Did the wars liberate Afghan and Iraqi women?

During the first few years after the US-led invasion, Iraqi women were used as yard sticks to show the progress the country was making towards democratization and protection of human rights.  However, coalition forces soon turned their attention from human security to national security.  Iraqi women today have very little political influence and power to participate in decision-making.  They also experience gender violence and poverty as a result of deteriorating infrastructure, the death, disappearance and detention of male spouses, and more conservative laws and attitudes than those in place ten years ago.  These problems are exacerbated in a context of lack of rule of law and Prime Minister al-Maliki’s systemic sidelining of political opposition.

Iraq’s poor infrastructure and continuing humanitarian crisis impact the majority of Iraqi women’s lives.  Following the US-led invasion, the number of Iraqi women reduced to impoverished widowhood and refugee status skyrocketed.  Poverty and insecurity, while widespread, are particularly apparent among women and men who are refugees, as well as women heads of households.  Political will in Iraq to address the needs of these vulnerable populations is lacking.  Minister of State for Women’s Affairs Ibtihal Al-Zaidi stated in 2011 that the ministry “has no jurisdiction over the directorate of women’s welfare or increasing funds allocated to widows” and is “no more than an executive-consultation bureau with a limited budget and no jurisdiction on implementing resolutions or activities.” 

Iraqi women activists mobilize in the face of these political and economic setbacks.  Since the 1920s, Iraqi women have pressed for access to legal rights, schooling and paid employment with notable success. While Iraqi women’s organizations won a 25 percent quota for women in the new legislature, the newly emerged political parties are all led by men and there is only one woman among the 44 members of the current cabinet—down from 6 female-headed ministries from 2005-2006.  Iraqi women activists today express alarm at the country’s gender policies, laws, and politics, saying that the US government’s focus on reconciling Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish men’s rivalries constantly marginalize important women’s issues, such as access to education, health care, legal protection and paid employment. They have also been mobilizing against domestic violence, trafficking, and honour-based crimes, providing shelters and advice to victims.

At a meeting among women’s rights activists to launch Iraq’s first-ever CEDAW (Convention on the Elmination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), participants agreed that the rights and status of women have not been adequately considered by any of the political actors—international or Iraqi—involved in Iraq’s post-conflict reconstruction and political transition.  This is a telling reflection of how far the coalition forces have strayed from their original claim that the Iraq war would improve Iraqi women’s lives. 

The US-led war in Afghanistan followed on the heels of a war in the 1980s with the Soviet Union, and a 1990s civil war. Each war has turned thousands of Afghan women into refugees and widows – or both – and made it dangerous for women to seek schooling, healthcare, paid employment and legal rights. In each war, rival male combatants have claimed that they knew what was best for Afghan women, while marginalizing women in the actual planning of their future. And in each war, women and their children were often the victims of the violence itself.

In its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the US government chose as its chief domestic allies those warlords – the “Northern Alliance”-- opposed to Taliban rule. This was despite the fact that they firmly embraced negative or dismissive views of women, for instance, accepting domestic violence as a husband’s prerogative. Currently women hold a quarter of the seats in the Afghan legislature, but that percentage was gained over the objections of quota-phobic American officials. In addition, the millions of foreign dollars that have poured in for contractors and infrastructure have mainly benefited men and in many cases have created incentives for escalating conflict between male-led groups. Afghan women activists fear that the status of women – especially as it is affected by laws regarding marriage, inheritance, custody, divorce, and domestic violence – will become mere bargaining chips among the rival foreign and local male elites. (Text updated as of February 2013)

IMAGE on Iraq anniversary page: ©Shamous /Open Shutters