What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq

Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt
Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 2009

Liberating women figured high in the official rhetoric justifying regime change in Iraq, but reality on the ground is a different story. In this carefully researched book, Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt, both professors at British universities, investigate why the situation of Iraqi women has actually deteriorated, along with that of their fellow countrymen, in the post-invasion climate. Quite simply, “women’s rights and women’s lives have been exploited in the name of competing political agendas.” (pp. 1-2)

“What Kind of Liberation?” is groundbreaking in many respects. For the first time since 2003, a book gives voice to Iraqi women themselves; the information and opinions elicited in interviews with over 100 female activists provide the basis for evaluating their status. Moreover, the authors are wary of simplistic generalisations. They challenge the idea that Muslim, Arab or Iraqi culture is inherently violent, anti-woman or sectarian, instead seeking explanations in the rapidly changing socio-economic and political conditions that have resulted from war, military intervention, sanctions and the policies of international and local players. The book also exhibits keen awareness of how women’s issues can used and abused in attempts to further imperialist designs: “The discourse of democracy, human rights and women’s rights is not only a means of drawing boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ of building US-led coalitions to wage war, or of buttressing the power of governments at home. Neoconservatives… argue that the promotion of democracy and women’s empowerment is a solution to terrorism.” (pp. 7-8)

Al-Ali and Pratt conducted their field research from 2004 until 2007. Originally they had planned to interview women in different Iraqi cities, but the security situation precluded this. Instead they interviewed a cross section of activists in Erbil and Sulaymaniya, and in Amman, Cairo, the US and London, many of whom actually live in Iraq and were only abroad to attend conferences or training sessions. They also interviewed policy makers, and people working in NGOs and international organisations, gleaning documentation and opinions from many different angles.

In order to provide an objective basis for evaluating the situation today, the book begins with a succinct review of Iraq’s modern history, focusing on women’s status from the formation of the first women’s organisations in the early 20th century up through the changes associated with the 1958 revolution and the Baathist takeover in the 60s. Although women’s independent organising was severely curtailed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraqi women continued to advance in education and professional work until the imposition of sanctions destroyed the economy in the 90s.

Similarly, the authors find that the situation of Iraqi women today cannot be seen as separate from the overall conditions prevailing in the country. The book provides a detailed analysis of the combination of factors that led to women’s reduced role in public life post-2003, starting with the destruction of the Iraqi state and infrastructure, and the resulting lack of jobs, security, basic necessities, such as clean water and electricity, and educational, health and social services. “Meanwhile, the failure of the reconstruction process has fuelled violence, the spread of conservative social agendas, and the rise of Islamic parties – all with negative consequences for women.” (p. 85) Though most of the direct victims of violence are male, women have also been targeted, and they are most affected by the deteriorating living conditions that make it tremendously time-consuming if not impossible to nurture their children and families. Taken together, the horrendous security and humanitarian situations keep most women from taking an active role in public life.

As a result of their findings, the authors hold the US and UK governments and troops directly responsible for escalating violence in Iraq, and for the founding of a sectarian political system, both of which have so undermined women’s rights and activities. Though Iraqi women were keen to promote the democratic process, their participation was derailed by sectarian and regional players who gained prominence after the invasion, empowered by the decisions of the US occupation authorities. “In the process of creating a post-Baath Iraq, family law became a part of a ‘social contract’ that traded communal autonomy for women’s rights, as seen in the new constitution.” (p. 116)

In conclusion, Al-Ali and Pratt outline premises for forging a feminist, anti-imperialist and anti-war policy that might bring genuine peace and democracy to the Iraqi people, beginning with an end to the occupation. Their ideas have universal implications, not confined to Iraq. “Any analysis of what went wrong in Iraq must put gender firmly on the agenda, from challenging the very premise that military intervention will lead to women’s liberation to exploring the various ways war, violence, occupation, armed resistance, humanitarian crisis, and poverty affect men and women.” (p. 176)

Review by Sally Bland http://www.jordantimes.com/?news=17886


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