What are Women Fighting For?

Boston Globe

At the beginning of the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, American soldier Maria Guajardo told the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger Enquirer that Iraqi women ”seem to pay more attention to us than the men. They seem so shy and scared. And they see us and give us the thumbs up and smile. The little girls especially. They wave and smile and will point us out to their mothers and grandmothers. I think their equality is going to come. It’s just a matter of time.”

In March of 2004, Fern Holland, a human rights attorney who helped draft the interim constitution for Iraq, was murdered along with two co-workers. Her work for women’s rights in Iraq knew no bounds nor fear. In an e-mail to a friend, published in The New York Times, Holland talked about two weathered ”salt-of-the-earth” widows who sought her help to evict a thug of Saddam Hussein’s who built a house and grew crops on their land. The widows had court orders for the eviction but people were too fearful of the man to help them.

Holland convinced the local judge to agree to a bulldozing of the house of the trespassing Saddam loyalist. She told the local judge, ”No one should jump over a woman’s rights.”

It is now the fall of 2005. A total of 45 American women have died in the service of President Bush’s invasion and occupation, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. Many of the female soldiers and civilians went abroad with the idea that liberation from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny was for both men and women. The architects and chief defenders of the invasion have frequently seconded such notions.

Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary, praised Holland for quitting her US law practice to ”help improve the lives of Iraqi women.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, ”We’re going to stand for the principles that we’re standing for around the world and most especially in Iraq, where America has sacrificed and — sacrificed lives and treasure. And so, of course, we’re going to stand and stand strongly for the rights of women.”

President Bush himself weighed in this week, saying ”we’re watching an amazing event unfold, and that is the writing of a constitution which guarantees minority rights, women’s rights, freedom to worship in a part of the world that had only — in a country that had only known dictatorship.”

The fine print on women’s rights undercuts Bush’s claim. The draft constitution states that Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination because of gender. It guarantees women at least 25 percent of seats in parliament.

But way above those provisions, in the second of 153 articles (the women’s 25 seats are Article 151), the draft constitution also says that Islam is the official religion of the state, that it is a basic source of legislation, and that no law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.

Women’s rights groups in both Iraq and the United States say that is a trump card that will allow clerics to paternalistically restrict the rights of women in marriage, divorce, abuse, child custody, and inheritance — to a point that looks worse on paper than under Saddam. Anyone who remembers the stories out of Nigeria where women were sentenced to death by stoning under Islamic sharia law for alleged adultery knows where this can lead. Even with the United States occupying Iraq, American soldier Keynatika Johnson told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer how she saw an Iraqi man slap a woman, and the woman ”really didn’t do anything. She just smiled and waved. It upset me.”

It would be a travesty if American women, who have fought for equality to the level of dying in the military, did all this dying only to watch the burial of women’s rights in Iraq. Condoleezza Rice, arguably the most powerful woman on the planet, said, ”the United States believes that you cannot be half a democracy. And we’ve communicated that very clearly to the Iraqi government. More importantly, I think there are many, many Iraqis who feel exactly that way.”

From the look of the constitution, Rice has not communicated that clearly enough. Two weeks ago, Fern Holland’s sister Viola, who lives in Oklahoma City, told newspapers in her state that there is no hope for democracy in Iraq if women are denied full participation in their government. She told the Tulsa World, ”We can’t walk away now with anything less.” Anything less amounts to the United States helping Iraq jump over women’s rights.

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