Since the US bombing of Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush Administration has resurrected the hackneyed colonial notion that its military intervention is intended to save Muslim women from their oppressive societies. As Laura Bush said, “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Few Middle Eastern women believe her: the line is really intended for people in the US.
In Iraq, women know that despite all of Bush’s talk of women’s rights and democracy, the US does not want genuine democracy in Iraq. After all, if it were up to the majority of Iraqis, how many would have endorsed the country’s USbrokered oil law, which puts Iraq’s most valuable resource at the disposal of USbased corporations? How many Iraqis would have opted for huge, permanent US military bases in their country-whose sole purpose is to enable more US military intervention in the region? Throughout the Middle East-and indeed, around the world-the US has preferred to support authoritarian leaders who systematically violate women’s rights. That’s because women’s rights are an integral part of democratic rights, and democratic rights are a threat to US control of the region.
The fact that the US has used women’s rights as a rallying point for its wars in the Middle East is sometimes used to fuel the claim that women’s rights is “foreign” to the region and a tool of “Western domination.” We hear that claim from conservatives in Muslim countries who oppose women’s rights. We also hear it from some US progressives who believe that condemning US intervention in Iraq requires defending any group that opposes the US, regardless of that group’s own human rights record. But human rights is not an either/or proposition. The US occupation is illegal and unjust-and so is violence against Iraqi women.
So how do we address Islamist violence against women without endorsing the racist idea that gender-based violence in Iraq somehow derives from Islam? We start by recognizing that in the US, discussions of genderbased violence in the Middle East occur in a climate of hostility towards Islam and Muslim countries. We have all heard platitudes about the plight of Muslim women that are little more than racist diatribes used to justify US intervention in their countries. That’s why strategies against genderbased violence in the Middle East need to also combat the violence of US foreign policy, confront “Islamophobia” in the US, and recognize the ways that sexism and racism have been conscripted into the US “war on terror.”
Understanding the links between opposing violence against Iraqi women and opposing violence by the US can help address the concern of people who worry that advocating Middle Eastern women’s rights imposes “Western values” on Muslim countries. Here, a fear of condoning “cultural imperialism” leads people to be silent about violence against women. But silence is not a defensible response to grave human rights abuses. Nor is silence necessary to avoid charges of cultural imperialism, for there is nothing inherently “Western” about women’s rights.
Women in the Middle East have a centurieslong history of political struggle, popular organizing, jurisprudence, and scholarship aimed at securing rights within their societies. As Iraqi author and activist Haifa Zangana says, “The main misconception is to perceive Iraqi women as silent, powerless victims in a malecontrolled 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.”
The assumption that women’s rights are a “Western” concern is not only inaccurate, but also overblown. After all, the intellectual foundations of civilization-writing, mathematics, and science-are “Eastern.” Are these pursuits therefore “foreign” and inappropriate in “the West?” Human rights, feminism, literature, and science are all aspects of our common human heritage. We should be suspicious whenever one is said to belong-or not belong-to a given people, especially when that designation is used to deny people their rights. The imagined community of “the West” has no monopoly on democracy, women’s rights, or any other “values” that the US purports to be “bringing” to Iraq.
Rightwing intellectuals like to talk about a “clash of civilizations” dividing the United States from the Middle East. But the real clash is not between “Western” democracies and “Eastern” theocracies; it is between those who uphold the full range of human rights-including women’s right to a life free of violence-and those who pursue economic and political power for a privileged few at the expense of the world’s majority. In this clash, no one is predestined to be on one side or the other by virtue of her culture, religion, or nationality. We choose our position based on our principles and our actions. Those of us who choose to stand in defense of human rights in Iraq should seek out and listen to progressive Iraqis, including the thousand of Iraqi women who are struggling for women’s rights within their country and for their country’s right to freedom from US domination.
YIFAT SUSSKIND is communications director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization. She is the author of a book on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and a report on US culpability for violence against women in Iraq, both forthcoming.