“Leaning in” in Iraq: Women’s rights and war?

After the ten year mark, women in Iraq are left to fend for themselves.

Women supporters wave Iraqi flags at a c
After the toppling of Saddam Hussein, violence against women in Iraq has increased - something widely ignored [AFP]

The beginnings of the US wars with Iraq started with Bush Sr in 1991. Embargoes, sanctions, and bombing raids have strung together decades of militarised US brutality towards Iraq. Repeated lies about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s capabilities ignited the 2003 illegal invasion. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives in this period and several million have been displaced by this US occupation. Huge numbers of these people are women – the very women that Laura Bush promised to “save”.

In the weeks leading up to this 10-year anniversary of the 2003 war there has been precious little said about actual women’s rights in Iraq. Media venues and screens of all sorts instead are in full gear discussing feminist dilemmas in the US, from Sheryl Sandberg’s need for powerful women to lean in, to whether women – that fantasmatic unspecified category – can “have it all”, or “not”.

These are messy times we live in. Wars are said to end (and they really don’t) and the war/s on women across the globe – from Congo, to Egypt, to Afghanistan, to the US Republican party – are not counted amongst them anyway. There is much noise about Sandberg of Facebook fame telling women to lean in – meaning to stay at the table and persevere – to get top leadership roles, while most women here and elsewhere have no chance for the top rungs of power. Do not be confused by the fact that Secretary of States Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary – who leans in readily – spoke on behalf of women’s rights while getting little in return.

It is problematic and troubling that Sandberg readily claims to be a feminist, without qualifying that her kind of feminism is corporatist and way too exclusionary. Her notion of “true equality” requires more women to be at the top – in leadership positions in government and the corporate structure. She supposedly believes that these women can change the world for the rest of women, and men. But, so far, they have not done so in meaningful ways. Shall I remind us of Madeleine Albright’s famous statement when asked about US sanctions against Iraq that endangered the lives of 100 of thousands children? She said: “We think the price is worth it.”

So what is a girl or woman to think? Hillary finishes up her stint as Secretary of State and is lauded as one of the best, ever. She is acclaimed for her “women’s rights” foreign policy agenda and the gratitude of women worldwide. Little is said about the imperial stance of her framing, or the gender violence that US policy has triggered and continues for women across the globe under her watch. Women in Iraq, and Afghanistan and Egypt are standing up, what Sandberg might term leaning in, but against patriarchal practices that US policy is implicated in.

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Why Arab women still ‘have no voice’

These complex relations and their related exclusionary silences seem to appear everywhere. The new Pope Francis is hailed as a friend of the poor. He is lauded for his dedication to a simple life and a concern with poverty. But he has a fraught history with Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner over the right of women to free contraception and also the acceptability of gay marriage. It seems that the Pope is no friend to women and/or gays or trans people whether they are poor or not. Little is said of his exclusionary doctrine, so it remains invisible – like much gender violence and inequality alongside wars for women’s rights.

Whose feminism?                                                                                                                                    

A first query is: whose interests does imperial feminism meet in its rendering of gains for women? Whose interests are met by Sandberg’s notion of lean in? Obviously corporate America or she would not be receiving such endless publicity. But it is also more complicated than this because much of what Sandberg writes in Lean In many women from across class and racial and geographical lines can identify with. Her stories may readily remind people of their own insecurities, lack of self-confidence, and self-regulating personalities. Yet, most women in our jobs and lives cannot do what we must do to make a living and care for our loved ones without working beyond our limits – standing firm, and stirring things up. Most women – especially those who live in war-torn countries already “lean in” to their lives with no choice but to do so.

Sandberg says that the feminist revolution is stalled; that women need more ambition to get to the top and change things from there. Really? Corporate exploitation of the 99 percent is left intact. The rigid structuring of work and home remains in place even if she wants men and women to traverse the divide equally.

Women in leadership posts just mean that women will be in place to lead this structural exploitative imperial nightmare. We do not need more women in the power slots that already exist. We need a different non-hierarchical formulation of power – one that is not rooted in gender violence across the globe, and then feminists of whatever sex and race can occupy places of leadership.

Few people would criticise Sandberg’s feminist wish that her/our children find happiness and passion in whatever desires they choose. So let me extend this view beyond her “blind-spots” and dialogue from there. She invites us to “keep talking” and not end the conversation too quickly. So I will continue, but differently.

Wars and women in Iraq

Wars start and often continue all too silently. They continue even when they supposedly have ended. New forms of war are in process and few of us may be looking in the right places. And, the oldest war – on female bodies – is too often made invisible when it is horrifically real. Local wars – named for their geography – like Iraq or Afghanistan trump the war on gender, but in name only. Yet, gender violence is systematic: kidnappings, public beatings, death threats, sexual assaults, and killings make women the particular targets. One Billion Rising gave public viewing to a global war of sexual violence.

MADRE, a US-based international women’s human rights group, has been on the ground in Iraq for over the past decade. They work against gender violence in conflict situations and are presently working alongside their partner group, the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), to combat growing violence against women in the country. It is hard to say which is worse: an almost secular state with a totalitarian ruler named Saddam Hussein, or right wing religious extremists vying for their patriarchal vision of life. But the Iraq War has left its women with less rights and more violence.

The US war in Iraq utilised sexualised torture. MADRE has called special attention to the widespread use of rape and other forms of torture against women detainees by US and Iraqi forces. The OWFI further documents these atrocities in their Women’s Prison Watch project. Right wing militias stepped into the power vacuum left after the overthrow of Hussein and they continue their attack – abductions, assassinations and rapes – on women in the hopes of establishing their preferred extremist theocracy.

MADRE has disclosed that the US armed and trained right wing Islamist militias using torture and gender violence in Iraq and yet anti-war activists have been slow to highlight the gendered aspect of the violence gripping Iraq. US media has largely ignored the thousands of Iraqi women who have been detained and tortured during the US occupation. Instead of a thunderous critique of “feminicide” in Iraq, there is a pretense of concern for women’s rights. Similar conditions exist in Afghanistan.

According to Yifat Susskind, executive director of MADRE, they along with OWFI have established a network of women’s shelters in the non-Kurdish part of Iraq to address the violence towards any gender non-conforming person. These safe houses include protection for gays and lesbians and others in danger of gender violence, uniting women’s rights and LGBT activism for a first time. This action allowed for a particular kind of Iraqi Arab Spring in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in 2011.

Contrary to popular understanding in the US, neither the Bush nor Obama administration has put the protection of women’s rights in Iraq (or Afghanistan) at centre stage. Instead it has traded women’s rights for a fragile cooperation at great cost to women’s equality. Wars of all and any sort are not good for most of us, anywhere. And, they create human and environmental disasters beside all else.

These disasters afflict children in particular, and the women who care for them as well. According to Yanar Mohammed, director of OWFI, at this ten-year anniversary there is an alarming increase in birth defects and cancers among young children. This is especially the case in places like Haweeja, a town about two hours drive from Baghdad, used as a munitions dump by the US military. This consequence of the war will not end any time soon.

Beyond imperial feminism

So, I have wandered far afield here, and also, not. The Iraq War in its many articulations bleeds over a 22 year period. Never has there been a war that so few in the imperial country have cared so little about. There has been too little attention paid, and much too little grieving done.

Attention and action is still needed. Those living with the aftermath of war, especially the gender violence of militarised countries at home and abroad need us to lean in – stand in, stand with and stir up resistance – with them. As the war in Iraq transforms and the war in Afghanistan is downsized, the gender/ed violence on women continues. Resistance to it must be sustained as well.

Imperial feminism does not work for most women in the US or abroad, so it makes little sense to endorse it. Feminism promised to the many by the few does not work. Trickle-down feminism does not work.

I am reminded of my friend Egyptian feminist Nawal el Saadawi’s response to a question asked to her at a teach-in in New York City just after the revolution in Tahrir Square. When asked what people in the US could do to support the revolution in Egypt she said: “Make your own revolution and change your government for us.” 

Sounds right.

Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past 30 years. She writes in order to engage in political struggles for social justice across the globe. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York. Her most recent books with Zed Press, London include: The Audacity of Races and Genders (2009); Sexual Decoys, Gender, Race and War (2007); and Against Empire (2004).