The Iraq War and Women: A Case for Reparations

In August 2010, the United States marked the formal end of combat operations in Iraq with divergent assessments of the nearly eight-year war. At the closing military ceremony in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno drew forth America’s self-image as the force of global liberation: “[The war] was for the shared ideals of freedom, liberty and justice.” Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (2001-2005), one of the architects of the Iraq war, penned an upbeat take on the post-war state of Iraq for The New York Times. He sees a cleansed country with the potential to become another South Korea as the engine of political and economic progress in the Middle East. And, he added, at a bargain of collateral damage (read bloodshed) compared to the Korean War.

Studies on the ground of the war’s impact on women and girls come to vastly different conclusions. In October 2002, Saddam Hussein released criminals from Iraqi prisons. This and the soon-to-follow 2003 US-led assault on Baghdad, created conditions for bloodletting, for a sharp increase in organized crime trafficking in drugs, stolen cars, and women and girls; and for the ascendancy of armed Islamist conservatism. Saddam’s tightly controlled violence and reign of terror were replaced by unpredictable, widespread violence against Iraqi women. The immediate consequences for women: hejabs worn by Muslim and Christian women alike (and abayas in some regions) to avoid being harassed and beaten in public; an epidemic of women killed in the city of Basra by fundamentalist men, who leave them in the street as a lesson to other women; increased rape, including of women in detention; abduction into prostitution; and a dramatic rise in “honor” killings, or the murder of women and girls by male family members to restore family honor. Muta’a – Sharia law-permitted exploitation of women by men in so-called temporary marriages, which serve as fronts for prostitution – rose after the war began, with men targeting desperate, penniless widows and the Shia militia targeting single girls. The real ruler in Iraq today, according to Iraqi Professor Maha Sabria, “is the rule of old traditions and tribal, backward law” with a US-brokered Constitution based in Islamic law, one which does not assure women basic rights or protections.

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), which investigated women’s deaths in Basra by visiting city morgues, found that most of the women killed by fundamentalist “vice squads” in Basra were largely professionals, activists and PhDs. The lesson to other women: end any participation in the public, political and social spheres and stay home under male surveillance. By early 2008, only 20 percent of primary and secondary students countrywide were female; the rest were prisoners in their homes. Houzan Mahmoud, who has risked her life to organize a petition against the introduction of Islamic law in Kurdistan, summed up the impact of the war: “If before there were one dictator persecuting people, now almost everyone is persecuting women.”

OWFI has also conducted extensive high-risk investigations into the prevalence and plight of Iraqi widows, women kidnapped and women trafficked into prostitution. Fifteen percent of Iraq’s widows, by their approximation, are seeking temporary marriages out of economic desperation and extreme insecurity in being a single woman. They estimate that more than 4,000 women have disappeared, 20 percent under the age of 18 years, since the onset of war in March 2003, and that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of women and girls have been trafficked locally and to adjacent countries for prostitution. By 2006, the (nongovernmental organization) NGO had observed an “epidemic rise” in the number of women prostituted in brothels, workplaces and hideouts in Baghdad, and set up an inquiry which resulted in a seminal study published in 2009, “Prostitution and Trafficking of Women and Girls in Iraq.” Through covert investigation, OWFI learned of trafficking of women within Iraq for Iraqi men in all regions and for US military, as well as to nearby countries. In their words, “This industry looked like an octopus with its head in Baghdad while the limbs reached out to Damascus, Dubai, Jordan, and the Emirates.” And, OWFI would later find, to Saudi Arabia as well. “Trafficking is the hidden face of war, insecurity, and chaos,” concludes the study’s author.

The 2011 Iraqi government looks bleak for progress on women’s rights. The new national partnership in government has one woman named to a 42-member cabinet, in a minor position with no budget or portfolio. When the cabinet appointments were announced, Alaa Talabani, a female lawmaker from Kurdistan, summed up the plight of women: “The Iraqi women feel today, more than any other day, that democracy in Iraq has been slaughtered by discrimination, just as it was slaughtered by sectarianism before.”

The United States owes reparations to the people of Iraq for this unsanctioned war of aggression, most of all to the women and girls who have lost their future. An international agency, such as the UNIFEM-Iraq (United Nations Development Fund for Women) office in consultation with Iraqi feminist organizations could assess the cost of war reparations to Iraqi women and girls. Funding would come annually from the US defense budget beginning in 2011, for eight years – the length of the Iraq war. It could be dispensed through a board comprised of Iraqi NGOs working for girls’ and women’s freedoms, including education and job training; health care and widows’ pensions; shelters for sexually exploited women and girls; the promotion of secular law and women’s equality; training of judges, police and media in preventing violence against women; and high-profile law enforcement against sexual exploitation. All for the cost of a handful of Predator drones per year.

A precedent is in the works. On February 16, 2011, the city of Baghdad filed a lawsuit in an Iraqi court against the United States, demanding $US1 billion dollars and an apology for damages done to the city’s infrastructure and aesthetics by blast walls and Humvees. In a public statement, the city’s government charged, “The US forces changed this beautiful city to a camp in an ugly and destructive way, which reflected deliberate ignorance and carelessness about the simplest forms of public taste.”