Liberating Iraqi Women


Tough times make for strange bedfellows, which is why I probably should not have been as astonished as I was to read the following approving headline on Fox News' website this past Mother's Day: "U.S. Presence in Iraq Promotes Muslim Feminism." The article, penned by none other than veteran feminist Lt. Col. Oliver North, argued that if Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were really interested in promoting women's rights, she would be vigorously promoting the U.S. occupation of Iraq, since "the principal protectors of Muslim women today [are] the Armed Forces of the United States." (Except for these bad apples, of course). I won't dwell on the downright silliness of an article that is too busy appropriating the language of women's empowerment to notice its own blindingly paternalistic analysis; read it yourself if you're up for a cognitive dissonance migraine. But I will take issue with the article's main claim. After a brief, reductive overview of how "radical Islam" oppresses women, North argues that:

Thanks to young Americans wearing flak jackets and helmets, hundreds of schools have been built for Muslim girls, millions of women have the right to vote, scores of female health care clinics have been opened, and hundreds of thousands of women now work, have their own bank accounts, use cell-phones—even serve in elected office.

Well, I'm glad to hear it, but according to a distressing New York Times piece that came out last week, it's not all cell phones and bank accounts for the women of Iraq. Due to the sustained conflict, economic downturn, and general atmosphere of total chaos and extreme danger ushered in by the U.S. invasion, Iraqi women are now migrating to Syria in droves. What fate awaits these thousands of female Iraqi refugees across the border? Why, exotic dancing and sex work, of course, the same career choices faced by their sisters worldwide who are struggling to support themselves and their families in a macroeconomic landscape that offers fewer and fewer licit options for income generation. As the NYT points out:

Many of these women and girls, including some barely in their teens, are recent refugees. Some are tricked or forced into prostitution, but most say they have no other means of supporting their families. As a group they represent one of the most visible symptoms of an Iraqi refugee crisis that has exploded in Syria in recent months.

As one young women quoted in the article explains, "If they go back to Iraq they'll be slaughtered, and this is the only work available." Lovely.

The rise of violence—and particularly so-called "honor" killings—against women in Iraq has been well documented, as has the undeniable fact that "radical Islamists" are in fact more powerful in today's Iraq than in Saddam Hussein's. But what struck me most about the NYT story was how starkly it illuminated the way that U.S. policy contradictions and blind spots ultimately do shape women's realities, amidst all the empty rhetoric about liberation and democracy. If you invade a country, you can pretty much guarantee that the resulting upheaval will make women less safe, both in the streets and in their homes—even if one of the stated goals of that war is to "liberate women" (which we could obviously debate…). And if you destroy a country's economy (the natural consequence of sanctions and sustained violent conflict), you can pretty much guarantee that more women will enter the sex trade, migrate, and be more vulnerable to traffickers and other capitalist opportunists. Crusading against prostitution and trafficking in one policy arena while busily fomenting the conditions that make prostitution and trafficking women's best (or only) survival option in another? Now that's a contradiction that should make Oliver North blush.

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