Creative Destruction

July 31, 2006

Conservatives Slander Feminists and Whitewash Harms To Iraqi Women

Filed under: Feminist Issues,Iraq — Ampersand @ 12:44 pm

Judith at Kesher Talk engages in a little feminist-bashing:

News flash! Saddam Wasn’t a Feminist. Well, duh, you might say. But some on the left have already started to spin Saddam’s Iraq as a time of equal opportunity for women. This includes equal opportunity to be falsely imprisoned, tortured (with the added bonus of guaranteed gang rape), murdered, and having your culture threatened with obliteration (if you were a Kurd or Marsh Arab), but they don’t mention that. […]

There is no doubt that women in Iraq are threatened by theocratic militancy that Saddam’s regime kept at bay, and that they will need constant support to hold their own in the new government and enforce their right to be secular if they choose. (For that matter, many Iraqi men want a secular civic space as well.) But let’s not paint Saddam’s era with a rosy glow.

Uh-huh.

Who, exactly, are these feminists who are not mentioning atrocities under Saddam, and “paint[ing] Saddam’s era with a rosy glow?” Funnily enough, Judith doesn’t say who she’s criticizing. When I emailed her to ask, she was able to provide just one citation: this Wall Street Journal op-ed which Judith linked in her post, written by A. Yasmine Rassam of the Independent Women’s Forum. The article criticizes this report (pdf link) by the feminist organization Code Pink, accusing Code Pink of “revisionist history-writing,” and implying that Code Pink has called Saddam “a champion of women’s rights.”

Much of the anti-war propagandists’ defense of Saddam as a champion of women’s rights rests on his willingness to allow women to vote (for him), drive cars, own property, get an education and work. What they choose to ignore, however, is the systematic rapes, torture, beheadings, honor killings, forced fertility programs, and declining literacy rates that also characterized Saddam’s regime.

Judith is not alone in linking to this WSJ piece and uncritically repeating its claims. House of the Dog writes:

I don’t see how anyone can call themselves a feminist and not be thrilled that Saddam is out of power. Continue to fight for the rights of current Iraqi women, which are in danger if there is a return to a theocracy, but acknowledge the horrors that they have been freed from.

Jim Lindgren at Volokh says that feminists have been trying to “whitewash” Saddam’s record. This blogger goes further, calling feminists “Saddam enablers” – ironic, since Saddam didn’t depend on feminists to enable his rise to power, whereas the woman-hating theocrats currently running much of Iraq were in fact enabled by right-wing Americans.)

Here’s the problem: The accusations against Code Pink are blatant lies, as any of these bloggers could have easily discovered if they had bothered to read Code Pink’s report. As Blargh Blog points out, Code Pink’s report doesn’t whitewash Saddam’s activities. Here’s some of what Code Pink’s report said about Saddam:

Although a great deal of policy and law continued to women’s advantage when Saddam Hussein became president, his voracious appetite for dictatorial power over the entire population could not but undermine women’s gains. Women, like men, were jailed, tortured, raped, and murdered. […]

To extract information from dissidents, suspected dissidents, and opposition members abroad, Hussein was fond of sending them video tapes showing their female relatives raped by members of the secret police. […]

By 1990 Hussein was courting support for his warweary regime from neighboring Islamic states and from religious and tribal leaders. Hussein’s public embrace of Islam’s moral authority changed many of the laws governing divorce, child custody, and inheritance rights so as to limit women’s rights and freedoms. Laws restricted women’s ability to travel abroad without a male relative and reintroduced single-sex education in high school. […]

Honor killings of women who were suspected of pre-marital sex or victims of rape, thereby “dishonoring” the family name, dramatically increased after Hussein reduced the prison sentences of male perpetrators from 8 years to no more than 6 months—a punishment in any case rarely imposed. […]

The GFIW stopped promoting women’s rights to work and education and focused primarily on humanitarian aid and health care. … Impoverishment forced families to keep their female children out of school, and illiteracy soared. […]

By 2000, a militia founded by Hussein’s son, Uday, was beheading women in a campaign against prostitution.

That’s the sort of thing that Judith of Kesher Talk calls “spin[ing] Saddam’s Iraq as a time of equal opportunity for women”; what Lindgren of Volokh calls a “whitewash” of Saddam’s record. These are blatant lies; the only question is if all these conservative bloggers are just mindlessly spreading the IWF slander without having bothered to skim the Code Pink report, or if they read it but are just as willing to lie as the IWF is.

(Alone among all these bloggers, Lindgren later updated his post to begrudgingly admit that the critique of Code Pink’s report was inaccurate. He nonetheless defends the criticism of Code Pink, because they didn’t mention the exact same atrocities he would have mentioned. That seems like pretty weak tea to me; somehow I doubt that Lindgrem would hold right-wing organizations to the same standard).

Blargh Blog’s critique is very well-done, but it doesn’t go far enough. It’s not only that right-wingers have falsely accused Code Pink of whitewashing crimes against women. It’s that right-wingers are themselves guilty of doing what they accuse Code Pink of.

Even when writing about a report on crimes and violence against Iraqi women post-invasion, not one of these right-wing bloggers – nor the IWF article in the Wall Street Journal – mentions the current problems of Iraqi Women – including virtual house arrest, rape (including rape by US military personnel), kidnappings, and honor killings – described in Code Pink’s report.

Judith’s weak, oblique reference to “theocratic militancy” is the most any of these conservatives do to acknowledge current problems for women in Iraq (the vast majority ignored the subject entirely). Apparently they approve of reporting violations of Iraqi women’s rights only when those crimes happen under Saddam; post-Saddam violations are simply not mentioned.

Lindgren was right to say that there’s a “whitewash” going on, but it’s not a whitewash of Saddam. It’s a whitewash of the attacks on Iraqi women that have gone on since the US invaded Iraq. (Actually, the damage to Iraqi men – who have suffered a much higher deathcount than Iraqi women – has also been whitewashed, but that’s not the subject of this post).

Quoting from the Code Pink report again:

Numerous witnesses and victims have testified and investigators have confirmed that coalition forces and U.S. contractors have committed horrific crimes of sexual abuse, torture, and physical assault. There is copious reportage about rapes, including gang rapes, and routine sexual humiliation as well as accounts of women falling prey to honor killings after leaving U.S. detention centers. Amal Kadhim Swadi, an Iraqi lawyer who represented women detainees at Abu Ghraib, claimed that sexualized violence by U.S. forces was “happening all across Iraq” and was not confined to a few isolated cases. […]

American assaults on Iraqi women have not been confined to sexual abuse. U.S. forces have used Iraqi women as “bargaining chips” to get Iraqi men to turn themselves in or to confess to aiding the resistance. And U.S. personnel have physically assaulted female detainees. […]

An Iraqi police inspector testified that “Some gangs specialize in kidnapping girls, they sell them to Gulf countries. This happened before the war too, but now it is worse, they can get them in and out without passports.” […]

Some radical religious groups are using alleged Shari’a principles to justify assaults on women. Freed from Hussein’s vengeful eye and increasingly in control of local and regional governments and local resources, several radical clerics, conservative Shi’a political parties, and paramilitary forces have gained followers and influence in Central and Southern Iraq. As a result, radical religious groups can more openly harass women who defy their interpretations of Shari’a. Many girls and women in urban areas who might have previously worn western clothes will not now leave home without wearing the hijab or the abaya. Although choice of dress does not necessarily mean insecurity or loss of freedom, women’s rights advocate Yanar Mohammed claims, “If you go without the protection of the scarf, [armed men] can stop you and you may get assaulted…Being good and chaste means you put a veil on. They tell you it’s voluntary, but how can it be voluntary when there’s that much pressure on you?” […]

Radical religious groups are also apparently guilty of more severe crimes against women. A group of men in Mosul threw acid in the face of a Christian female lawyer whom they had previously warned to wear a veil or face death. In 2005, on a highway near Baghdad the body of pharmacist and women’s rights activist Zeena Al-Qushtaini turned up ten days after assailants had abducted her at gunpoint. Al-Qushtaini had two bullet holes close to her eyes and was reportedly dressed in an abaya; she normally wore Western clothes. Pinned to the abaya was a message that read, “She was a collaborator against Islam.” In Latifya, a city south of Baghdad, Sunni radicals have covered walls warning women and girls not to go out in public without covering their heads and faces and threatening death to the violators.

A survey of Iraqi women’s rights groups shows that these groups – who are probably better positioned than anyone to form a judgement – feel that as bad as Saddam was for women, the post-Saddam regime is even worse. From an op-ed by Bonnie Erbe:

A new poll of leaders of Iraqi women’s-rights groups finds that women were treated better and their civil rights were more secure under deposed President Saddam Hussein than under the faltering and increasingly sectarian U.S.-installed government.

This is doubly troubling. It’s troubling first because the Bush administration used the issue of women to justify its now widely criticized invasion of Iraq in part by promising to improve the situation of women.

It’s troubling second because the administration has issued news releases, held public meetings and tried to gain media attention (as well as U.S. public support) for all the “good” it’s supposedly doing the women of Iraq via this invasion.

The poll was released last week by the Integrated Regional Information Networks, a U.N. news agency covering sub-Saharan Africa, eight countries in central Asia, and Iraq.

IRIN reports the survey findings as follows: ” … women’s basic rights under the Hussein regime were guaranteed in the constitution and more importantly respected, with women often occupying important government positions. Now, although their rights are still enshrined in the national constitution, activists complain that, in practice, they have lost almost all of their rights.” […]

The report says more men are ordering women to “take the veil” (wear coverings from head to toe), and fewer women are working in professional jobs than when Saddam was in power.

I highly recommend reading Code Pink’s report, which is well-organized and thorough. In particular, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Code Pink emphasizes that women in Iraq today are not inactive, any more than they were under Saddam; as bad as things are, women are nonetheless organizing and resisting their oppression in every way they can.

That said, the IWF’s slander of Code Pink in the Wall Street Journal – and the way that right-wing bloggers uncritically repeated the slander, apparently without bothering to read the report they criticized – shows a great deal of what’s wrong with conservative discussion of Iraq women. Conservatives are unable (or, at least, unwilling) to honestly discuss reports of harm to Iraqi women; they reflexively fall back on dishonestly calling anyone who criticizes Bush or the invasion of Iraq pro-Saddam; and they are committed, probably for partisan reasons, to whitewashing current and ongoing crimes and violence against the women of Iraq.

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