At a press conference two weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq,” Paula Dobriansky, then undersecretary of state for global affairs, declared: ‘We are at a critical point in dealing with Saddam Hussein. However this turns out, it is clear that the women of Iraq have a critical role to play in the future revival of their society’. Standing next to her were four “Women for a Free Iraq”. Women for a Free Iraq were a group of Iraqi women living in exile, formed in January 2003 to raise awareness of women’s experiences of persecution under Saddam Hussein. The campaign received funding from the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Though the foundation is nominally non-partisan, its president, Clifford May, is a former Republican Party operative and its board is stacked with prominent neo-conservatives.
High-ranking US officials, including then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Vice-President Dick Cheney, met with Women for a Free Iraq to hear their personal stories and to discuss the future of the country. The US State Department publicized the abuses experienced by women at the hands of the Iraqi regime—including beheadings, rape and torture. In the UK, Tony Blair met a delegation of Iraqi women in November 2002 and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office listed the regime’s crimes against women as part of its dossier on human rights abuses in Iraq.
The timing of this sudden interest in the plight of Iraqi women can not be overemphasized. For decades, many Iraqi women activists in the US and UK, including Act Together, the organization I co-founded, but also many exiled women , as for examples members of the Iraqi Women’s League, had tried to raise awareness about the systematic abuse of human and women’s rights under Saddam Hussein, the atrocities linked to the Anfal campaign against the Kurds as well as the impact of economic sanctions on women and families. But, as London based Amal K. told me in 2004:
"We wrote so many letters and we organized many events: talks, workshops, seminars, demonstrations. They did not want to know. They were just not interested. It was only in the run up to the invasion that the governments started to care about the suffering of Iraqi women."
On both sides of the Atlantic, those women who had advocated a military invasion to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein were sought after by government officials and institutions eager to show their commitment to “women’s liberation”. Iraqi diaspora activists were perceived to be the legitimate mediators and bridges to reach a wider population within Iraq.
A flurry of meetings, workshops and conferences bringing together diaspora women and women from the inside marked the early phase of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Diaspora women became involved in charity organizations, humanitarian assistance, training programs, advocacy around women’s issues, democracy and human rights and wider political issues both inside Iraq and in their countries of residence. Several Iraqi diaspora organizations and individual activists based in the US and the UK were instrumental in facilitating and encouraging Iraqi women’s political mobilization inside Iraq in the early period.
Many pro-war Iraqi women activists in the US and the UK received high profile support and media attention in the run up to the war and in the immediate aftermath. Sumaya R., who was involved with the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq (WAFDI), in April of 2005 described the close cooperation with US government bodies and agencies full of enthusiasm and hope:
“Our group is part of a network that was established in 2002. My husband was very active and involved in this. It is a network of Iraqi-American organizations, now consisting of about 17 or 18 organizations, including Kurdish and Islamist organizations. The first time we had a conference was in June 2002. Kanan Makiya was involved, and people from the State Department. After the conference the State Department established a working group on Iraq. Then Iraq was liberated. In September 2003, we organized another conference and head of al-Dawa party, Ibrahim Al-Jafa‘ri came. There were many senators and again people from the State Department. […] For the first time now, women are able to spread their wings. They are forming groups, they are speaking their minds. They are expressing themselves. We are organizing together with the Higher Council of Women inside Iraq. You can’t imagine how our women are excited about these events. A lot of them are going outside the country for training. Now they have their freedom!”
Aside from organizing conferences, seminars and workshops inside Iraq and within the US or the UK, the initial period after the invasion was characterized by a wave of training programs – mainly training for democracy and human rights - which brought a small number of Iraqi women to the U.S. or the U.K. The women I talked to were divided about their attitudes towards these training programs. Many of those women activists who had actually been part of one or several of these programs were generally enthusiastic. Others were much more cynical and expressed anger about the ‘training tourism which enables a small group of elite women to travel the world, stay in 5 star hotels and get training in how to do democracy’ , as one woman complained to me. Judging from the limited accounts we managed to get about different training programs, there existed huge differences in terms of their relevance, seriousness and applicability.
Women inside Iraq and from the diaspora who were opposed to the invasion of Iraq have been working side by side with women who initially welcomed the invasion as the only possible means to change the political system and get rid of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. This is in contrast to the situation in the diaspora which is extremely polarized in terms of pro and anti-invasion positions.
One activist told me during her short visit to London in August 2007: ‘Dealing or not dealing with the Americans was not the decisive measure for us. We wanted to get things done. We wanted them [U.S and U.K] to work to our agenda. But, of course there were different strategies in terms of contact with the Americans and funding.’ According to some women I interviewed, in the early period there were many Iraqi women activists, especially those from the opposition parties ‘who spent all their time thanking Bremer for getting rid of Saddam and bringing democracy. However, those of us who were critical from the beginning and said so openly were in the minority.’
However, a white paper produced by the Iraqi National Conference for Empowering Women in Democracy in June 2004, attended by over 350 delegates from all over the country demanded an ‘end to the occupation and conviction of all inhuman practices committed by the occupying forces against civilian people’ (Edwar, 2004). Over the past years, even those in favor of the invasion acknowledge that the situation under occupation has deteriorated beyond imagination and that women’s rights have suffered tremendously. Sawsan A. was initially a fervent supporter of the U.S/U.K invasion in 2003 but had changed her mind by 2006:
“I had so much hope in 2003. I thought the Americans and the British will make sure that women’s rights will be protected. We worked so hard despite difficulties from the very beginning. There were conferences, meetings; we even organized demonstrations and sit-ins. Many educated women started projects to help poor illiterate women, widows and orphans. Things were not great but I believed that it was just a matter of time until we would manage to find a new way and live in a true democracy. But see what they have done to our country? Our politicians sit in the Green Zone while ordinary people are being killed every day. Terrorists control the streets and the Americans only watch. Women are targeted, especially those who have a public profile.”
Miriam H., who is active in a women’s project in Baghdad told me in 2005:
“We do not have a choice but to engage with the process. It is a reality whether we like it or not. But I have to admit we have spent most of the time campaigning and demonstrating against the way this process has taken place so far. One of our main objections is the exclusion of women and the incompetence of people involved.”
What engagement with the political process might mean is open to interpretation and varies from activist to activist. There are individual women and organizations which are in regular contact with the Iraqi government and the occupying forces within the Green Zone especially those women activists who are also part of political parties. But most of the women with whom I talked try to stay away from the Green Zone and avoid, as much as possible, close contact with the occupation forces, whilst advocating for women’s rights.
Except for a very small minority of women who continue to applaud the democratization and liberation efforts by the occupying forces and the elected government, the majority of women activists from central and southern Iraq are deeply disillusioned and disappointed. While generally critical of U.S./ U.K. policies and Iraqi male politicians, women activists differ in terms of their analysis of what went wrong and strategies forward.
As Nicola and I have demonstrated in our book, despite the rhetoric of women’s rights and women’s empowerment, women’s rights was the first to be negotiated away and fall in the context of political bargaining and power games.
For the US & UK officials to whom we spoke, Iraqi women were, simultaneously, the victims of the Saddam regime who needed to be saved, the heroines who would ‘give birth’ to the new Iraq and the objects of US-funded training to fulfill their assumed new roles. Ironically, rather than bringing Iraqi women into the reconstruction process, US policies have increased the daily burden of women ensuring their family’s day-to-day survival. For those people working in international agencies and NGOs, Iraqi women represent the moderating influences in the reconstruction process—an idea that in some ways reiterates longstanding assumptions about women’s nature. For political forces inside Iraq, women became the symbols of post-Ba‘th Iraq and its ‘Islamic’ nature.
The use of women to justify foreign interventions is not new. From Algeria to India, European colonial administrations saw fit to ban or openly criticize a number of practices that they regarded as harmful to women, from the wearing of the veil to widow-burning (or suttee). The post-colonial critic Gayatri Spivak has described this process as ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ (Spivak 1988: 93). Yet ‘White men saving brown women from brown men’ is not necessarily rooted in concerns about women living in oppressive conditions. It is also about ‘white’ men’s masculinity and the need to assert that masculinity over other men. In the wake of the devastating attacks of September 11, commentators observed how the US - its news media, popular culture and political discourse - became concerned with projecting an image of US masculinity at home - for example, as brave fire fighters. These were more than images but were also intertwined with official discourse that paved the way for the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq as a means of ‘remasculinizing’ US international identity . By highlighting the plight of female victims in far away lands, US officials not only provided a pretext for military invasion, but also restored the image of the US as the strong hero, rather than the victim of terrorist attacks. This was an important message to send to its enemies, as well as its allies.
Most of the paper is taken from Nadje Al-Ali & Nicola Pratt (2009) What kind of Liberation: Women and the Occupation of Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press.