The U.S. Occupation and Rising Religious Extremism: The Double Threat to Women in Iraq
Anissa Hélie, Iraq
June 24, 2005
On February 8, 2005, the international feminist and anti-militarist network Women in Black (WIB) launched an urgent appeal for the immediate liberation of Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist and WIB activist, who had been kidnapped in Iraq by a militant Islamist group (and who was later shot by U.S. forces as she was en route to safety). Three days after the appeal, various WIB groups around the world had mobilized, holding 463 silent vigils across several continents. While this was an impressive display of both the efficiency and strength of women's global solidarity, the incident remains just a snapshot of the mounting acts of violence against women in Iraq.
With about 140,000 troops currently deployed and a mounting death toll, the U.S. occupation of Iraq raises numerous issues, ranging from allegations of war crimes to the backing of a new Iraqi government based on tribal, ethnic and religious affiliation—a fact likely to have long term implications for the region. However, the Iraqi context is marked not only by the U.S. occupation, but also by the rise of an extremist Islamist armed insurgency that is targeting women. The left needs to avoid romanticizing forces that, despite their claim to be primarily opposed to U.S. imperialism, in fact pursue a fundamentalist agenda in Iraq. The left also needs to heed and challenge the steady incursion of the Muslim religious right in the West.
Mounting Violence Against Women
The ongoing trend of violence against women in Iraq should be seen in the broader context of human rights violations perpetrated by U.S. forces against detainees and civilians, including children. Indeed, the dehumanization of anyone identified as 'Arab' or 'Muslim' post 9/11 and a culture of institutionalized racism within the US army have led to many acts of brutality. There is serious evidence, corroborated by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, that jailed Iraqi women have suffered abuse and torture at the hands of the U.S. military.
The breakdown of society in Iraq provoked by the U.S. occupation has also had a detrimental impact on women. The current security situation is so poor that parents are reluctant to send their daughters to school unaccompanied and large numbers of teenagers have now abandoned pursuing their studies. Threats of sexual violence and murder have also led professional women to quit their jobs. Iraqi women and girls (some of them as young as nine years old) are abducted for both ransom and trafficking purposes.
Widespread violence also affects women's political participation: following the 2003 murder of Akila al-Hashimi (one of only three female members of the Governing Council), many activists were forced to retreat from the public sphere. Yet a recent survey on ‘post-war' Iraqi women shows how much they continue to value access to political and legal rights. This study, undertaken in January 2005 by the Washington DC-based Women for Women International in collaboration with the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, is another example of women's international solidarity.
In addition to the destruction of basic infrastructure, an overwhelming lack of security, and violence at the hands of U.S. occupation forces, the emergence and rise of religious extremism pose new threats to Iraqi women's lives. In a move that goes beyond seeking to impose a rigid gender ideology, fundamentalist armed groups specifically target women in order to induce fear and helplessness among ordinary citizens. This is often a prelude to imposing an Islamic state. The work of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) shows there is a pattern in Iraq that has been repeated in many other contexts: violence against women as a form of political intimidation is one of the strategies extreme-right religious forces systematically employ. As they seek to secure political power, fundamentalists of various creeds (whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc.) often begin by intimidating, persecuting, abducting and murdering women as well as minorities. Religious, ethnic and sexual minorities are especially at risk. Fundamentalist forces then move toward terrorizing all other citizens who may oppose their authoritarian theocratic project.
For example, an extremist group in Iraq called Mujahideen Shura (council of fighters) warned it would kill any woman who is seen unveiled on the street. The recent case of Zeena Al Qushtaini has shown this is not an empty threat. Zeena, a women's rights activist and businesswoman known for wearing 'Western' clothing, was kidnapped and executed by Jamaat al Tawhid wa'l-Jihad, another armed Islamist group. Her body was found wrapped in the traditional abaya which she had refused to wear when she was alive. Pinned to the abaya was the message: "She was a collaborator against Islam." Muslim extremists have already moved on to assassinating male and female hairdressers whom they accuse of promoting 'Western' fashion. They also specifically target trade union leaders as well as gays and lesbians. Religious minorities are also under attack, such as Christians in the Northern city of Mosul—with women from the Christian community singled out in a rape campaign.
Given their political project and the violent tactics they employ, how can such militant groups gain any legitimacy in the West? It is necessary to reflect on the nature of the language used to refer to these increasingly powerful political actors.
Western mainstream media and human rights organisations tend to describe these militants' acts of violence using terms such as ‘insurgency.' There is also a tendency within some leftist and feminist circles to label Muslim
extremists—who kill, rape, kidnap women and girls and openly target
civilians—as ‘the resistance.' This is highly problematic in that the word ‘resistance' has a revolutionary, heroic connotation that leaves unchallenged the political agenda pursued by fundamentalist factions in Iraq. In the U.K., leading voices from the left further romanticize the Iraqi "armed resistance against imperialism," even comparing it to independence struggles in Vietnam and Algeria. It is worth remembering that there are plenty of unarmed civilians, as well as groups of every political affiliation, that reject the U.S. occupation yet do not engage in violence or human rights violations. Islamist fighters should not be confused with national liberation movements.
The ‘resistance' label is politically misleading in the Iraqi context, at least as far as Muslim fundamentalist groups are concerned. It is inadequate because the emphasis is narrowly placed on a rejection of U.S. occupation. Despite the anti-imperialist claims made by the leaders of armed groups, it seems very unlikely that if or when U.S. troops withdraw, persecution of women or religious and sexual minorities will stop —because what is really at stake is a theocratic agenda. Referring to ‘resistance fighters' is also dangerous because it valorizes and glorifies Muslim right-wing militants. It renders invisible the authoritarian nature of extreme-right movements that use religion, culture and ethnicity to impose their project of society onto people.
What we have in Iraq is violence. What we have is a struggle for power, with various forces using extremely violent means —and different discourses. Some use dialectics of ‘democracy' and ‘importing freedom,' while others use the ‘resisting imperialism' rhetoric.
The current situation in Iraq sadly illustrates the knee-jerk thoughtlessness with which some progressive constituencies in the West adopt a language that blurs complex political realities. Even more worrisome is the increasing tendency for left-identified individuals and groups to lend support to right-wing Muslims on the basis of their (alleged) anti-imperialist stand. Growing numbers of activists embrace short-sighted strategies, insisting for example that the Western "antiwar movement must not lose sight of the fact that its main enemy is at home—and any resistance to that enemy deserves our unconditional support." What is alarming about this statement is the immediate allegiance to unconditional support, without regard to the ideologies, practices, and acts of violence of those groups.
In Muslim contexts, as elsewhere, there are progressive and reactionary voices. Somehow, these political standpoints become blurred as segments of the Western left seem to adopt the strategy of ‘the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend,' even though Khomeini's post-revolutionary Iran should have taught us that it is indeed misguided to confuse anti-women, anti-minorities, anti-diversity voices with those of feminists or progressive advocates. This ideological confusion is not lost on Muslim fundamentalists —who are anything but politically naïve. In fact, their soft-spoken leaders actively take advantage of a misplaced white guilt to expand their hold on the West. The bloody hands threaten and the educated intellectuals charm: such is the division of labor for these extremists.
Aware of the reality of racism and in an effort to befriend the oppressed, a ‘Muslim perspective' on just about anything is sought by progressive forces in the West, from playwrights to academics or (often self appointed) community leaders. Conservative voices, it seems, are seen as the most authentic. Liberal ones, somehow, lack the sweet perfume of exoticism. Hence, dangerously rigid standpoints are offered as the ‘true' expression of all Muslims. Space for dissent becomes monopolized by fundamentalists, at the expense of secular, feminist, and pro-democracy advocates.
Three recent examples highlight this point. In Ontario, Canada, so-called ‘moderate" fundamentalist groups lobbied to introduce Shari'a (the interpretation of Muslim jurisprudence that in some countries has condoned penalties like whipping, amputation and stoning to death) so that the ‘Muslim community' can resolve family conflicts without interference. There are similar pressures in Manitoba and Quebec, as well as in Europe and Australia. Despite the fact that laws framed with reference to religion have proven to be extremely detrimental to women's rights in numerous contexts, the ‘multicultural' argument leads many on the left to blindly support an oppressive agenda.
In a less naïve and more strategic move, the U.K. Labor government, as it introduced its new Equality Bill in February 2005, decided to prioritize discrimination on the basis of religion and disregard discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation —for fear that "Muslims might feel offended if they were 'lumped together' with homosexuals." One can only wonder how British gays and lesbians from the Muslim community will appreciate the sacrifice of sexual rights on the altar of religious freedom.
Finally, the last European Social Forum (ESF), held in London in October 2004, was —in the tradition of the larger World Social Fora —meant to bring together large numbers of activists committed to debate issues such as ‘imperialist globalization, religious sectarianism, identity politics and fundamentalism.' Sadly, ESF organizers took pride in inviting a number of extremist Muslim leaders. At the same time, they actively discouraged more progressive initiatives —such as a proposed panel including speakers from various feminist groups and international networks (WLUML, WIB, Women Against Fundamentalism, Catholics for a Free Choice and Act Together). While the Muslim Council of Britain and other similar endeavors could boast access to all available facilities in the several panels they organised, the feminist panel's request to obtain translation facilities was turned down. One wonders whether it was because the feminists' focus on ‘unholy alliances’ between the left and Muslim extreme-right forces was deemed too threatening.
Building Real Solidarity
These are not isolated incidents, and warnings about such alliances on such a broad scale have been circulated by international feminist groups. Fundamentalism's proponents seek support from progressive forces by appealing to the very ideals the left stands for, such as equality, anti-racism, and freedom of expression. At this time in history when one can witness extreme-right offensives gaining ground (whether in the U.S. with the Christian right, in India with the Hindutva forces, or in Iraq, Bangladesh and elsewhere), the need for international solidarity becomes all the more urgent. To avoid lumping together cultural and religious identities and to recognize that not all those born in Muslim contexts happen to be believers, or choose to define themselves primarily on the basis of their faith, would be a good start. Indeed, with fundamentalists building coalitions across cultural and religious divides, we ourselves —as progressive people and as feminists of various horizons —should devise common strategies of resistance to groups who practice violence and oppression toward women and people in general. This is a matter of priority and an opportunity to further strengthen our global solidarity.
Anissa Hélie is a feminist historian by training and an activist by choice. In 2005 she was a recipient of a research/teaching Ford Foundation Fellowship at the Five Colleges, Inc. in Amherst, MA. She has worked with a wide range of women's groups and human rights groups in various countries, focusing on issues of sexuality, fundamentalisms and reproductive rights. She has been involved with Women Living Under Muslim Laws since its inception in 1984.
From Agenda, June 24, 2005.