The military invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British forces in 2003 presented what Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt refer to as a ‘gender paradox’. The military invasion, according to the U.S. President George W. Bush, was prompted by an urgent need to get rid of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and secure international peace. To date, there has been no sufficient evidence to validate these claims. Additionally, the U.S. administration publicized the plight of Iraqi women under the repressive regime of Sadam Hussein, pointing out rampant human injustices that included rape, torture, abductions and other atrocities. In an attempt to justify the invasion, President Bush reiterated that a significant objective of the war was to liberate and empower Iraqi women. To date, the overall situation of women following the invasion has depreciated on multiple fronts: socio-economic, legal, political and educational.
In their research on the status of women in Iraq, Al-Ali and Pratt sought to demonstrate why U.S.’s military intervention in Iraq did not help to improve women’s rights, but instead, worsened their position and circumstances. Before the invasion, the U.S. President argued that women empowerment in Iraq would be the pillar of freedom, peace building and democratization. To this end, millions of dollars were channeled to projects that involve women, both for developmental and humanitarian concerns. As it turns out, there is very little to show for the vast investments in terms of actual involvement of women in reconstruction of Iraq.
Informed by politics of transnational feminism, Al-Ali and Pratt aimed to explore an intersectional analysis by recognizing that the struggles and oppression of women are exemplified in a broad spectrum of structural inequalities associated with gender, race, class and nationality. From their research, they established that gender-based violence in Iraq was attributed to instrumentalization of women matters by the U.S. and British military agents, and the subsequent politicization of gender issues by different actors that were actively involved in Iraqi after the invasion, such as Islamist political parties, insurgents and militias.
As transnational feminists, Al-Ali and Pratt explored the impact of overriding discourses in policy and academic circles. From their research, it is clear that the dominant discourses disregard the socio-cultural and economic complexity of Iraq, and in so doing end up generalizing and ignoring the plight of women in Iraq. To avoid developing perceptions that reproduce biased power structures, it is important to recognize that despite the fact that Iraqi women are generally vulnerable to gender discrimination and violence, they are mobilizing and actively involved in campaigns against political and social injustices. The researchers point out that a majority of the women in Iraqi identify themselves according to their religious and political affiliation and not gender.
The U.S and British governments disregarded previous mobilization initiatives by Iraqi women. In the 2010 elections, out of a total of 325 seats, women garnered 82 elected seats. Unfortunately, this has not helped empower women in Iraq. At the expense of women empowerment, military and security measures have taken precedence as the solutions to the unending political violence. Women are perceived to be incapable of strategic leadership and vulnerable to violence and political intimidation.
Despite the increased marginalization of Iraqi women in political and social institutions, women have mobilized themselves into social and political movements, civil society organizations and informal community groups. Women activists have become more vocal in advocating for democracy and human rights. A case in point is the spirited fight against Article 41 of the constitution enacted in 2005, which undermines the Personal status code that spelled out laws to govern marriage, divorce and child custody.
Since the U.S led invasion in 2003, religious and ethnic backgrounds have significantly shaped political and social life in Iraq to the extent divisions have emerged across variables that were deemed to be unifying. From an intersectional perspective, Iraqi women are polarized not just by religious and ethnic backgrounds, but by their diversity based on social class, political orientation, place of residence, individual experiences of the previous regime, and attitudes towards U.S occupation.
The very premise that military intervention would result in women’s liberation cannot be justified. An analysis based on gender essentially subverts state-centered concepts on security, which overly disregard human rights and welfare while focusing resources on security of individuals. This is exemplified in how the security concerns of the U.S. after 9/11 created unfounded insecurities for nationals of other state in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the unceasing lack of security and violence, governments should cease to employ armed conflict as a means to achieving sustainable peace. Cessation of armed conflict does not itself guarantee peace for women, but should be coupled with initiatives to end gender-based violence and freedom of women to participate in decision-making at all levels.
Real peace cannot be realized without cessation of local and inequalities attributed to authoritarianism, militarism, imperialism and neo-imperialism. A focus on the legal aspects of gender and women rights, as in the case of U.S. on Iraq, creates a platform for politicians to make unrealistic promises on how empower women and safeguard their rights, while disregarding whether the measures yield tangible results on women on the ground. A big number of women parliamentarians in Iraq are relatives of male politicians keen to fill allocated seats in disregard of wider issues pertaining to democracy and women rights. That notwithstanding, female parliamentarians are more interested in partisan issues that are largely sectarian and Islamist, instead of focusing on the issues that concern Iraqi women in general.
An analysis of why the outcomes preconceived by President Bush have not been realized in Iraq should incorporate gender as the most defining factor. Post-conflict reconstruction and the process of factoring gender in peace processes should not only focus on legal rights of women, but more attention needs to be given to the intersecting power structures and the inherent inequalities manifested in these structures. In the context of Iraq, this implies exploring the impact of imperialist policies, the role of neo-liberal economies, and the ways in which communal and sectarian differences intersect with gender issues to produces specific consequences for women.
1. Should academic and political discourse on Iraqi women after the invasion focus on religious and ethnic differences as opposed to gender issues?
2. Research has established that the envisaged outcome of empowering Iraqi women through military invasion was not realized. What measures have the U.S. and British governments put in place to empower Iraqi women following the invasion?