Iraqi Women Face Double Jeopardy--
as Victims of Occupation and Targets of Fundamentalism

by Megan Cornish, Seattle, WA, U.S.

First presented at a public gathering--In Solidarity with Our Iraqi Sisters--
hosted by Seattle Radical Women on March 3, 2005.

In all the headlines about the agony of the latest US war and occupation of Iraq, one large question is being ignored. What is happening to women, who are 60-65 percent of the Iraqi population? When you look into that question, you get some chilling answers. Women are suffering unrelenting deprivation and are under horrific attack from the U.S. occupation, Islamic fundamentalists, and sex traffickers.

But, at the same time, Iraqi women are showing incredible bravery in organizing against all the enemies they face, and are reaching out for support, which is where women in the U.S. come in!

First, some history of Iraq's colonization, past wars and U.S. sanctions

The story of how the situation of women became so dire is a textbook example of U.S. and British imperialism at work.

The British colonized Iraq and the surrounding region after WW I, dividing up ethnic groups like the Kurds into four different countries (Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria), and putting them together with two separate religious sects of Islam within the borders of Iraq and installing a monarchy. Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi born novelist, wrote recently in the Guardian (UK) newspaper that women were politically involved as early as the 1920 fight against the British occupation.

The country gained formal independence in 1932, but the monarchy remained and oil reserves were given to foreign companies. In 1958, a popular movement ousted the king and the new government reclaimed control over the oil. Labor unions and working class militias were active and mass organizing by Iraqi women won them the most advanced family civil code in the Arab world in 1959.

This was long before Saddam Hussein's Baath Party came to power – with the help of the CIA – briefly in 1963, permanently in 1968.

Initially, because Iraq's expanding economy needed women in the workforce, Saddam Hussein kept and even extended women's rights, with policies that outlawed sex discrimination, mandated equal pay for equal work and provided free higher education and maternity leave.

But in 1980 the Iran/Iraq war began, when Hussein attacked Iran at U.S. urging. Note that this was during the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter, so the take-over of Iraq was a bi-partisan affair. US capitalists hoped that the Iranian revolution then in full flood, could be forestalled (an aim that was successful, but more on that later). The seven-year war bankrupted Iraq and precipitated a steady decline of women's rights. Then, Uncle Sam's Gulf War in 1991, instigated by George HW Bush, and 12 years of U.S./UN economic sanctions sharply worsened both the economy and the position of women. Many women became jobless, while their freedom of choice in marriage and right to travel abroad without a male relative were revoked.

Frequent US bombing, again mostly carried out by Democrat Bill Clinton, caused a lack of safe drinking water, uranium pollution, and lack of medicines and food, which killed an estimated 5,000 children a month.

As it became harder for women to make a living, prostitution increased. During 2000-2001, the Hussein regime beheaded 350 women accused of prostitution. Some were in fact political dissidents.

Now the occupation entrenches misery

Since the latest U.S. war and occupation, women in Iraq have become literally an endangered majority. Violence against them abounds on several fronts.

Economically, they are hit hardest by the country's nearly 70 percent rate of unemployment. Men are preferred for the few jobs that exist, even though huge numbers of women are widows and single heads of households.

As casualties of war, women and children are the overwhelming majority of those wounded and killed by the US' so-called "precision" bombs and missiles. While it receives no coverage in the US media, the international press and human rights organizations report the use of weapons known to strike civilians indiscriminately – cluster bombs, napalm and phosphorus incendiaries. This was documented in Fallujah, for instance.

The use of so-called depleted uranium (actually uranium 238, which is a by-product of the uranium enrichment process) is causing skyrocketing levels of leukemia and other cancers, especially in children. As the resistance to the occupation continues to grow, the US and British forces are committing horrendous war crimes. Independent media like Dar Jamail have interviewed survivors of massacres of men, women and children in the destruction of Fallujah in November and December. A GI who was in contact with the Freedom Socialist Party reported that the troops in Fallujah were carrying out wholesale massacres. The number of civilian deaths has become an international scandal.

And what are perhaps the most sadistic acts of the occupation have been totally covered up by the U.S. government and media. While the terrible treatment of male detainees and even youths at Abu Ghraib prison got sensational headlines, if no changes in US practices, the women detainees were hardly mentioned. But there are widespread gang rapes and other abuses of women prisoners by U.S. and Iraqi jailers. Most of these victims, many of whom are gang raped repeatedly, have only been rounded up to be used as hostages to force male relatives to surrender.

According to A. Akbar Muhammad, African Representative of Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam who lives in Ghana, pictures of brutalized women in Abu Ghraib prison appeared briefly on the Internet and then disappeared. But this barbarism is widely known in the Middle East, and it is now being reported by International Operation Watch, the Iraqi Union of Detainees and Prisoners, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, the British Guardian newspaper, and the French Agence France Press. Countless of these women have committed suicide or have been murdered by relatives to protect the "family honor." Others, afraid to return home, have become prostitutes as the only way to support themselves in isolation.

Also rarely reported in the USA is the prominent U.S. role in strengthening the reactionary religious elements that want Iraq to become an Islamic republic. These forces were and are strongly represented in the former governing council and the current interim government, both creations of the U.S.

U.S. Support of religious fundamentalists

In 2003, the governing council attempted to impose Sharia law, a conservative Islamic code based on backward, anti-woman religious precepts. Its proposed measure, Resolution 137, failed thanks to angry demonstrations in Kurdistan, Baghdad, and elsewhere in Iraq and internationally. But the pressure to enforce Sharia is not going away. The recent elections were handcrafted by the US to strengthen the hand of religious conservatives. Sharia includes men having up to four wives, temporary marriage (legalized prostitution), half inheritances for women, compulsory veiling, arranged marriage, no travel without a male relative.

This narrow escape from the formal obliteration of women's rights nationally underlines how gravely Iraqi women are threatened by a rollback to medieval mores.

There is a huge assault against women going on. Every day, the occupation intensifies the breakdown of society and adds more fuel to the fire of repressive Islamic fundamentalism.

Physical violence by fundamentalists against women is growing. The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) has documented the recent murders of eight professional and working women in the city of Mosul. One was beheaded. As a warning that they could be next, the names of more women were posted in city mosques along with those of the murdered.

Meanwhile, sources including the UK papers the Guardian and the Independent, report that sex traffickers are seizing women and selling them into prostitution. Some of these women are sold instead of being released after being kidnapped for ransom or raped; others are apparently taken at random. The going prices are said to be $90, $150 for virgins. Women and girls cannot safely leave home to work, go to school or lead a normal life.

The violence provides a strong incentive for women to wear veils. Some schools are beginning to institute compulsory veiling for girls, some of whom are reportedly also being forced to leave school after the sixth grade.

The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq Nadia Mahmoud reports that it is extremely difficult for women to organize under these conditions. Additionally, they live under three different sets of Islamic rules in the Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parts of the country. In fact, each city can have its own rules, making travel harrowing.

In the midst of this all out assault, the neo-conservatives in the US administration ad insult to injury by funding a right wing group of US women, headed by the Vice President's wife, Lynne Cheney, to “teach Iraqi women about democracy”!

Regarding the recent elections, even though the Shiites are 60% of the population and Sunnis didn't vote, the main Shiite party allegedly only got 48% of the vote – in other words, they got as honest an election as we did! The party with the highest number of votes had to get a 60% majority to form a government, meaning that minority, more conservative parties get a veto power over the new puppet government's policies in order for the majority party to achieve that number. The majority party the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), has a platform including “withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq, adopting a social security system under which the state guarantees a job for every fit Iraqi...and offers facilities to citizens to build homes, to write off Iraq's debts, cancel reparations and use the oil wealth for economic development projects." (from Naomi Klein, the Nation, Feb 28, 2005) That is what they voted for, but not what they will get.

The good news: female resistance

Nevertheless, women are organizing to fight back. There are reported to be hundreds of women's organizations in Iraq today. Although most of them are not openly or explicitly feminist, these groups mobilized thousands of women to protest the threatened imposition of Sharia law in 2003. The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, which calls for an end to violence against women and a secular, egalitarian constitution, is not only feminist, but militantly active. Not surprisingly, it is affiliated with a radical party, the Worker Communist Party of Iraq.

The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq runs two women's shelters, publishes the newspaper Equal Rights Now in both English and Arabic, and reaches out for international support. It has organized a number of demonstrations, including two International Women's Day marches and one last September 2004 calling for safe streets. It has worked with the Union of Unemployed Workers to demand housing for thousands of families displaced by the bombing, and jobs or subsistence for the unemployed. The group defended 45 women bank workers who were falsely accused of corruption, and won their freedom.

Attacks and death threats have been made against the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq activists Yanar Mohammed and Sakar Ahmed. But, as Yanar Mohammed said recently, that will not stop them.

The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq's feminist organizing is desperately needed and profoundly courageous. They are a strong voice against religious extremists and for a secular constitution.

Besides feminist organizing, there are also women in the armed resistance. During the Iran/Iraq war, Iraqi women received compulsory weapons training, and some are now putting it to use! The Mahdi Army, one of the main opponents of the occupation among the majority Shiite population, even has recruitment videos and posters featuring women.

Women are on the move in Iraq, and there is a crucial message that feminists here have for the Left and the antiwar movement.

It's time to organize in defense of Iraqi women

Iraqi women urgently require support. The U.S. antiwar movement was sadly sidetracked for months during the election campaigns. Now it needs to snap to life and defend the Iraqi people, especially women, from our own murderous government.

Feminists especially can prod the movement into a renewed level of militancy for ending the occupation. And effective campaigns should be mobilized to break the media blackout on the rape of women prisoners.

National Radical Women has started a petition campaign calling for the end of the US occupation and release of women prisoners. It is available to download or to sign on line at

We need to keep raising these issues at antiwar marches, teach-ins and everywhere we can.

Here are some proposed demands:

• Reparations to Iraq paid by U.S. war profiteers! Restoring the economy is essential to restoring public safety.

• Release all women in custody of the occupation or the puppet Iraqi government! Their safety cannot be guaranteed.

• Stop U.S. support of Islamic fundamentalists!

• Stop U.S. support of Islamic fundamentalists! For a fully democratic, secular government that ensures complete freedom for women

• U.S. out of Iraq now! No more invading, bombing, or occupying under the guise of liberating women!

The thing we have to tell the world is that as the struggle for women's rights goes, so goes the entire movement. This fact is clearer today in Iraq than anywhere on the globe.

Women's liberation and the theory of Permanent Revolution

This period of rampant imperialism and war is also a period of world revolution. Leon Trotsky developed a theory in the early years of the 20th century which explains the course of events today to a T.

It is what Globalization is all about. Today's economy is international in nature, and therefore the conflict between the working and capitalist classes is too. As long as capitalism exists, it will engage in a life-and-death battle against anything anywhere that gets in the way of profits, from colonial liberation struggles like the Iraqi resistance to workers states like Cuba.

Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution asserts that even the most basic demands of working people, especially those who are the most oppressed, including women, can not be achieved without overthrowing capitalism. The needs of humanity can only be met through socialism. Further, the fight to accomplish this transformation must take place on a world scale; there are no national solutions to global problems.

Trotsky's observation, against prevailing socialist thought, was that insurrectionary workers could not achieve their demands by artificially stopping at a "bourgeois democratic" stage of revolution, one that would leave capitalism intact and evolve at some future date into socialism, as Stalinism teaches.

Trotsky's ideas challenged Stalin's practice of curbing workers' movements to achieve "peaceful coexistence" with capitalism. Tragically, the Soviet Union's collapse vindicated Trotsky's position.

An important part of his theory is the belief that those workers who have the most to gain from revolution should be looked to for leadership. He famously urged socialists in 1938 to "open the road" to women workers and youth.

Women and the Iranian Revolution

In 1917, it was a strike by super-exploited women textile workers that launched Russia's revolution. Similarly, in the Iranian Revolution that threw out the US installed Shah in 1978, women bank workers stopped some of the Shah's pilfering of Iran's wealth as he fled the country. They were the core of mass demonstrations against the imposition of the veil as the mullahs began their drive to overturn the revolution in favor of a reactionary Islamic state.

There were demonstrations of 100,000 women protesting Ayatollah Khomeni's repressive acts against women, chanting “At the dawn of freedom, we have no freedom” and “we will not be slaves!” and refusing to wear the veil.

But sexism, Stalinism and opportunism in the Left in Iran turned the tide against the women, and the revolution foundered. As goon squads attacked women and anti-woman laws were instituted, the leading Left parties stood back and did not intervene on women's behalf. These included the Tudeh Party (the Communist Party), the Mujahadeen (Islamic Marxists), and the Fedayeen (Marxists).

Even the Iranian Trotskyists viciously attacked Iranian feminists, claiming they were tools of Western imperialism, for inviting US feminist Kate Millet to Tehran, among other things. (They were allied with the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, which was rapidly on its way to becoming a non-Trotskyist opportunist organization, and has since openly disavowed Trotskyism).

Meanwhile, the U.S. SWP simultaneously vilified Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party for supporting Iranian feminists, charging us with being “insensitive” to the cultural norms of a non-Western society.

Once the women were isolated and subdued, it was open season on the Left. There was a blood bath, and eventually the revolution drowned. The Iranian SWP actually stood against the insurgent workers, saying that to fight the Mullahs “strengthens the hand of US imperialism against the revolution”!

Instead, the rise of the mullahs strengthened imperialism immeasurably, and we now have to turn the tide again.

Turning the tide in Iraq

And that is exactly what we have the opportunity - and responsibility – to do in opposing the occupation of Iraq! We need to learn the lessons of the Iran revolution and teach the rest of the feminist movement and antiwar movement that defense of women's rights is crucial not only to the survival of Iraqi women and children, but to supporting the Iraqi resistance to the occupation.

There are reactionary elements in the resistance, but also progressives, labor, women, the unemployed and the Left – the whole population is unified in opposition to the occupation. We in the antiwar movement in the US can do a lot to strengthen the hand of the progressive forces. And the resistance is very important – it has bogged the imperialist war machine down to a stand still, and we can help turn it into a route!

The defeat of the US in the Vietnam War showed how crucial and powerful an antiwar movement can be. But to be that effective, it has to go beyond moral appeals and pacifist hand wringing.

The antiwar movement has to be audacious enough to tell it like it is and win over US troops, so that they refuse to torture, to massacre, or to fight at all. Then we can bring the class war home!

Humanity has a common global fate. Not only does liberation around the world depend on ending the U.S. role as the globe's exporter of war and counterrevolution. But also, all of the gains of the U.S. working class, from Social Security to voting and abortion rights, are at risk of extinction. Since the time that Trotsky formulated his ideas about permanent revolution, capitalism has only become more reactionary, violent, and incapable of meeting human needs.

The perspective of permanent revolution can weld these struggles together and create what is needed to satisfy the aspirations of global humanity yearning to breathe free: an international movement to win a socialist world.

Special thanks to Nadia Mahmoud and Yanar Mohammed of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) for their contributions to this article. For more on OWFI or to make a donation, visit OWFI has an Online Petition with an International Campaign to End Rape, Abduction and Killing of Women in Iraq

For more information, please see previous Freedom Socialist articles at – on Iraqi women, the Iraqi resistance, the theory of Permanent Revolution, the destruction of Fallujah, the Mahdi Army, GI resistance to the war, war crimes prosecution of U.S. figures, why we support the Iraqi resistance, and the coming military draft. The source of information on Iran is Freedom Socialist articles from Spring 1979 (Vol 5/ # 1) and Fall 1981 (Vol 7/ # 2), available by order from the Freedom Socialist newspaper.