No Weapons/No War Celebrates Women Peacemakers: Iraq

History of the conflict in Iraq

September 11, 2001 marked a huge turning point in the United States in terms of security and foreign policy, and led to an extraordinary surge in nationalism around the country. However, it has come to light that the response to that momentous moment in history, the 2003 Iraq War, has led to devastating consequences especially regarding women’s lives and rights.

United States President Bush began formally making his case to the international community for the invasion of Iraq in September 2002. The majority of the international community was against the invasion, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found “no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq.”[1] The following month, October 2002, the U.S. Congress authorized the President to “use any means necessary” in Iraq. The U.S. public, however, widely favored further diplomatic action over an invasion in a poll in January 2003; thus, the Bush administration engaged in an elaborate domestic public relations campaign, playing on the fear caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks, to market the invasion of Iraq to U.S. citizens, and by the end of 2003, the majority of Americans supported the invasion. The rest, so to speak, is history.

But for Iraqi citizens, especially women, the ongoing violence caused by the U.S. invasion is not the only consequence that has become part of the everyday struggle to rebuild their country. Before the U.S. invasion, 75% of Iraqi women had college degrees, and 31% of Iraqi women had graduate degrees (compared to 35% of European and U.S. women). Only 10% of women in Iraq now continue to work in their professions, and they have to contend with the thousands of more experience and better-educated Iraqi women who fled Iraq at the onset of the war and are now returning. However most women stay away from their work, schools, and universities due to extreme safety concerns: Since the beginning of the war, rates of abductions and kidnappings targeting women and girls, most often related to sex trafficking, female suicides and honor killings have increased.

Many Iraqis hoped that when U.S. troops arrived, life would get better. However, there continues to be a shortage of electricity and potable water, and damaged roadways have exacerbated many problems related to state infrastructure. Unemployment hovered around 50 to 60% in 2006, and had been reduced to over 15% as of 2009. The occupation not only “systematically violated Iraqi’s rights” to life, dignity, and self-determination, but it was so destructive and so violent that one in four Iraqis are estimated to be dead or displaced, and up to one million Iraqis have been “forcibly disappeared”.[2]

While Saddam Hussein was portrayed in Western media, and especially in the United States during the aforementioned domestic public relations campaign, as a monstrous dictator (which he was), women had more rights and a better lifestyle under his regime than they do currently. Dr. Rashad Zaydan attended a conference with women from throughout the Arab world, where they studied the constitutions of all Arab countries in an effort to look for the best model for women’s rights. As it turns out, women were most protected and had the most opportunities under the harsh dictatorship of Saddam Hussein: women could work and were paid the same as men (this doesn’t even happen in the “civilized” Western countries of Europe or the United States!), and received up to a full year of paid maternity leave with the option of a second year of unpaid maternity leave, meaning that women could take two years off of work with the guarantee their job would be available upon their return to work. Under the new Iraqi constitution, women can work only if it does not affect their family and if their husband allows them to work.

Moreover, under Saddam Hussein’s regime, all Iraqi citizens had access to universal healthcare, including access to chemotherapy. Under the U.S. occupation, Iraqis had to pay for healthcare. As a direct correlation to the use of depleted uranium by the United States, the number of cases of cancer, especially breast cancer in women and cancer in children, has risen dramatically: even when Iraqis paid for healthcare under the U.S. occupation, they had no access to chemotherapy.

Now that U.S. troops have left, Iraqi women are in more danger than ever. Dr. Nadje Al-Ali, a Professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), said that in Basra in 2008, “a reported 133 women were killed for not ‘being Islamic’ enough. And these are only the ones that made it to be officially counted.”[3] “The most significant loss that Iraqi women have suffered is a complete and total loss of security,” says Dr. Souad al-Azzawi, author of “Deterioration of Iraq Women’s Rights and Living Conditions Under Occupation.”[4] The ineffectiveness of the Iraqi government means that the vast majority of “criminals, mafias, militias, death squads, US occupation forces, and Iraqi police and army forces” who commit crimes against women are not held accountable.[5] 2.3 million Iraqis have become refugees, the majority of which have sought asylum in neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan. However, the refugees are not legally permitted to work, and high unemployment levels in Syria and Jordan mean that even illegal work is hard to come by, contributing to the growing problem of sex trafficking. With the continuing violence in Syria, Iraqi refugees have had to flee again to other countries.

Rumor has it that the U.S. did indeed find remnants of weapons of mass destruction that had been “secretly moved to Syria.” In fact, the IAEA reported that it found traces of uranium and other substances related to a nuclear weapons program in Iraq previous to the 2003 invasion, however it also reported that the substantial level of deterioration of the industrial capacity of these sites had direct correlation to Iraq’s ability to resume a nuclear weapons program.

Has the level of human suffering been worth it?

One woman’s response:

Dr. Rashad Zaydan lived through Iran-Iraq War, the Kuwait Invasion, the Gulf Wars and 2003 US Invasion. A pharmacist, wife, mother of four, Zaydan was convinced that war would soon return to her country in early 2003. She organized basic first aid andemergency training for girls and women in her community, and when the 2003 Iraq War did start, she and her husband converted their garage into an emergency clinic. As coalition soldiers from the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Australia, and Poland swarmed around and through her home, Zaydan and her husband spent countless hours stitching wounds, giving medicine, and nurturing complete strangers.

Since then, Dr. Zaydan founded the Knowledge for Iraqi Women Society (K4IWS), a non-profit with locations in Baghdad, Nineveh, and Fallujah. Through the Knowledge for Iraqi Women Society, Zaydan has helped and responded to the needs of nearly 1.5 million widows and 3 million orphans in Iraq. With over 70 staff and 300 volunteers, the organization provides health care, education, finance, clothing and food, as well as income-generating skills, literacy training, and micro-loans, emphasizing women’s growing role in reconstructing Iraqi society.

Dr. Zaydan says of her organization, “It is gratifying to know that the society that you have founded works to help the distressed women and children of Iraq. We do not engage in politics, but are concerned with the practical task of trying to improve lives. When I visit the US, I am amazed by the number of people who express friendship and concern for these women.”