to delineate the differences.

In the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush promised to "liberate" Iraqi women and to usher in rights that would establish them as role models throughout the Middle East. I went to Iraq to explore this idea, to examine how the United States could influence women's status, and whether Iraqi women would welcome Western feminism.

Like many Americans, I began with a naive impression of Iraqi women as monolithic. But they are no more united on the thorny issue of feminism than we are in the West. In the 1970s, American women debated abortion rights, equal pay and sexual harassment. We had Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly. Today, we have Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.

Iraqi women are equally split over what constitutes women's rights, and the best way for women to live. As in the United States, an Iraqi woman's attitudes often depend on her class, the depth of her religious beliefs and her family's values.

For the first few years of war, this division hurt women overall. Unable to unite as a group and lobby for issues they did agree on (financial support of widows, shelters for battered women), they found themselves left out of a male dominated debate on the direction of the country.

The escalation of extreme violence contributed to religious Shia groups dominating in the 2005 elections, and they were fervent about imposing Islamic law in the Constitution, which modern Iraqi activists felt would hurdle women's rights back to medieval times. For a while, it seemed as though women might stand to lose more rights under U.S.-imposed democracy than they had enjoyed under Saddam's dictatorship.

In these next elections in January, 2010, more moderate groups have resurfaced and are expected to do well. The lull in violence has given some space for an open debate on women's rights. Perhaps a country will emerge that tolerates a diversity of women. The debate continues, however, and it remains to be seen whether Iraqi women will do better under U.S. occupation than they did under Saddam Hussein.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 10, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Concomitant with Iraqi women's loss of rights, Iraqi LGBT people were targeted for death by the same Shi‘ite ultraconservative forces described in the article. Both forms of persecution are from the same patriarchal cause. The summary murders carried out on LGBT Iraqi people have included the massacre of women too. A lesbian safe house was invaded by those religious marauders and everyone slaughtered.

Olivia Butler predicted this kind of oppression in Parable of the Talents. She set it in 21st-century America.

Posted by: MsJoanna | December 10, 2009 12:02 PM

Excuse me, I meant Octavia Butler.

Posted by: MsJoanna | December 10, 2009 12:04 PM

Why all the concern about Iraqi and Afghani women, why do we always highlight one culture/leader/country when there's another doing exactly the same thing somewhere else yet we ignore them for questionable reasons. How about a message that is more about all women in the world.

There is also a misunderstanding about cultures. There are many Moslem women who would never give up covering themselves when in public any more than American women being comfortable taking off their bikini tops at topless beaches in Europe. In some cultures women get tattoos and would be outcasts if they didn't. Who is to say that is wrong?

American's often pride themselves about freedom, but it was 132 years from the ratification of the Constitution before women in America were given the right to vote (1920). They can vote in Iran, Afghanistan today, but not Saudi Arabia (I think the only country that does not allow women to vote in 2009), women cannot also drive or travel without their husbands permission. So why not the outcry, could it be because of oil?

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(CNN) -- Wajeha al-Huwaider picked up her passport, got in a taxi, and headed from her home in eastern Saudi Arabia to the nearby island kingdom of Bahrain -- a 45-minute drive that many Saudis take to get away for the weekend.

Despite having a valid passport, Saudi authorities at the border sent al-Huwaider home. That's because in Saudi Arabia, a woman needs permission from her male guardian before she can leave the country. July 10, 2009

Posted by: kkrimmer | December 10, 2009 1:09 PM

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