The banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln read “Mission Accomplished.” President George W. Bush grinned and gave a boastful thumbs-up before reading from his teleprompter about America’s victory in Iraq. Fifteen years later, Mission Accomplished has become Mission Impossible. And as Islamophobic uber-hawks Mike Pompeo and John Bolton rise to rule our foreign policy and national security, Iraq has become a hellscape for women.
Once, they hoped for progress; now, they hope only for death. This month, Amnesty International released a new report about the very human and horrific lives of women in Iraq since armed territorial conflict with the group known as the Islamic State began to quiet down last year. Its title, “The Condemned: Women and Children Isolated, Trapped and Exploited in Iraq,” can hardly overstate its contents. It is the story of life today for thousands of families headed up by women who have attempted to survive after male family members were killed or forcibly disappeared by opposition forces. The report makes The Handmaid’s Tale look like a Disney confection.
Many of these women live in internal displacement camps without food or health care, and endure violent rape as a regular fact of life. If you are a woman in one of these camps, you might only get aid, cash or protection for yourself and your children in exchange for sex, at the coercion of security forces, armed guards and members of militias. If you are linked to a man perceived to have Islamic State ties ― he could be a cook or a driver, or just share a name with a man on a bogus list of suspects ― camp personnel will withhold the identity cards and the other documents you need to work or even to move freely. Not that it matters much, since you will have probably been forbidden to leave your camp, which has become a de facto detention center. Not that you have a home to return to safely anymore.
“Once, they hoped for progress; now, they hope only for death.”
“Each night I say to myself, ‘Tonight is the night I’m going to die,’” one woman told Amnesty investigators, describing how guards took her from her tent, raped her at gunpoint, and then returned her to the tent to show everyone gathered there how the guards could “take away my honor.” Another said, “Sometimes I ask myself: why didn’t I just die in an air strike? I attempted to commit suicide but I didn’t follow through. I put the kerosene on myself, but before I set it on fire I thought of my son.”
While it is hard to imagine life getting worse for these women, the report warns that it likely will soon, projecting a significant decrease in international funding for Iraq’s humanitarian crisis.
When I arrived in Iraq to report a few months after Bush’s foolish, hubristic performance, his gleaming promise of liberation from a despot who had strangled the nation had rusted considerably, exposing the shoddy machinery of the operation. While the exiled Iraqi professor Kanan Makiya had assured Bush that his people would greet Americans in uniform with “sweets and flowers,” U.S. soldiers found a wary welcome. As many Iraqis told me in those post-invasion days, Iraqis still lived in what Makiya famously called a “Republic of Fear,” smiling nervously at neighbors, speaking the truth of their political sentiments to no one, often not even to family members. If the Americans could fix unemployment, broken infrastructure and oppression, then fine, the Americans would be liberators. The first Gulf War hadn’t yielded such progress. They’d grit their teeth and see, they told me.
Among Iraqi women, there had been real hope that a U.S. invasion might bring liberation. Baghdad, after all, had been a place where just a few decades before, women outnumbered men in doctoral programs and promenaded along the Tigris River in miniskirts. Life under Saddam Hussein had changed all that. While his power was secular, it brought tides of oppression and poverty that drove women to the mosques, where there was some measure of security. Men, rendered powerless by an authoritarian state, and then by Western occupation, tightened their fists around women in the name of Allah.
I’ll never forget visiting a hospital in Baghdad after the invasion, where the staff of doctors and nurses was entirely female and everyone worked in a hijab. One of the doctors showed me a framed photograph she kept of the staff from 10 years earlier. Not one woman was covered. “This is what has happened to us. Maybe liberation will change it,” she told me.
Liberation did not change it, because liberation never came.
“Among Iraqi women, there had been real hope. Baghdad, after all, had been a place where just a few decades before, women outnumbered men in doctoral programs.”
In kitchens and living rooms, I heard stories of rape and persecution, of the threat of honor killings, of life gone from terrifyingly bad to much, much worse. One woman in tight jeans and flowing locks, whose main fury when I met her in 2003 was about an adulterous “son of a bitch” ex-husband having all the rights under the ruling personal status code, called me in terror months later, insisting I get her out of the city she swore she’d never leave. Another, a student who before the invasion had been writing her sociology dissertation, was now hiding in a dark house after being kidnapped, raped and thrown from a car, a jagged seam stitched along her skull under her dyed curls. “You call this liberation?” became the refrain I heard from women who had allowed themselves to hope for a return to the Baghdad they, and their mothers, had known.
All these women, and their mothers, could have been an asset to the effort to stabilize the country, the region. Instead, so many of them have been rendered invisible. Homeless, widowed, impoverished. Missing in civilian action, just for being born in a place filled with oil and unrest.
It’s not like Bush and his cronies didn’t know what they were getting into. Or rather, it’s not like they weren’t told. I interviewed people at the State Department who had spent their careers planning for the possibility of a war in Iraq, considering the necessity of maintaining electricity, water, security, employment, cultural heritage ― and the rights of women. They knew what was at risk. They told me of briefings ignored, of meetings canceled, of trying to warn a White House where no one seemed to register their concerns. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic had been warned how destabilizing such a conflict could be for generations to come, and how to avoid the worst-case scenarios for Iraqis that have come to pass. Not chemical warfare, as people feared, but something far more invisible. An internal refugee crisis so invisible, people barely talk about it anymore.
Bolton, now President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, was one of the men who led Iraq to ruin by lobbying for this war in the exact inhumane form it took. Either he chose to be blind to the instability and humanitarian crisis to come, or he chose to ignore it. His professionalized hatred of Islam and the Arab world suggests the latter; it’s hard to care about people if you can barely see them as people.
Then there’s Pompeo. Though the secretary of state nominee murmured otherwise this week to quiet the yipping of turncoat Republican Sen. Rand Paul, Pompeo has been a career defender of the Iraq War, and perhaps exceeds even Bolton in what The Washington Post calls his “Islamophobia problem.” Steve Bannon himself couldn’t have picked a couple of men to more credibly threaten the lives of anyone born in the Middle East.
In 2003, soon after the United Nations building in Baghdad was bombed, a woman in her 60s welcomed me into her art-filled parlor. She had run a cultural center before the invasion; her mahogany-dyed hair was still uncovered. “I didn’t think it could get worse,” she said, referring to the crisis of life after the invasion: regular IED explosions, rolling blackouts, extremist violence in the Sadr City neighborhood, and families hiding in their homes. I don’t know where she is now. I don’t know where the divorcee is, or the sociology student, or dozens of other women I spent time with during those months. “How bad can it get, really?” she asked rhetorically, shaking her head. For 15 years now, it’s seemed like it can’t get worse ― until it does.
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.