Occupation Is Not (Women's) Liberation:
Confronting 'Imperial Feminism' and Building a Feminist Anti-War Movement
- by Huibin Amelia Chew
Iraqi author and dissident Haifa Zangana, formerly imprisoned under Saddam Hussein's regime but adamantly opposed to U.S. occupation, writes, "in 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." 1
Two years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, what are we to make of the Bush administration's alleged project to bring it democracy and raise the status of women? Early on following the invasion, mainstream U.S. media such as The New York Times reported on growing insecurity, including the escalating rapes and kidnappings of women and girls. The media tended to frame this problem as caused by Iraqi men and indigenous patriarchy at its roots - with skillful U.S. intervention needed to alleviate the situation. The U.S. anti-war, anti-occupation movement was largely unable to deliver an adequate response to the immediate issue of daily sexual violence at the hands of Iraqis - how has it failed to tackle issues particular to Iraqi women, and what is at stake?
This essay is a plea for greater feminist intervention in the U.S. anti-imperialist, anti-war movement. It is also about the relevance of an anti-imperialist perspective to the U.S. feminist movement, in fighting domestic patriarchy. It comes in two parts. In Part One, I discuss how the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have not brought liberation to Iraqi women - but rather, resulted in the worsening of living conditions along gendered lines. I underpin the need for a stronger anti-imperialist feminist movement that opposes the occupation of Iraq, but hint at the limits of current political discourse. In Part Two, I elaborate on my critique of the U.S. anti-war movement, calling for feminists to get involved and hold it accountable, particularly since imperialism operates through the connections between gendered foreign and domestic oppressions.
Part 1: 'Liberating' and planting 'democracy' in Iraq and Afghanistan? Whose 'democracy'?
The justification of imperialism on humanitarian grounds has a sordid history that U.S. feminists - as stakeholders in the world's premier military and economic superpower - would do well to study. British colonialists pointed to the barbaric status of Indian women as an argument for their 'benevolent' intervention. On sure footing about their own moral superiority, English feminists were all too quick to lend support for this project. By the late 19th century, the British government was cynically exploiting the zeal of slavery abolitionists, as a convenient fig leaf over its scramble for Africa. 2
Lately, Third World feminists are rewriting the gendered history of empire. Their observations remain relevant to current affairs. They draw a complex picture of patriarchal collusion between male elites of both the occupying and subject states. And they shed light on how the supposed beneficiaries of imperial magnanimity are lost in the shuffle of their rulers' own more pressing economic and political interests.
This entangled history of complicity and exploitation should make U.S. feminists uncomfortable. To raise a few questions that are pertinent today, and that I hope to resonate with: how do paternalistic leaders continue to maneuver and manipulate the interests of certain women and minorities for imperial ends? Have they 'co-opted' feminist aims - and if so, whose feminism? While claiming to stand for womankind, do they exploit or depend upon the fractures in this 'sisterhood'? Who do they pit against each other in this process - and whose agendas are served when feminists willingly cooperate?
The Bush administration has flaunted the liberation of Muslim women, and later the propagation of women-friendly democracy, as central principles justifying its invasions and subsequent occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq. The ideological coherence of acting as humanitarian benefactor is a unifying theme behind the otherwise fractured, amnesiac rationale to this administration's foreign policy, that has bounced between fears of terrorism, supposed weapons of mass destruction, and evil dictatorships. Pursuing this common thread, let me first briefly detour to revisit what has happened in Afghanistan, before discussing Iraq more extensively - as a prelude and even a warning for the latter expedition.
Afghanistan and the complicity of American feminists
In the weeks after 9/11, the Taliban's public executions of women were catapulted into mainstream view, as a focus of prime-time TV documentaries. Years-old email forwards about the Taliban's abuses began to recirculate among socially conscious youth, as the position of burqa-ed Muslim women grew to a matter of mainstream interest. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, Laura Bush was paraded before the UN Commission on the Status of Women on International Women's Day 2002, to celebrate the U.S. attack as a new chapter of "rebuilding" Afghani women's lives. Her husband continues to incessantly remind us how he has birthed a "new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women,"3 and opened education to both "boys and girls."4
Ironically, the originator of the grisly documentary footage of women's murders that made national television was the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) - a group vehemently opposed to both fundamentalist regimes and U.S. military intervention. RAWA had their own message on International Women's Day 2004: "The freedom of a nation is to be achieved by itself - similarly the real emancipation of women can be realized only by themselves. If that freedom is bestowed by others, it may be seized and violated any time." 5
A long-standing group that has resisted occupation since the 1979-1988 Soviet war in Afghanistan, RAWA has no naïve illusions about outside powers' ulterior motives. Today, it points to how the U.S. puppet regime's token Ministry of Women's Affairs and a few "apolitical and pro-fundamentalist" 6 female faces in government positions cannot outweigh the problems of "pauperization" and warlordism that continue to plague the country - with American collusion. Military action itself exacted a serious toll on ordinary Afghanis unrelated to the Taliban regime. In a statement on the 2002 anniversary of 9/11, RAWA angrily proclaimed:
… U.S. military might moved into action to punish its erstwhile hirelings. A captive, bleeding, devastated, hungry … Afghanistan was bombed into oblivion by the most advanced and sophisticated weaponry ever created in human history. Innocent lives, many more than those who lost their lives in the September 11 atrocity, were taken. Even joyous wedding gatherings were not spared. The Taliban regime and its al-Qaeda support were toppled without any significant dent in their human combat resources. What was not done away with was the sinister shadow of terrorist threat over the whole world and its alter ego, fundamentalist terrorism.7
Noting the U.S. government's earlier material support for the Taliban, RAWA considered the real losers of the military attack - which it cynically regarded as a hypocritical public relations demonstration of strength against terrorism, achieved partly through fanning the Americans' desire for "retribution" - to be Afghani civilians. Three years later, RAWA emphasizes that opium trade-related corruption and the reigns of local despots remain entrenched, with dire consequences for the impoverished majority of Afghanis.
The Bush administration's policy has been to put its own regional interests first - inevitably resulting in conflicts with real democracy or human rights for Afghanis, including most women. Desperate to prop up its shaky control, the U.S. government in fact proved willing to reopen talks with a faction of the Taliban in the summer of 2003. Moreover, the U.S. military collaborated with the Northern Alliance from the outset of the invasion, and now entrusts this group the stability of large portions of the country. RAWA has labeled the Northern Alliance as the Taliban's "brethren-in-creed" for its brutality and misogynist human rights abuses. 8 Propped up by a U.S. military guard, the influence of Hamid Karzai's regime remains confined primarily to Kabul even after much-touted elections, while a mile away young women self-immolate out of destitution. Warlords were bribed with tens of millions of dollars to provide at least tacit support to Karzai during the recent elections, and still control 80 percent of Afghanistan.9 For these reasons, RAWA berates the legacy of U.S. invasion: "For the people of Afghanistan, it is 'out of the frying pan, into the fire.'" 10
RAWA prescribes an alternative method for social change: the intensification of mass movements and struggles by local Afghanis against their oppressors. Yet despite its fame, including publicity from celebrities like Eve Ensler, RAWA's anti-war, pro-local movement stance has largely been ignored in American press. Liberal American feminists have helped enforce this silence by not acting to widely disseminate its analysis.
To the contrary - prominent feminist organizations were complicit in aiding Bush's justification of the war on Afghanistan. Shortly after the bombardment began, leader of the Feminist Majority Eleanor Smeal met amicably with war generals: "They went off about the role of women in this effort and how imperative it was that women were now in every level of the Air Force and Navy … It's a different kind of war," she is quoted as reporting about their chat. 11 This tete-a-tete rode on years of feminist campaigning against the Taliban. In Part Two, I will more fully explore the omissions of liberal mainstream feminism and some of their consequences for U.S. patriarchy.
What has happened in Iraq? A brief background to women's status before invasion
Haifa Zangana, quoted at the beginning of this piece, writes the following in opposition to the U.S. occupation: "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." 12
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. They won the most egalitarian family civil code in the Arab world. Aspects of this progressive family law persisted until the eve of U.S. invasion, when Iraq still remained exceptional in the region. 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.13 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 80s, Saddam Hussein's regime implemented policies to encourage their participation, such as generous maternity leaves, equal pay and benefits, and free higher education. For instance, the radical feminist group Redstockings has pointed out how before U.S. invasion, Iraq provided 62 days of maternity leave with the woman's wages paid 100% by its social security system. Its valuable analysis, focusing on economic arrangements and class inequality, hints towards what U.S. feminists - we ourselves - have to lose if we keep privileging our own country, with its rampantly privatized healthcare, as the epitome of women's liberation. Unlike the US, in fact nearly all Gulf states have provisions for paid maternity leave. By contrast, Redstockings notes that U.S. 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 (the U.S. is also one of a handful of countries that still provides no paid parental leave).14
Despite Iraqi women's significant gains, their condition began to decline after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War bankrupted the government. The Gulf War and subsequent US/UN sanctions exacerbated this process by crippling Iraq's economy. 15 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. 16 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. Female literacy dropped sharply after the Gulf War as girls abandoned school to help with increasingly inconvenient household chores - resulting in the second largest gender gap in literacy for the region. 17 In post-Gulf War years, more than a third of girls abandoned formal schooling before completing primary education. 18 UNESCO reports that while 75% of Iraqi women were literate in 1987, this dropped to under 25% by 2001! 19 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; the connections between Iraqi women's loss of paid economic power and increased vulnerability to patriarchal attacks demands further exploration.
In the context of over 12 years of debilitating sanctions, the U.S. occupation must be viewed as only the latest chapter of our government's hand in the dramatic decline of conditions for Iraqi women. Nevertheless, in spite of their fragile position just before the 2003 invasion, Iraqi women constituted a larger portion of the paid workforce than women of many other Gulf States. To focus on an elite subsection of the population - more professional women held positions of power than in almost any other Middle Eastern country. In 1994, 11% of seats in Iraq's congress were filled by women, a percentage significantly higher than in other Gulf states. U.S. 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 U.S. women the same year. 20
The impact of invasion and occupation in Iraq
The U.S. invasion and occupation have caused enormous violence and economic devastation since then. As of October 2004, the Lancet estimated that military action and the subsequent occupation had resulted in the excess deaths of at least 100,000 Iraqis. Women and children of both sexes together made up the majority of those violently killed by coalition forces in this study. 21 Acute malnutrition among children is now double pre-occupation levels - translating to 400,000 children who suffer from "wasting," or dangerous protein deficiency. 22 Unemployment hovers at over 70 percent.
In a country where 55 to 65% of the current population is female, of course women and girls are heavily affected by these conditions. Reiterating the pattern during the 1990s sanctions, Iraqi women are the hardest hit by unemployment. Men are preferred for the few jobs available - although many women are widows or single heads of households. 23 Moreover, formerly 72 percent of salaried Iraqi women were public employees, so many lost their jobs when government ministries dismantled after invasion. 24 While before the invasion, indigent women could at least rely on food rationing, today they are left to fend for themselves.
While the U.S. continues to bomb Iraqi hospitals, electricity in large cities remains intermittent, water unsafe, telephones non-operational. At the time of our November presidential elections, the Bush administration instigated increased bombing runs in Iraq, secure that the papers and public opinion would be focused elsewhere - but the tactic of aerial bombardment is particularly deadly to noncombatants who just happen to be in the way. Almost two years after the invasion, reconstruction is damningly absent. As of late December, only $2.2 billion of the $18.4 billion allotted for reconstruction had been spent, according to the Bush administration's own quarterly report.25 Iraqis are facing overwhelming burdens in carrying out the simplest tasks for household subsistence; Zangana discusses the extra toil that falls on women responsible for finding clean water and basic cooking supplies, writing, "In the land of oil, they have to queue five hours a day to get kerosene or petrol." 26
Rapes of women and girls skyrocketed after the invasion, with the displacement of usual law and order. But investigating these were no priority of U.S. authorities, who had toppled the previous police and court system, only to replace it with makeshift and illegitimate military force. Instead, occupying troops were engaged in arbitrary roundups and killings in pursuit of terrorist insurgents, that brutalized locals and ransacked their homes. Misplaced and heavy-handed conduct put together, the occupation has failed to offer real security; kidnapping and the growth of trafficking now keeps women and girls in fear of venturing outside - "prisoners in their own homes," in Zangana's words. 27
A May 2004 Red Cross report disclosed that 70 to 90 percent of 43,000 Iraqis detained in the last year were arrested by mistake. 28 Today, in a form of collective punishment, coalition authorities regularly imprison the female relatives (and even alleged lovers) of male suspects, to use as hostages. Needless to say such treatment utterly denies that women have a separate legal status from their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, or alleged lovers. Along with the other innocent detainees, these women are imprisoned for supposed 'intelligence purposes' - in other words, because the occupying authorities deem it convenient and have no accountability to the public. Belying the focus on male prisoners in the Abu Ghraib scandal, the sexual abuse and gang rape of female detainees is widespread - a fact known throughout in Iraq that has received little attention in the U.S. 29
Iraq contains the world's second largest oil reserves, and the U.S. has already begun building bases on its soil. The U.S. government's priorities - besides establishing control over these reserves to influence world oil price fluctuation - have been to privatize and sell entire sectors of Iraq's economy, as well as lucrative 'reconstruction' contracts, to corporate cronies of our military-industrial complex. Besides major defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, which received boosts from the invasion itself, Halliburton, Bechtel and other corporate heavies have won no-bid contracts to 'reconstruct' Iraq and manage its infrastructure. They have reaped tremendous profits at the expense of Iraqis and U.S. taxpayers. Although reports of fraud abound, the investments of U.S. corporations in Iraq are backed up risk-free by the Iraq Development Fund - formerly the UN oil-for-food program - which consists mainly of Iraq's oil revenues.
The U.S. occupation authority restructured Iraq's economy in flagrant violation of international law on occupation - needless to say, without the democratic consent of Iraqis. Besides the sale of national industries to private corporations, its 'shock therapy' reforms included the liberalization of foreign investment, taxes, and tariffs. The corporate tax rate was capped at an extremely low 15%. J.P. Morgan now manages the newly formed Trade Bank of Iraq, set up to favor companies from contributing nations, regardless of the quality and price of their products. Through it, Iraqi ministries can borrow funds to buy equipment from overseas suppliers - by mortgaging national oil revenues.
Despite their profiteering, corporations have actually managed to sue Iraq for millions of dollars in 'war reparations' for 'lost profits.' Iraq is now saddled with a debt of $200 million in such 'reparations' to companies like Bechtel, Halliburton, Shell, Mobil, Nestle, Pepsi, KFC, and Toys R Us. 30 What's worse, this debt is dwarfed by an unpayable sovereign debt of $125 billion. The industrialized nations that are its creditors are working to make the sovereign debt's partial cancellation contingent on compliance with IMF austerity programs - that will wreak economic havoc on the majority of Iraqis. Feminists have extensively documented the disproportionate impact IMF structural adjustment programs have had on poor women in other countries.
The Bush administration is more committed to ensuring control over Iraq's oil reserves, and enforcing an economy dominated by U.S. corporations, than to the rights and well-being of Iraqi people. Using military control to pursue its economic strategic interests continues to run in direct conflict with, and come at the expense of, accountability to the Iraqi public. Its harsh measures further undermine the occupiers' legitimacy. The Bush administration's hypocrisy and lies have been evident in the conduct of its occupying forces. From the beginning of the occupation, U.S. forces stopped or nullified elections in a number of cities, repeatedly used violence to repress peaceful public protests, raided and sacked the offices of Iraqi trade unions, and shut down newspapers. The U.S. has installed a series of puppet governing authorities.
Unfortunately, the newly 'elected' regime is will only prove to be the latest in a string of nominal 'handovers' staged to divert public opinion. Naomi Klein has noted that if anything, significant support for the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) in the elections, and the routing of the U.S.'s handpicked stooge, Iyad Allawi, represented a strong vote against U.S. occupation. 31 The second plank of the UIA's platform called for a timetable to the withdrawal of multinational forces in Iraq, while other aspects repudiated the economic restructuring under Bremer. A Zogby poll two days before the election found that 82 percent of Sunni and 69 percent of Shiites favored U.S. forces withdrawing immediately or after an elected government is in place. 32 Yet the Pentagon plans troop escalations and the government has no intention of ending either military or economic occupation - much less setting a timetable for such. The war is not and has not been about bringing democracy to Iraq.
Altogether, the occupation has reinforced and colluded with endemic patriarchy to worsen the situation of Iraqi women. Its gendered effects have been to intensify the harms of patriarchy in Iraq, adding new levels of violence and deprivation. If Iraqi men are perpetuating the kidnappings and rapes of women, they do so in the context of the occupying authorities' carelessness and inability to foster security. If Iraqi women face job discrimination, severe economic hardships have only worsened their plight. Zangana suggests some of unemployment's gendered effects: "Unemployment… is exacerbating … prostitution, backstreet abortion and honour killing." 33
Part Two coming next edition: Why Won't Occupation Bring Liberation to Iraqi women?. This article first appeared in print in Manifesta: The Yale Feminist Journal.
Huibin Amelia Chew, 22, is a recent graduate from Harvard University,
formerly member of the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice
(HIPJ) and Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM). She is part of the newly formed Coalition for an
Anti-Sexist Harvard, which is launching a campaign for free childcare
for all here and staged the protests against Larry Summers. She can be reached at email@example.com.
1. in "Quiet, or I'll call Democracy,"
2. Howard Temperley in "White Dreams, Black Africa: The Antislavery Expedition to the Niger," p. 176-7; Tariq Ali in "The New Empire Loyalists"
3. 2004 State of the Union address.
4. 2003 State of the Union address.
9. Eric Margolis in "US caught in Kabul,"
11. from Sharon Lerner in Iris Marion Young's "The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2003, vol. 29, no. 1.
12. in "Quiet, or I'll call Democracy,"
Zangana in "Why Iraqi Women Aren't Complaining."
15. "Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper: Background on Women's Status in Iraq Prior to the Fall of the Saddam Hussein Government,"
21.Grown women were the minority and children the majority of this group; girls accounted for just over a third of the children killed. Overall, most deaths at the hands of coalition forces were of males.
22.As of November 2004, United Nations report cited by Medea Benjamin in "Peace in a Time of Perpetual War;" http://www.codepinkalert.org/News_and_Insight_Medea.shtml
23.Megan Cornish in "Iraqi women as victims of the occupation,"
25. Reuters, "U.S. only spent small part of Iraq rebuilding funds" by Anna Willard and Sue Pleming, January 6 2005, http://uk.news.yahoo.com/050106/325/f9t0q.html;
"US Misstates Own Job Creation Figures in Iraq,"
29. Luke Harding in "The Other Prisoners," http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,1220509,00.html; Chris Shumway in "Pattern Emerges of Sexual Assault Against Women Held by U.S. Forces," http://www.occupationwatch.org/article.php?id=5222; Kari Lydersen in "Rape Nation," http://www.alternet.org/rights/19134/; "Jail Abuse of Women in Iraq," in the Guardian, May 12, 2004.
30. http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=6594, Roy
31. In "Getting the Purple Finger," http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050228&s;=klein