Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What War Brings: deterioration of women's rights

Photo: Nadia's husband, to avenge a dispute he had with her father, cut off her nose and ear while she was sleeping. She has undergone six operations and needs more. "I don't know anything about happiness," 17-year-old Nadia said. (Photo: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

WHAT WAR BRINGS: deterioration of women’s rights

One of the many proposed reasons for going into Afghanistan was to restore women’s rights to the Afghan women, who were not allowed to attend school, hold a job, or walk around unescorted by a man, under the Taliban. For a lot of Americans (who are uninformed) this somehow translated into the situation in Iraq. In Iraq prior to the US invasion, women’s rights were good. They attended school, held professional jobs, retained their names when they got married, and generally had the same rights as the men had – which, of course, were restricted by the Saddam regime.

Today, the situation in Iraq for women’s rights has deteriorated due to the US invasion and occupation. And the Iraqi women who are refugees are facing an extreme deterioration of their rights. In Afghanistan, things are not looking good either.


Women who end up refugees from conflict face a host of problems. Education is lacking, poverty is rampant, and security is poor. The families are under extreme stress, and this results in more domestic violence. Refugee International reported on the situation for Iraqi women who are refugees this past July.

Displaced Iraqi women increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse

Iraqi women who have been uprooted by violence in their country are increasingly susceptible to exploitation and abuse because of extreme financial pressures, a new field report from Refugees International (RI) described today. The report states that domestic violence among Iraqi refugees is increasing in Syria, and that reports of domestic violence are higher among the displaced population in northern Iraq. Displaced women are also more vulnerable to forced early marriages, "temporary marriages," prostitution, trafficking, and domestic violence.

The government of Kurdistan has passed laws against violence directed at women. There have been problems getting these laws effectively implemented. The Iraqi government, in contrast, has not reformed their laws. In particular, “honor killings” are not pursued and punished as they should be. Refugees International would like to see these laws reformed, and see the Iraqi government publicly indicate its support for women’s rights.

In March of 2009, the UN called for more action on women’s rights in Iraq. They report that one in ten Iraqi households are headed by women, and more than 80 percent of these are widows. Here are some more statistics on the status of women in Iraq in 2009:

Greater efforts needed to boost women’s rights in Iraq, says UN

Women comprise 17 per cent of the country’s labour force, compared to 81 percent of men, with the low participation rate of women partially attributed to illiteracy. Nearly one-quarter of women and girls – many of whom were afraid to attend school due to the violence – above the age of 10 are illiterate, compared with just 11 per cent of boys.

The UN also expressed concern over women’s health indicators, with maternal mortality rates reaching 84 per 100,000 live births compared to 41 and 65 in neighbouring Jordan and Syria respectively. “Most of children and women mortalities in Iraq can be prevented through simple interventions – from antenatal and emergency obstetric care to breastfeeding and safe hygiene at home,” said Sikander Khan, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative in the country. He stressed the importance of cooperation with Iraq’s health system to prevent further deaths. Mr. Shearer also said the high rates of violence against women, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day which was observed yesterday, are still worrying.

It is clear that women’s rights, along with education of girls, have deteriorated significantly since 2003. The Iraqi constitution, under the Saddam regime, referred to Iraqis as “citizens” and there was no distinction made between women and men in the rights granted by that constitution. Violence against women has risen significantly since 2003, due to the war and occupation. The next report is from 2005, well before the violence really got out of hand.

How the US erase women’s rights in Iraq

Prior to the arrival of U.S. forces, Iraqi women were free to go wherever they wish and wear whatever they like. The 1970 Iraqi constitution, gave Iraqi women equity and liberty unmatched in the Muslim World. Since the U.S. invasion, Iraqi women’s rights have fallen to the lowest level in Iraq’s history.

…. Immediately after the invasion, the U.S. embarked on cultivating friendships with religious groups and clerics. The aim was the complete destruction of nationalist movements, including women’s rights movements, and replacing them with expatriate religious fanatics and criminals piggybacked from Iran, the U.S. and Britain. In the mean time the U.S. moved to liquidate any Iraqi opposition or dissent to the Occupation.

That article has an interesting review of Karen Hughes, the Undersecretary of State in the Bush administration. She is not portrayed positively! They see the entire war and occupation as a bringer of misery and injustice, and having nothing to do with freedom or democracy.

A report by the San Francisco Chronicle in May 2009 lists some of the more recent examples of the set-back for women’s rights in Iraq.

Women’s rights threatened in Iraq, Afghanistan

In Iraq, women suffer many of the same injustices - honor killings, acid attacks, summary executions. In Basra last year, while extremist Shiite militias controlled the city, reporters and human rights workers described grisly scenes of women strangled, tortured, disfigured and beheaded for purported violations of that particular sect's interpretation of Islamic law.

……….. Women do sit in the parliament, but they wield little influence. Meantime, Nawal al-Samarraie, Iraq's minister for women's affairs, quit her job when the central government cut her budget - to $1,500 a month for the entire Ministry of Women's Affairs.

In December 2008, a women’s rights activist who lived in Kirkuk was murdered in her home. She was the leader of the Women’s league of the Kurdish Communist Party. There is no report on who was responsible or what the motivation for the murder might be.

Yes, Iraq has a long way to go, just to return to the level of rights they had back in 2002.


Before the US/NATO invasion in 2001, women in Afghanistan lived under Taliban theocracy that did not allow girls to attain an education, or for women to work or even leave the house without a male escort. And, I am sure a lot of us had hopes that this would change with such direct US/NATO involvement there – a hope that was not realized. There are claims that things are getting worse. Women in burkas are still a common sight, but that is probably the least of their problems.

UN report on Afghanistan, January 16, 2009

The rape of women and children remains widespread though its true extent is concealed by underreporting. Most perpetrators continue to go unpunished.... Female victims of violence continue to have limited access to justice and effective redress mechanisms. Customary justice systems are only accessed by women accompanied by a male relative.... Threats and intimidation against women in public life or who work outside the home have seen a dramatic increase....

‘Worse than the Taliban’ - new law rolls back rights for Afghan women

Hamid Karzai has been accused of trying to win votes in Afghanistan's presidential election by backing a law the UN says legalises rape within marriage and bans wives from stepping outside their homes without their husbands' permission. The Afghan president signed the law earlier this month, despite condemnation by human rights activists and some MPs that it flouts the constitution's equal rights provisions.

Women’s rights threatened in Iraq, Afghanistan

…. Women’s rights are facing setbacks. Perhaps the best known of them, in Afghanistan, was President Hamid Karzai's recent decision to sign a law requiring Shiite women to put on fancy clothes and makeup if their husbands request it - and then to have sex whenever their husband demands it. Karzai, relatively unpopular now, did this at the behest of Shiite clergy whose support he needs in the elections this summer.

Afghanistan passes ‘barbaric’ law diminishing women’s rights

Afghanistan has quietly passed a law permitting Shia men to deny their wives food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands' sexual demands, despite international outrage over an earlier version of the legislation which President Hamid Karzai had promised to review. The new final draft of the legislation also grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. "It also effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying 'blood money' to a girl who was injured when he raped her," the US charity Human Rights Watch said.

This law was passed to assist Karzai in the August elections – he gained support from the fundamentalists. I have not heard anything about the law being repealed. Cultural customs around marriage are also very abusive to young girls.

Afghan women fight on for rights

A staggering 60% of women are still forced into marriage as children - often as young as nine or ten. That has not changed since the West intervened, despite Afghan law stating that girls under 16 should not be married. In practice, the government and families ignore the law. In the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, I found 17-year-old Saida who was on the run from her husband. Her father had died when she was little and her brothers had claimed her as their property. They sold her off, at the age of 9, to a 60-year-old man. "If he saw a shoe or a stick, anything - he would beat me with it," Saida said, "I had four miscarriages because of the beating and the stress". Then her husband took his child bride on the road to places where they were not known and sold her to other men, forcing her to have sex with them.

The article above also reports on the Afghan women who attempt suicide by setting themselves on fire. Only a few survive.

Afghanistan: “Differentiate rape from adultery”

Human rights groups are calling on the Afghan government to adopt a new law which would more clearly differentiate rape, a criminal offence, from consensual adultery, considered a serious crime in the country. Rape and adultery are two different issues and should be separate in law. Rape is an act of violence and coercion and the inflicting of suffering on a victim, and is not consensual, whereas adultery is consensual, freely chosen," Sonya Merkova, a researcher at London-based Amnesty International, told IRIN.

….. "Women in Afghanistan, victims of rape, are often at risk of being convicted of `zina' [fornication outside marriage] under Article 427 of the Afghan Penal Code, and are denied justice. Indeed, the crime of rape committed against them, through no fault of their own, is compounded by further victimization in being prosecuted by the state for `zina'," said Amnesty's Merkova.

Judicial officials and the Afghan police are not convinced that rape is a serious crime, and they often see rape as sexual intercourse outside of marriage….. and that rape cannot occur inside of marriage.

Another article says that illiteracy is at 80% among Afghan women.

The First Lady of Afghanistan does nothing to improve the situation, even though she is a medical doctor. She is invisible, and does not leave her home without Karzai.

There is one Afghan politician who is working for women’s health, wellbeing and rights. That is Malalai Joya. She returned to Afghanistan in 1998, after spending most of her life in camps in Iran and Pakistan. She returned to educate girls.

“The killing of women is like killing a bird today in Afghanistan

She came to the world’s attention in 2003 when, at a constitutional convention attended by Afghanistan’s leaders, she publicly accused many of those present of being war criminals, drug lords and supporters of the Taliban. Joya continued to speak out against fellow parliamentarians following her election to the national assembly in 2005. While her outspoken views have gained much support both inside Afghanistan and internationally, Joya has also created powerful enemies. She remains suspended from parliament for being openly critical of fellow MPs and has survived several assassination attempts.

So, has the presence of US/NATO troops in Afghanistan improved the situation there for women? One organization that has been working for women’s rights and education in Afghanistan is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). They have a long history, going back to the 1980’s, and they have suffered greatly for their efforts to educate girls and promote human rights for Afghan women. Here is a report from one of the members of RAWA from August 2009.

Interview with Afghan activist Shazia Shekib

There are some people who care about women’s rights in Afghanistan and believe that the US military needs to stay to protect women and make sure the Taliban doesn’t come into power. What do you say to people who make that argument?

People who are living in Afghanistan like I am living inside Afghanistan, I can tell you the real situation, what’s going on. From 2001 up until now there is no positive change for women. There are crimes against women, as it was during the Taliban. The rapes of women of 75 years old, children of 3 years old and 4 years old. Self-immolation among women has increased and acid attacks, kidnaps, shooting and poisoning of teachers and girls on the way because there is no security, has increased. There is danger from Taliban side, they are increased in different areas, and the warlords who are in power, they have commanders, they have the support of the US and Karzai with them and they are committing crimes. Eight years is enough for a country, for a superpower to prove you can do something or you can’t, with the power that you have, with the money that you have, and with the military that you have. But after almost eight years we still have a catastrophic situation.

The women of RAWA have held my highest respect ever since I first heard of them, back in the 1990’s while the Taliban still ruled in Afghanistan. If they say that the presence of US/NATO troops is not helping women or women’s rights in Afghanistan, I believe them.

The overall conclusion to be drawn here is that women’s rights deteriorate in war situation, or in a situation of foreign occupation by military troops. Sonali Kolhatkar said this recently: “Waging war does not lead to the liberation of women anywhere. Women always disproportionately suffer the effects of war, and to think that women's rights can be won with bullets and bloodshed is a position dangerous in its naïveté.”

The US military and NATO troops have removed the Taliban (who are making a comeback, but that’s another story) and installed warlords who are as anti-women and as anti-human rights as the Taliban were. Corruption is rampant, and the misogynistic society is still firmly in place. There has been some gains in education for girls – see my prior post on that topic – but those gains are fragile and piecemeal across Afghanistan.

Final words from Sonali Kolhatkar:

In our conversations arguing this point, we are told that the U.S. cannot leave Afghanistan because of what will happen to women if they go. Let us be clear: Women are being gang raped, brutalized and killed in Afghanistan. Forced marriages continue, and more women than ever are being forced into prostitution -- often to meet the demand of foreign troops. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is doing nothing to protect Afghan women.

If you support the continued occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan, or the bombing of Pakistan, then you support WHAT WAR BRINGS: deterioration of women’s rights.

McChrystal’s measure of success in Afghanistan