What happened to women’s rights in Iraq?

There were some long involved threads on ozblogs last week about Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Kim at LP, and those of us who agreed with her, got piled upon (twice) for disagreeing with some of Hirsi Ali’s suggestions about how to best end the oppression of women in Islamic cultures. The offended were a whole bunch of WOT-hawks who seem to think that Hirsi Ali’s many undeniable strengths and talents mean that somehow her opinions, agenda and tactics are above criticism. Their argument seemed to be that because Hirsi Ali has suffered sexist oppression justified by reference to Islam and she speaks of how such oppression needs to end through curtailing the power of Islam, that therefore her calls to eradicate Islam are the only plans for ending sexist oppression that should be listened to.

I’m not going to flinch away from mentioning female genital mutilation (FGM) here, because that seemed to be a core of the outrage: how could we criticise a women who wanted to end the genital cutting and mutilation of little girls? Of course, we never criticised Hirsi Ali wanting to end FGM: who doesn’t want to see the end of harmful physical mutilations?

We merely argued that her particular emphases and tactics seemed counterproductive rather than genuinely helpful to the goal of eradicating such harmful practices as infibulation (and never even got a chance to mention that by far the bulk of genital cutting is simple ritual labial marking which leaves minimal scarring on a par with piercing an ear).

So, not waving away FGM, but now it’s back to the larger picture of women’s oppression by traditionalist male hierarchies. We can all agree that sexist oppression justified by religious teachings needs to end. Where many people have a problem with Hirsi Ali’s speeches on this is that she singles Islam out as somehow uniquely prone to being distorted by male hierarchies seeking to rationalise and justify the systemic oppression of women.

Islam is not the only religion which is distorted and misused to rationalise and justify the oppression of women, and any moderately well educated person knows this, so this trope that Islam is uniquely oppressive makes the majority of Muslims who resent their faith being hijacked by extremists defensive, instead of seeing Hirsi Ali and other anti-oppression activists as genuine allies. The traditionalists can, in the long run, only effectively be countered by other Muslims who are more modernist and secularist: why should speeches which drive them away from alliances with us not be criticised?

The European Enlightenment that Hirsi Ali so fondly praises came about from within Christianity by secularists and freethinkers: it wasn’t imposed by the warriors of another religious culture entirely. The Roman Catholic monopoly was broken by Martin Luther, not by Saladin. The Puritan hegemony under Cromwell in England was dismantled from within, not without. Compare with the religions that conquerors have tried to stamp out: would Christianity today even still exist without the persecutions of Roman emperors? Will demonising Islam the way that the Romans attempted to demonise Christianity strengthen or weaken Islam, what do you think?

Will intervening to attempt to change Islam to fit into what the West wants Islam to be strengthen or weaken the traditionalist jihadist Muslims? For instance, the WOT-hawks argue (now) that we needed to intervene/stay the course in Islamic countries to improve life for women. But can they point to any actual success in improving life for women in Iraq?

Johanna-Hypatia Cybeleia has a great post on how intervention in Iraq has made life much much worse for women in Iraq, and how the rhetoric on saving women from oppression (that quick bait and switch of goal once the phantom WOMD disapparated) simply doesn’t match up with the realities, especially when CoW troops fail to support Iraqi women’s activists against the persecution of Taliban-clone extremists.

Iraq used to be one of the most progressive countries in the Arab world for women’s equality. But now?

Her post has many more examples of how life in Iraq now has rolled back nearly all the gains in equality achieved through the offices of Saddam Hussein. Now, saying that Iraq was better than other Arab countries for women’s rights is not saying that Saddam Hussein was a good guy. It’s saying that he was a complex guy, not just a cartoon bad guy, that among many bad and atrocious acts he committed he also did a few good things, and that improving the status of women under his regime was one of those good things.

All those good things that he did have been obliterated because eradicating all signs of his legacy – every single relict – was considered an appropriate response to the bad things that Saddam Hussein did. Yes, he did do bad things and commit atrocities that should never be forgotten. However, is destroying useful social institutions and regulations just because you don’t like the man who made them possible a rational response from a force who claimed to want to improve the lives of all Iraqis?

Was invading Iraq worthwhile for other reasons? I’m far from convinced, but I acknowledge that it is possible for that argument to be made. But don’t pretend that invading Iraq was about improving women’s rights, opportunities and safety, and don’t pretend that there has been any improvement in women’s rights, opportunities and safety under the CoW. Because that would be an outright lie.

Categories: culture wars, gender & feminism, Politics, religion, social justice

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11 replies

  1. Bravo, tigtog!

    Very well argued!

  2. Thanks, Kim. I felt the straw-Kims were proliferating so fast in those threads that it must have been like a barn-dance of mirrors for you.
    Speaking of religious authoritarians misusing sacred texts to justify their own personal preferences, just imagine what a Christian cult leader such as Jim Jones or a David Koresh could do if they chose to adopt suicide bombing as a tactic. There’s nothing stopping such people from adopting terrorist tactics, and today’s proto-Koreshes can all see how much they can get a society to alter its ways by convincing their followers to seek heaven early. Nothing stopping a whole bunch of proto-Koreshes coordinating funds transfers and techniques al la Al Qaeda, either. I bet it’s happening already.
    Of course, when/if such Christian cult terrorism occurs, those fanatics won’t be “real Christians”. But the WOT-hawks ignore the Muslims telling us that the terrorist fanatics misusing the Koran aren’t “real Muslims”.
    Religious authoritarians are a major threat to our safety. But the major part of that threat is the authoritarian part, not the religious part. As an atheist, I’d be happy to see the world generally lose religious worldviews. But I don’t pretend that losing religion would mean losing authoritarians and the threat that authoritarians pose to liberty and safety.

  3. Yes, excellent post, tigtog.
    I’ve had my say on the “debate” at On Line Opinion:

  4. Thanks for dropping that link, Mark. I like these points of yours:

    The separation of church, or mosque, and state is not supposed to imply a crusade against religion.

    It is simply wrong, and absurd, to suggest that any criticism of her implies a disrespect for her freedom of speech. The whole point of political argument, in liberalism, is that ideas should be vigorously tested.

    and particularly

    Those on the left who find female genital mutilation repulsive are perfectly entitled to suggest that its practitioners are more likely to be convinced by people arguing from within their own cultural and religious traditions. This is not inconsistent with the view that the practice should be illegal in Australia. And nor is it inconsistent with the rejection of “cultural” justifications for such horrors.
    Multiculturalism, properly understood, in a liberal society does not and should not condone any practice, justified by whatever reason, which does such physical and psychological harm.

  5. All those good things that he did have been obliterated because eradicating all signs of his legacy – every single relict – was considered an appropriate response to the bad things that Saddam Hussein did. Yes, he did do bad things and commit atrocities that should never be forgotten. However, is destroying useful social institutions and regulations just because you don’t like the man who made them possible a rational response from a force who claimed to want to improve the lives of all Iraqis?
    Fantastic post, but I think in this one point you are a bit off the mark. I don’t think Hussein had the slightest interest in imposing a higher status of women (note his sons’ savagely abusive practices which I am assuming he winked at) Also, I am a person who is always sceptical of broad social developments being brought about by one person from the top. I think that the relatively urbane and secular society we have been shown by Salaam Pax and Riverbend (or, tending toward it) was growing up in Baghdad – not so much the provinces yet – as a result of complex economic and social forces which Saddam, for whatever reason, was happy to let live (and that would be his sole contribution to it). Sadly, this nascent liberalism was destroyed by the CoW invasion.
    I’m making this statement to distance myself from the “feminist bloggers Heart Saddam” nonsense that is sure to follow. To me, he was the Least Worst at the time and I am confident that something better might have followed had we not waded in and stopped the development of Iraqi society in its tracks, destroyed its infrastructure and let loose the fanatical elements.

  6. It was more a legacy of the Ba’ath Party’s socialist past pre-Saddam, certainly, and also of social forces, as Helen says.

  7. Helen, you phrase it more precisely than my blundering effort, and you are entirely correct.
    One fine distinction: I believe Saddam did deliberately foster the secular tendencies as a way to best contain the sectarian rivalries between the extremists within Sunni and Shia groups. I’m sure the urbane aspects of that society were generated within as you argue, and he let them be because they didn’t interfere with his authority.
    As to tolerating his son’s abuses against women while promoting the general status of women, there’s nothing unusual about a “the rules are for the herd” mentality.
    But I agree, he was at best Least Worst, and isn’t it appalling that western intervention has been worse for Iraq than Saddam was?

  8. I’m not exactly a feminist, though I like to think I’m a sensitive new-age guy. Anyway, I have lots of time for Hirsi Ali’s crusade against FGM. However, her crusade against all Muslim societies and cultures is another thing altogether.
    Here’s what I wrote recently about her …

  9. The distinction you make between her different activist goals is the crux of it, Irfan. It’s also exactly the distinction many of Kim’s decriers simply refuse to acknowledge, and nearly all of them disingenuously IMO.


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