As the youth-led Freedom Movement of 2011 spreads rapidly across the Middle East and around the world, one can only wonder what would be happening in Iraq today if the U.S. had not invaded eight years ago. What does the movement portend for the rights of women in other nations, such as Tunisia and in the United States?
The rights of women continue to deteriorate in Iraq under the U.S. installed Shiite government; their status is now threatened by Islamists in Tunisia, the most secular of Arab nations; and their personal liberties are under a full-scale assault in the United States by Christian fundamentalist politicians.
Under the Ba’athist government led by Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women enjoyed greater freedom than women in most other Arab nations and they played an active role in the political, economic and educational development of the nation.
The 1970 Constitution formally guaranteed equal rights to women and ensured their right to obtain an education, own property, vote and be elected to political offices. Iraq acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1986.
At a cost of more than one trillion dollars, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” has slaughtered more than 100,000 Iraqis, including thousands of children, and taken away the existing rights of women.
President Bush often bragged that “Iraq is free of rape rooms;” however, his illegal invasion of Iraq not only exposed its women to rape by U.S. soldiers and mercenaries, but rape is “increasingly used as a weapon by warring tribal factions.”
The new Iraqi constitution adopted after the invasion requires that women hold 25% of the seats in the parliament; however, it also provides that no law can contradict the “established rulings of Islam.” Thus, the personal rights of women are subject to the interpretation of religious leaders, and they are being officially curtailed by the Shiite-controlled government.
Iraqi women must now submit to any male authority, including boys as young as 12 years old, and they are being attacked and murdered “for working, dressing "inappropriately" or attending university.” There are more than three million widows in Iraq today, and sex trafficking has become widespread, as there is no little or no opportunity for other employment.
Opposition to the corrupt and failed Iraqi government has led to recent freedom demonstrations by thousands of protesters in the cities of Sulaimaniya, Falluja, and Nassiriya Province, and Baghdad. These demonstrations are being suppressed by the Iraqi security forces using U.S. supplied weapons and intimidation tactics, including raids on the office of the Iraqi organization that monitors press freedom.
The U.S. mainstream media and the Obama Administration have been largely silent about the Iraqi demonstrations; however, fair-minded Americans, liberal and conservative alike, should conclude that, absent the invasion, the young people of Iraq would be in the forefront of the Freedom Movement of 2011.
Given other choices, thousands of human lives would not have been wasted; billions of dollars would have been better spent in the improvement, rather than the destruction of those lives; and the United States would enjoy greater respect for the freedoms it purports to support and defend.
The site of ancient Cartage and the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, Tunisia obtained its independence from the “protection” of France in 1957. Habib Bourguiba, the leader of the independence movement and the Destourian Socialist Party, was elected president, and for the next 30 years he presided over a largely secular government.
Bourguiba was succeeded in 1987 by Zine Ben Ali, the minister of national security, who had been trained as a military officer in France and the United States. Receiving financial support from the United States, President Zine established a repressive police state and used police action again militant Islamic groups.
Relying upon a broad anti-terrorism law passed in 2003, President Zine supported the U.S. war on terrorism by making hundreds of arbitrary arrests and engaging in official torture. Zine increasingly controlled news, information, and the Internet, and he targeted journalists with harassment, violence and constant surveillance.
Originally founded upon socialist principles, modern Tunisia developed a large middle class and encouraged the liberation of women. One-third of its university professors are women, as are 58% of its university students, more than one-fourth of its judges, and 23% of its members of parliament.
Even since its independence, Tunisia has promulgated the most progressive policies on women found in Arab nations. The Code of Personal Status adopted in 1956 abolished polygamy, prohibited husbands from unilaterally obtaining divorces, gave their wives greater custody rights and allowed them to vote. Tunisian women can legally obtain government-subsidized abortions without their husband’s permission.
The liberal nationalists who established the government believed that the improvement of women’s rights was an integral part of creating a modern country free from “anachronistic traditions and backward mentalities.”
Tunisia signed the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1980 and ratified it in 1985.
Educated women with a mature appreciation of their civil rights were at the vanguard of those marching for freedom in Tunisia; however, they are also the ones with the most to lose, if religious fundamentalists come to power and those freedoms are erased. Concerned protestors carried signs that read, “Politics ruins religion and religion ruins politics.”
Security forces have already been deployed to protect legally-sanctioned brothels from a mob of religious zealots, and there is concern about the rights of women who wear western dress, including bikinis on beaches. The unsettled conditions have caused many women to be afraid to walk outside alone at night.
The leadership of Ennahdha, a political movement allied with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has stated it is opposed to the imposition of Islamic law in Tunisia. However, women have witnessed the loss of progressive women’s rights in three other Islamic nations, including Iran after the fall of the Shah, Afghanistan with the rise of the Taliban, and Iraq following the U.S. invasion.
To a certain extent, Tunisian women were protected from Islamic extremists by the repressive Zine government; however, for now, they can only wait and see how the Jasmine Revolution evolves.
Ronald Reagan once said that “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere;” however, the reality is that the United States has come to be controlled by a military-industrial oligarchy to which both major political parties are subservient.
Instead of a beacon of liberty, the United States supports the suppression of freedom in other countries and increasingly denies the constitutional rights of its own citizens, particularly women.
The United States Constitution was established by the “We the People;” however, neither it nor the subsequent Bill of Rights embraced slaves or women within its protection.
The Civil War resulted in the 13th and 14th Amendments that abolished slavery and prohibited the states from abridging the rights of their “citizens,” and the 15th Amendment that guaranteed the right to vote to former slaves.
Efforts to guarantee the right of women suffrage was blocked by Southern conservatives in the U.S. Senate, forcing women activists to secure the amendment of every single state constitution! After almost 800 separate political campaigns, women received the universal right to vote in 1920 with passage of the 19th Amendment.
Today, 90 years later, the U.S. Congress only seats 17 women senators (17%) and 72 women representatives (16.6%). These percentages are far less than the number of women legislators in either Iraq or Tunisia.
In 1980, former President Jimmy Carter signed the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; however the treaty has never been brought before the full Senate for a vote! Indeed, the U.S. is one of only seven countries which has not ratified the treaty. (The other nations are Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Palau, Nauru and Tonga.) Although President Obama proclaimed the treaty to be a priority in May 2009, he has made no visible effort to secure its ratification by the Senate.
After gaining the right to vote, many women activists continued to believe the U.S. Constitution needed to be amended to ensure freedom from legal sex discrimination against women and to ensure the equal application of the Constitution to all citizens.
Commencing in the early 1940s, both Democrats and Republicans added support for an Equal Rights Amendment to their platforms; however, it was not until 1972 that pressure from organized labor and other mainstream groups caused Congress to pass ERA legislation.
As proposed to the states for ratification, the 27th Amendment simply says, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
The usual seven-year deadline for ratification was not included in the words of the ERA itself, but in its proposing clause. Congress subsequently extended the deadline to 1982, but thus far only 35 of the required 38 states have ratified it.
The ERA continues to be reintroduced in each Congressional session, and a coalition of women’s organizations are now working on a “3-state strategy,” in which, because of the ambiguity in the deadline language, ratification by only three of the remaining 15 states could add the amendment to the Constitution.
During the 1970s, one of the main objections to the ERA by conservative religious and political organizations was that women would no longer be exempt from compulsory military service and combat duty; however women are now fighting in almost every element of the “War on Terrorism,” except “close combat” troops including infantry, armor and special forces. The Congressional Military Leadership Diversity Commission is currently preparing to recommend that even these restrictions be lifted.
Women are flying strike fighters and helicopter gun ships, they are “manning” machine guns and mortars, and they are protecting convoys being attacked by roadside bombs. More than 134 women soldiers have been killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq and more than 721 have been wounded in action.
Perhaps the most grievous injuries suffered by women in the military is the widespread incident of rape and murder by fellow soldiers. The Department of Defense (DoD) reports that one in three women in the military will be sexually assaulted or raped by men in the military. Of these, an alarming number are dying after being raped.
“8 women soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas (six from the Fourth Infantry Division and two from the 1st Armored Cavalry Division) have died of ‘non-combat related injuries’ on the same base, Camp Taji, and three were raped before their deaths. Two were raped immediately before their deaths and another raped prior to arriving in Iraq. Two military women have died of suspicious ‘non-combat related injuries’ on Balad base, and one was raped before she died. Four deaths have been classified as ‘suicides.’ (Ann Wright – Common Dreams)
The rate of sexual assault and rape in the military is double the civilian rate. Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Calif.) has testified that, “Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.”
Harman’s testimony is confirmed by the DoD, which admits that 80% of all rapes in the military are not reported because the victims fear ostracism, punishment and loss of careers. Half of all reported cases receive no official action, a third are dismissed, and only 8% are referred to Court Martial. Even then, the majority of those ultimately convicted receive only mild punishments.
It is often heard in the United States that “Muslim men abuse their women;” however In 2006, almost a quarter of a million American women reported to the police that they had been raped or sexually assaulted. Women suffer 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes annually in the U.S., and one-third of the more than 1,100 women who are murdered each year are killed by an intimate partner.
In spite of these gruesome statistics, legislative efforts are directed toward the further punishment and humiliation of women and are more driven by religious fundamentalism than logic. Women are being denied basic contraception and are being punished for becoming pregnant:
â- A South Dakota legislature bill would expand the definition of “justifiable homicide” to include the killing of abortion providers, and the Ohio legislature is entertaining a law which would make it illegal for women to seek abortions as soon as 18 days after conception.
â- Although Planned Parenthood does not currently spend any federal money on abortion services, House Republicans just voted to deny any funding to the organization, cutting money for contraceptives, HIV test, cancer screening and reproductive health services.
â- A Republican-sponsored bill in the House of Representatives would deny any federal funding for abortions except in cases of “forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest.” Under the law, a 12-year-old girl coerced and impregnated by her step-father or a young woman subjected to date rape would be forced to bear the child.
â- The Health Care Reform act contains provisions that are likely to cause the elimination of all private as well as public insurance coverage for abortions, and President Obama issued an executive order supporting the anti-choice provisions.
Lady Liberty Weeps
Twelve-year-old boys can tell an adult woman what to do in Iraq, while 12-year-old girls in the United States are forced to suffer rape and sexual assault and to endure the pregnancies that result.
The evils of the Iraqi rape rooms that Bush boasted about eliminating were merely transferred to the actions of warring soldiers, both U.S. and tribal, and by the rape and murder of innocent civilian women and fellow female soldiers.
The United States is already a nation which requires women to work outside the home in order to support an adequate standard of living for a family, without providing safe and nurturing daycare for their young children.
Now, as sexual education for women regarding their bodies and reproductive health and choices is eliminated, punishment for becoming pregnant is increased by making abortion illegal and shameful, and by eliminating funding for organizations that provide contraceptives and health care for pregnant women.
The U.S. uses images of the plight of women in the Middle East to justify its illegal wars of aggression, while figuratively stoning its own women and cutting off their noses by curtailing their rights to determine the fate of their own bodies and by failing to protect them from sexual assaults.
Once again, the banner of Christianity leads another crusade –” this time against women and children in the United States. For women subjected to medieval practices, there is little difference between Christian and Muslim fundamentalism.
As the tsunami of freedom spreads around the world and upon American shores, women and girls can only hope and pray that it can deliver them from the repression and violence that victimizes them in their Citadel of Freedom.