Women in Iraq and in the Muslim World in Offense to Feminist Ideals

I found the following article by Haider Ala Hamoudi quite interesting that presents a wonderful overview of womens views in the Muslim world, particularly Iraq, and the usual western “either or” assumptive methodology of categorizing nations and peoples.

I think neocons have been fairly broadly and justifiably criticized by the left for making the silly assumption that once Iraqis were freed from the tyrant Saddam Hussein, they would just naturally gravitate toward some form of liberal democracy, because that is just what people naturally like.Somehow, because we like it, we figure it must be second nature, in the blood, something you just adopt because it’s the right thing to do and you feel right when you do it.Like a bowel movement or something.

But what I don’t think anyone on the left has come to realize is how often they play with precisely the same assumptions, and often fail just as badly as a result, though of course with less deleterious effect.The one that comes to my mind most prominently is the issue of women’s rights.This is a debate I have long internalized when it comes to Iraq, with an Iraqi mother and an Iraqi wife and Iraqi aunts and cousins.It’s a debate in which I have engaged in on a number of fronts—political, legal and social.For me, it’s personal though not one tenth as personal as Iraqi women I concede from the start.

And I am shocked, truly shocked and amazed, by the number of people, organizations and institutions who seem to think that the way to achieve women’s rights in some progressive fashion in Iraq is through creating a gender quota in the Parliament because then women will vote for things that are good for women.(I don’t oppose gender quotas, but I do think of them as silly if the goal is to ensure women vote progressively for women’s rights) It is assumed that once you have women in Parliament, then they vote the “right” way on women’s issues and all is solved.Then when that falls flat on its face as anyone who knows anything about Iraq could have predicted from the start, we scratch our collective heads, try to figure out who is forcing these women to vote against their interests, and then try to remove that element of coercion.Maybe their brothers?Their parents?The parties, which could remove them from positions because the elections work by party list and not by geographic distribution?Somebody is out there stopping this, let’s figure out who, the group out there holding back the natural order of liberal notions of women’s rights as Saddam held back the natural order of liberal democracy. Eliminate that, and all else falls into place.Wolfowitz without the guns.

Never mind that Islamist parties put Islamist women on their lists, and reliable and outspoken ones.Never mind that the political Islam movement in Iraq has about as many women supporters as men (women voted too, in high numbers, and the Islamists won overwhelmingly), never mind that many of the initiatives that go precisely against any modern conception of women’s rights come from women, and in some cases receive only casual support within the Islamist camps.(That’s because Islamist men are not quite as obsessed with stopping the progression of women’s issues as Islamist women, and that is saying something.)Somehow, deep down, these women can’t possibly believe these positions, we think, they can’t actually think Islamism is good for them, and so they are being coerced.It is as if it doesn’t matter where the women in question grew up, doesn’t matter what educational system they entered, doesn’t matter what the values of their family were, none of this matters or at most is a troublesome set of impediments you just jump over.Somehow, despite all that they just yearn to be free.You just have to get rid of the coercion and it will all naturally fall into place, whether the daughter of a Najaf cleric or the adopted professional gay couple in Vermont, we all just want freedom. And of course to prove the point you do have some number of women you can point to in the parliament, a small number, but genuinely Iraqi and claiming greater strength in the hearts of the people (what political group doesn’t) so this somehow proves the case.Just as Bush had Ahmed Chalabi, which proved his case that Iraqis just want freedom, whatever he meant by that.

These initiatives have gone about as well as the initial invasion of Iraq.Mostly they feel offensive and imperialist because they certainly come off that way—we’re going to tell you what is in your interests, because it is in the interests of every right thinking woman. The supposed broad secret middle of Islamist women nominated by Islamist parties who are going to vote with secular women to remove shari’a from family law, that is, to reject Islamism entirely (in this game, if you turn on family law, you’ve turned on everything) has yet to appear.But we keep trying.Imagine pro choicers deciding that the centerpiece of their agenda is convincing Sarah Palin that women should have a right to abortion, because every right thinking woman must think that. Imagine how great that would turn out for the movement.That’s actually the centerpiece of the plan in Iraq, and has been all along.Really, it has.

When things went so terribly wrong in Iraq in 2006, we stopped, looked around and came to realize, this is a different place, these are different people, with different ideas and different sets of institutions and different relationships to the government.This did NOT mean we reinstituted Saddam, but it did mean we took a step back, assessed the situation, the institutions, the interests and above all the people of Iraq, and reformulated strategy in a manner that would work, for us and but more certainly for Iraq.

How to improve women’s rights in Iraq, to the extent one considers this a good idea?  As someone close to Iraq, and in many ways of Iraq, I don’t suffer from the ambivalence others might have about influencing societies they know little about and have little to do with.  Given that background, I have thought about the issue of women’s rights, and I have a few ideas, which include:

-A focus on strategies like closing the gender literacy gap that do not create opposition in Islamist camps.

-A women’s caucus of women parliamentary members so that the issues of importance to women receive a frequent and public airing and remain in public view even if the issues won’t lead to an agreement on the issues in question.

-Challenging before Iraqi courts regulations that discriminate against women, most prominently the ones that are not based on shari’a at all.(I have a list.)

These are just a few, I’m sure there are others, many better. The first step, however, is to stop imagining that deep in the ovaries of every human being with a double X chromosome is a NOW feminist waiting to emerge.