Iraqi Women Speak, "U.S. Troop Withdrawal Our Double-Edged Sword"

"We used to have a government that was almost secular. It had one dictator. Now we have almost 60 dictators -- Islamists who think of women as forces of evil. This is what is called the 'democratization of Iraq '"

- Iraqi Activist Yanar Mohammed

When I heard the news that President Obama is keeping good on his campaign promise to withdraw all 13,000 remaining U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, I was pleased. Finally, this nightmare war, which so many of us protested against, is drawing to a close.

My next thought, however, was what kind of Iraq will we leave in our wake? Have we met our purported responsibility to the establishment of a new, democratic Iraqi society, the very people we claimed to be "liberating" from the evils of Saddam Hussein's regime?

As a human rights activist who has worked with women in war zones over the last decade, I know too well that the imprint of war is etched on the backs of women and children. In the dust left behind by the bullets and the bombs, it is women who stitch together the remnants of society, scattered amongst the shrapnel, and rebuild. Sadly, in the post-war environment women and girls are often re-victimized, as years of pent up anger, militarization and a ruined economy leads to a sharp increase in the amount of rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.

Present Obama talks about a "New Dawn" for Iraq, claiming that this war is finally over. But we need to recognize that ending the presence of U.S. soldiers doesn't mean ending the war for Iraqis. In fact, my first-hand experience tells me that the war for Iraqi women is just beginning.

So, I wondered, how are Iraqi women activists reacting to the impending U.S. troop withdrawal and the end to an armed occupation that has cost the lives of at least 150,000 Iraqis? The media has reported on the reactions of U.S. soldiers, U.S. politicians, Iraqi government officials and U.S. military families but, once again, almost nothing covering the opinions and perspectives of Iraqi women leaders.

Thus, I turned to my colleagues at Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights, a non-governmental organization that supports women's groups and individual activists working to advance the human rights of women in areas of armed conflict. I wanted to know what types of activities they were supporting on the ground by Iraqi women, searching for an outstanding individual to feature in this month's Faces Of Change blog.

Unfortunately, the majority of what they are funding right now are protection and evacuation grants for a number of well-known women activists, who have become the targets of violence as a result of their political organizing under the newly established Iraqi government.

According to one of their grantees, well-known Iraqi activist Yanar Mohammed, women's efforts to peacefully protest in Iraq earlier this year were met with government hired "gangsters," who humiliated them, sexually abused them and severely beat them. Just last month, a young woman activist was kidnapped and beaten by "a group of security men dressed in civilian clothing" after participating in a non-violent protest in Baghdad.

The fact that Iraqi women are being singled out and targeted for their political opinions made my objective difficult and even dangerous for the very person I was hoping to feature. It was just too risky to highlight a specific woman working in Iraq today, which in itself says a lot about the political environment for Iraqi women.

Instead, I spoke with an Iraqi activist living in exile, a woman forced to flee from Saddam Hussein's regime with her three young daughters thirteen years ago. Awatef Rasheed has spent the last decade in exile in Canada, working hard on behalf of Iraqi women's rights. She has gone from being an evacuation grantee of Urgent Action Fund to working now as one of their chief Regional Advisors. I asked about her reaction to the troop withdrawal and the recent violence against peaceful protesters in Baghdad.

She explained, "Both decisions, to wage war on Iraq and now the withdrawal of American troops, have always been a double-edged sword for Iraqi women. When the war started in 2003, there were many excuses utilized to legitimize the war, including women's rights and the victimization of women living under the authoritative and sexist regime of Saddam Hussein. Unforgettably, in 2003, President George W. Bush announced, 'We are going to liberate Iraqi women!'

President Obama's decision to withdraw from Iraq now is also not the right decision. Exactly like the war's inception, strategic planning by the American Administration is absent. In my mind, women are the first to be victimized in war and all women of the Middle East stand to lose their rights, freedoms, and security in the new Iraqi political landscape."

How ironic. According to Awatef, Iraqi women did not support the invasion of Iraq, nor can they support the troop withdrawal at this time, given the current political climate. Iraqi women have had to bear the brunt of this war, are the largest victims of this war, and yet they have not been included in any of the decisions that will govern their lives or determine their future. And now, those who speak out against destructive government policies are being hunted down and silenced. Where is the liberation in that?

As Yanar Mohammed put it, "we used to have a government that was almost secular. It had one dictator. Now we have almost 60 dictators -- Islamists who think of women as forces of evil. This is what is called the democratization of Iraq."

Awatef elaborated, "The American occupation destabilized the country and provided an invaluable opportunity for corrupt people to hold political positions. Organizations cannot develop and advance programs under a suppressive regime and a theological government. The current government is shaped by serious corruption, disrespect to human rights, lack of transparency, non-democratic practices and lack of freedoms. It relies very much on militiamen and security authorities emerging from the religious militia. Women are marginalized, being exposed to sexual and domestic violence and their human rights are not recognized."

This past year we watched much of the Arab world take to the streets and demand change from repression under decades-long dictatorships. The U.S. government has gone to bat supporting activists calling for democracy in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, and provided military assistance to armed rebels in Libya. As Secretary of State Clinton stated, "The people of the middle east, like people everywhere, are seeking a chance to contribute and to have a role in the decisions that will shape their lives. Leaders need to view civil society as their partner, not as a threat." But so far, the U.S. government has remained eerily silent about the non-violent protests on the streets of Baghdad.

Awatef spoke about the protests in Iraq today. "When the Arabic Spring took place in Tunisia and Egypt, Iraqi civil society organizations started a new phase of peaceful demonstrations, calling on the government to provide services and to fight corruption. At this point, the Iraqi regime and its security authorities have shown a similar dictatorship to that of Saddam Hussein's in killing, imprisoning and torturing Iraqi civilians participating in these demonstrations. The fight of Iraqi civil society organizations is still going on now, although the media does not highlight it. Iraqi journalists who write about the corrupt government and reveal its criminal practices and violations of human rights have been killed.

So, obviously, the U.S. did not have an elaborate analysis of the impact that empowering religious-political parties would have on Iraqi women's rights and freedoms. Actually, the American administration did not seem to have an agenda for the post-war situation in Iraq at all, unless the agenda was entirely planned around only the oil industry and trade interests. To sum it up, a total political and social mess was created in Iraq, while the U.S. administration and its troops were busy safeguarding the oil fields."

Awatef's words confirmed my worst fears. This illegal war not only leaves millions dead and wounded, with a U.S. economy in shambles, but in the end, it succeeded in creating a more fundamentalist, less-secular, political climate for Iraqi women.

But the women of Iraq are not just victims of this war; they are powerful agents for change within it. Many women are still working against great odds, risking their lives, to call for further freedoms and increased representation in the new Iraqi government... and so far their cries are falling on deaf political ears. In June, another long-time Iraqi activist, Hanaa Edwar, known to many as the "Mother Teresa of Iraq", stood up at a televised government conference, in front of Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, and bravely denounced the government's treatment of protesters.

In speaking about her goals, Ms. Edwar stated, "We, as Iraqi women, representing more than 55 percent of the Iraqi population, want to make it clear that our demand of more guarantees for women in the constitution does not concern only women's rights, it concerns the adherence to the rule of law and the creation of a true democracy in which all people's voices are represented, it concerns the preservation of Iraqi unity."

Even if you do not agree with my position against this war, I think we can all agree that Iraqi women did not start this war, nor are they being included in how to end the occupation responsibly and move forward.

I, for one, have been sickened by this war, being fought in my name for almost a decade under the guise of U.S. patriotism and increased security. To balance that, I am giving my time and my money to support the goals of Iraqi women. I know that making a donation can never equal the years of pain and destruction caused, but I also know that as part of a global, interdependent, family of human beings, we must help them shoulder the burden.

If you want to do the same, you can give a tax-deductible donation to Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights and earmark your support for Iraq. If you'd rather support Iraqi women's groups directly, Hanaa Edwar's organization Iraqi Al-Amal Association and Yanar Mohammed's Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraqare two recommended places to start.

If you don't have money to give, you can always give encouragement to Iraqi women in the comment section below. As we witnessed so often this past year, a little hope can go a long way and can even provide the spark for a peaceful revolution.

As the last U.S. troops fly home this month, they can sadly look back on a destabilized Iraq, now allying itself with a brutal Syrian dictator and looking to create deeper political ties with Iran; An Iraq that is driving its civil society deeper underground and behind bars. It seems the very enemy the Bush Administration dreamt up to justify invading a sovereign nation is finally emerging, and we are its creator, not the Iraqi people. But it is the Iraqi people who will have to live with the horrible repercussions of this war for decades to come and it is Iraqi women who are left behind, not "liberated" by our actions, but politically shackled and facing far worse foes than Saddam Hussein.

This is the season for giving. Americans alone will spend $465.6 billion during the months of November and December on holiday shopping. Just turn on a television and you will be berated with ads encouraging you to buy more plastic crap from China in the spirit of the holidays, for the sake of your children. If we donated even 1 percent of what we will spend on ourselves this holiday, it would amount to millions of dollars. So in the true spirit of the holidays, for the real sake of our children's collective future, let's support Iraqi women, as they bravely stand up and speak out for the freedoms our leaders falsely promised them almost a decade ago.

Towards Peace,

Kiri Westby

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