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Iraqi Women Before US Intervention

Huibin Amelia Chew
Date Published: 
June 16, 2007

Iraqi author and dissident Haifa Zangana, formerly imprisoned under Saddam Hussein’s regime but adamantly opposed to US occupation wrote in the UK Guardian, “The main misconception is to perceive Iraqi women as silent, powerless victims in a male-controlled society in urgent need of ‘liberation.’ This image fits conveniently into the big picture of the Iraqi people being passive victims who would welcome the occupation of their country. The reality is different.” In 1958, with the end of British indirect rule over Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqi women demonstrated in the streets for their civil rights. Zangana explains, “[I]n the aftermath of the 1958 revolution ending the British-imposed monarchy [in Iraq]… women’s organizations achieved within two years what over 30 years of British occupation failed to: legal equality.” Iraqi women won the most egalitarian family civil code in the Arab world. Aspects of this progressive family law persisted until the eve of US invasion. Divorce cases were to be heard only in civil courts, polygamy was outlawed unless the first wife consented, and women divorcees had an equal right to custody over their children. Women’s income was recognized as independent from their husbands. When Iraq’s expanding economy needed women in the workforce during the 1970s and early 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s regime implemented policies to encourage their participation, such as generous maternity leaves, equal pay and benefits, and free higher education. The radical feminist group Redstockings has pointed out that before US invasion, Iraq provided 62 days of maternity leave with the woman’s wages paid 100% by its social security system. By contrast, US law offers 12 weeks of unpaid sick leave—if your employer has over 50 employees, and only if you have been working for the same employer for more than a year. In 1994, 11% of seats in Iraq’s congress were filled by women, a percentage significantly higher than in other Gulf states. US women, incidentally, held only 10% of seats in Congress the same year. Earlier, in 1987, Iraqi women had filled 13% of seats, compared to 5% held by US women the same year. Despite Iraqi women’s significant gains, their condition began to decline after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War (which the US helped extend by providing weapons and aid to Iraq and Iran) bankrupted the Iraqi government. The Gulf War and subsequent US/UN sanctions exacerbated this process by crippling Iraq’s economy. As documented by Human Rights Watch, the economic hardships disproportionately affected women and girls. In the early 1980s, women had made up 40 percent of the nation’s workforce, filling the war-time shortage of men. This deteriorated to 22% by 1992. Prostitution increased, and as women became jobless, their right to travel without a male relative was revoked. Childcare, education, and transportation became impossibly expensive. In post-Gulf War years, more than a third of girls abandoned formal schooling before completing primary education. Female literacy dropped sharply as girls abandoned school to help with increasingly inconvenient household chores—resulting in the second largest gender gap in literacy for the region. UNESCO reports that while 75% of Iraqi women were literate in 1987, this dropped to under 25% by 2001. At the same time, Hussein allowed a shift towards local religious and tribal codes; he amended the law in 1990 to permit honor killings without penalty. In the late 1990s, Hussein implemented new laws dismissing all female secretaries in government agencies and restricting women from work in the public sector. Economic hardships and political attacks worked in conjunction with each other to roll back the status of women. In the context of over 12 years of debilitating sanctions, the US occupation is only the latest chapter of our government’s hand in the dramatic decline of conditions for Iraqi women.