If you haven’t thought about the Iraq War as a story of US allies systematically torturing and executing women, you’re not alone. Likewise, if you were under the impression that Iraqi women were somehow better off under their new, US-sponsored government.
In the spring of 2003, Fatin was a student of architecture at Baghdad University. Her days were filled with classes and hanging out in her favorite of Baghdad’s many cafes, where she and her friends studied, shared music, and spun big plans for successful careers, happy marriages, and eventually, kids.
Today, Fatin says that those feel like someone else’s dreams.
Soon after the US invasion, Fatin began seeing groups of bearded young Iraqi men patrolling the streets of Baghdad. They were looking for women like her, who wore modern clothes or were heading to professional jobs. The men screamed terrible insults at the women and sometimes beat them.
By the fall, ordinary aspects of Fatin’s life had become punishable by death. The “misery gangs,” as Fatin calls them, were routinely killing women for wearing pants, appearing in public without a headscarf, or shaking hands and socializing with men.
As the occupying power, the US was legally obligated to stop these attacks. But the Pentagon, preoccupied with battling the Iraqi insurgency, simply ignored the militias’ reign of terror.
In fact, some of the most treacherous armed groups belonged to the very political parties that the US had brought to power. By 2005, the Pentagon was giving weapons, money and military training to these Shiite militias, in the hope that they would help combat the Sunni-led insurgency.
Fatin’s closest encounter with the militias occurred when armed men burst into her university classroom one morning, threatening to kill any female student without a head scarf. After that, young women dropped out in droves. The next semester, Fatin’s parents refused to allow her to re-enroll.
While the Pentagon was arming militias bent on brutally ousting Iraqi women from public life, the US State Department was busy brokering the new Iraqi Constitution. Hailed as “progressive” and “democratic” in Washington, the new Constitution designates religious law, which discriminates against women, as the basis of all legislation. It also restricts women’s rights by upending one of the most progressive family status laws in the Middle East—a law that Iraqi women fought for and won in 1959, before Saddam Hussein took power.
For Fatin, the bitter irony is that her new Constitution, courtesy of the USA, destroyed women’s rights that were once guaranteed in Iraq, even under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.
Fatin has now been out of school and unemployed for more than three years. Her mother, a pharmacist, and her aunt, trained as a veterinarian, have also been unemployed for years now and are too afraid to try to find work.
Here in the US, we’ve rarely heard the story of the Iraq War told from the perspective of women. So what are Iraqi women saying on the sixth anniversary of the US invasion? The same thing they’ve been saying since 2003: end the occupation. Polls consistently show that a majority of Iraqis want US troops out.
We’ve been told that if the US withdraws, violence would again soar in Iraq. That’s a compelling argument for those of us who care about the suffering that the US has already visited on Iraqi women and their families. But Iraqis themselves, who have the best grasp of their security situation, say that US troops are causing, not confronting, violence. In multiple polls, most Iraqis say they would feel much safer without US troops.
Who can blame them? Since the invasion, over a million Iraqis have died violently and four million have been driven from their homes. The resources that women need to care for their families—electricity, water, food, fuel, and medical care—have become dangerously scarce, sometimes totally unavailable.
This week marks six years since the US invaded Iraq. In that time, women have not only faced with mounting violence—they have also organized a movement to confront US occupation and violence against women.
Looking for a way to speak out against the repression she witnessed, Fatin joined the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). In partnership with MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization based in New York, OWFI has worked to promote women’s human rights, creating a network of women’s shelters to protect women fleeing violence.
The women of Iraq are creating the foundation on which a peaceful and just future will be built. It’s time we started listening to them.
YIFAT SUSSKIND is Communications Director for MADRE. This op-ed was distributed by the American Forum.