On the Way Out, Washington Tramples on Iraqi Women

Iraqi women are left holding up half the sky in the midst of a ravaged political and economic landscape.

By Michelle Chen Sep 08, 2010

The footprint of the United States occupation of Iraq is embedded in the country’s rocky political sojourn, and the status of women marks the nation’s arrested progress. After the invasion, Washington thought Iraqi women would find American-style freedom irresistible. Today, they’re left holding up half the sky in the midst of a ravaged political and economic landscape.

The Associated Press reports that many Iraqi women feel increasingly alienated from civil society and face traditional pressures to find a husband in a bombed-out marriage market.

Being female, single and over 30 was already common because of Iraq’s decades of conflict, including the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. But their number is believed to have significantly grown since 2003. Besides the young men killed in violence, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis — many of them fighting-age males — fled the country.

Also, suicide bombings, sectarian slayings, death squads and gun battles disrupted social networks for marriage. People feared leaving their homes, so young people had little chance to meet potential spouses.

Family visits, traditionally an opportunity for the men to meet future spouses have become rare during the height of the violence.

The Shiite-Sunni violence also meant that cross-sect marriages have become much less frequent.

Economic woes have also left many young men unable to afford the heavy expenses they must traditionally pay for marriage — including buying or renting and furnishing a home.

And to think, just six years ago, Iraqi women were a beacon of democratic progress under the Bush administration’s awkward brand of feminism. The State Department proudly deployed its Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative, initially with the help of the conservative anti-feminist group Independent Women’s Forum. "The organization," Jim Lobe reported in 2004, "was founded in 1991 by a number of prominent right-wing Republican women to act as a counterpoint to what they called the "radical feminism" of the National Organization for Women (NOW)." (The founders included right-wing matriarch Lynne Cheney).

Granted, Iraq’s women probably don’t need Mrs. Cheney leading the charge for their "emancipation." But the post-drawdown instability threatens to snuff out any surviving embers of female empowerment.

Women’s advocates may on the one hand lament the inequality that makes women economically dependent on marriage. But there’s also justifiable frustration that women bear so much of the burden of their unraveling social fabric.

Outside of traditional matrimony, many women have been driven into a much more dire fate, according to Sebastian Swett and Cameron Webster of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project:

Currently, more than 50,000 Iraqi women in Jordan and Syria are trapped in sexual servitude and have no possibility of escape. The burgeoning sex industries in Syria and Jordan are thriving because of instability produced by the Iraq War — laying responsibility directly at the feet of the United States….

The United States is now preparing the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq. However, the Iraqi women and girls trapped in sexual slavery will remain long after the last American soldietrar leaves unless we are willing to accept our responsibility to alleviate this problem.

While Iraq’s struggles for gender justice go beyond just the U.S. presence there, will the White House at least redress some of the violence done by the occupation by helping resettle trafficking survivors as refugees? At this point, further abandonment by Washington would prove that despite the glossy public-relations schemes, the "liberation" of Iraqi women was from the start a doomed affair.