Iraqi women were treated far more better during the Saddam Hussein era, and their rights were much more respected, local rights NGOs concluded after an extensive survey in Iraq.
Â “We interviewed women in the country and met with local NGOs dealing with gender issues to develop this survey, which asked questions about the quality of women’s life and respect for their rights,” said Senar Muhammad, president of Baghdad-based NGO Woman Freedom Organization, a sister organization of MADRE, an international womenâ€™s rights group. “The results show that women are less respected now than they were under the previous regime, while their freedom has been curtailed.”
According to the survey, womenâ€™s basic rights under Saddam’s regime were respected and guaranteed in the constitution, with women often occupying top government posts. But now, although womenâ€™s rights are still enshrined in the national constitution, they complain that they lost almost all of their rights. “Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, women were free to go to schools, universities and work, and to perform other duties,â€ Senar said. â€œNow, due to security reasons and repression by the government, they’re being forced to stay in their homes.”
Â The new Iraqi constitution, which was written under the U.S. government’s supervision, is based on the Islamic Sharia law, which, according to Senar, has been misinterpreted by some elements within the government. This resulted in the frequent denial of womenâ€™s right, especially in matters related to divorce, she said.
Women make up about 60 percent of the total Iraqi population. Despite a 25 percent representative presence in parliament, they are seldom entrusted with senior government positions, while their contribution to political debate is rarely taken seriously. Womenâ€™s rights group also say that many members of the new government have a conservative view regarding the role of women. “When we tell the government we need more representation in parliament, they respond by telling us that, if well-qualified women appear one day, they won’t be turned down,” said Senar. “Then they laugh at us.”
Â Government officials deny the charges, claiming that womenâ€™s political views are respected and that they are better represented in the new government than under Saddam regime. “They occupy important positions in our ministries, positions which Saddam never gave them. But they have to understand that some posts, such as the presidential one, are difficult for women because of security problems, said government spokesperson Laith Kubba.
But many female activists disagree, saying that the presence of a few women in some decision-making positions shouldnâ€™t mislead people. “The U.S. administration has handpicked a few women and imposed them on people in the so-called parliament,” said Houzan Mahmoud from the Organization of Womenâ€™s Freedom. “These women are very unknown to Iraqi women. Most of them belong to the reactionary, right-wing parties in power and they follow their agenda, which is discriminatory against women.”
Â Houzan also noted that the position of women vary within Iraq. “In the Kurdish part, the situation of women is slightly better because Iraqi Kurdistan was not part of the U.S. military attacks in 2003. However, the attitude toward women is not progressive there.” But the south is directly under daily military occupation, she said. “Also, the so-called parliament is divided on the bases of religious sects and ethnic backgrounds,â€ she Houzan added.Â¼br /> Â
The NGOs survey also found out that womenâ€™s unemployment and poverty levels have increased dramatically since the U.S.-led invasion. “Female unemployment is now twice as high as that for males, while female poverty has also increased,” said Iman Saeed, spokesperson for another women’s NGO that helped conduct the survey. “In addition, the number of widows â€“ already high as a result of the Iran-Iraq war [in the 1980s] â€“ has increased since the U.S. invasion, making the situation worse.”
Â The authors of the survey urged the United States and international organizations to pressure the Iraqi government to give some top government positions to women. “The current leaders don’t think of us as potential presidents or vice-presidents, arguing that women can’t hold such important posts,” said Shams Yehia, a professor at Baghdad University who helped conduct the survey. “We appeal to all bodies to force the Iraqi government to give us our rights back.”
The NGOs are also calling for the deployment of a UN-led peacekeeping force in Iraq and an immediate end to the U.S. occupation. As the crisis in the war-torn country intensifies, female activists say women and their families are in urgent need for security, functional government and the provision of basic services within a human rights framework.
Â Over the three years of occupation, the situation is getting more dangerous and bleak with the presence of the occupation forces, and â€œthe more violence and terrorism is in function in Iraq, the more women will fall victims of such climate,” said Houzan. â€œThe rape, abduction, abuse in prisons by prison guards, and killing of women is widespreadâ€¦ The lack of security and proper protection for women is a major issue and no one, neither the occupying forces nor the local police of the puppet regime, is doing anything about it.”
Â Women would first like to see “an end to the military occupation which has created chaos and destruction of Iraqi society and also resulted in the daily mass killing of ordinary Iraqis,â€ Houzan said. Women particularly would “want to see security restored so at least they can go out freely without being attacked, kidnapped, or having acid thrown on their faceâ€¦. In addition, women want equality, freedom, and their rights to be recognized in the constitution, and above all to be treated as equal human beings.”Â¼br />