Iraqi women fight for their future amidst new kind of war

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787.jpg When I telephoned Huda Al-Jazairy in Baghdad exactly two years ago, a bomb had fallen 12 feet from her house, shattering windows in surrounding houses. At that time, she told me, “There is no security. All the people are afraid to go out.”

But that situation, she said last week, was “so much better than now.” As bad as it was in 2004, now it’s “below zero.”

Earlier I interviewed her sister Souad Al-Jazairy, a journalist, TV and radio producer who left Iraq in 1979 and has lived in the U.K. since 1990. She chairs the U.K. branch of the Iraqi Women’s League, Iraq’s oldest women’s organization, founded in 1952. Souad is currently on an extended stay in Iraq, working with women’s groups around the country.

“To be honest,” she said, speaking by phone from Baghdad, “this is the fourth time I have visited since the war, and this is the worst.” Emphasizing that she strongly opposed Saddam Hussein, she repeated emotionally, “This is the worst time in our history.” She added, “I am very upset. Nobody feels what we are experiencing.”

Souad was among several Iraqi women invited to visit the U.S. in March as part of a Women Say No to War campaign organized by Code Pink. She was unable to come because of her work in Iraq.

One who came was Dr. Rashad Zidan, a pharmacist who works in Baghdad and Fallujah with the Women and Knowledge Society which aids war victims, especially widows and orphans.

At a March 24 meeting in Chicago, she gave a grim picture of the U.S. occupation’s results: “Widows and orphans are being created every day in frightening numbers.”



Living in turmoil and fear

Baghdad has an 8 p.m. curfew, said Huda, but even during the day “we can’t move out of our house. There are bombs, killings everywhere.”

Souad told me, “Iraqi summer is approaching, it is getting hot” —summer temperatures there are well over 100 degrees — “and Iraqi people like to sit in the garden. We can’t sit in the garden because it’s not safe — even to stay for 5 minutes in front of your house is not safe.”

“During the night you wake up five or six times because of the sound of bombs. You hear each day stories of people being kidnapped, kidnappers asking the family for thousands of dollars.” In one recent week 72 people were kidnapped in Baghdad — men and women, she said.

788.jpg Referring to the Bush administration, Souad said furiously, “They said they are coming to give freedom. Is this freedom? Is this democracy? This is bleeding. All the country is bleeding. There is nothing normal here.

“Since the occupation nothing has changed — the situation became bad to worse to worse. I want to cry. Nobody outside Iraq cares.”

Huda told me, “We don’t know who is killing who. Men move around the city, killing Shia, Sunni, but who are these men? We don’t know. That makes people more afraid. Because when you know who is on the other side, you can fight them.”

Souad believes this is a “new kind of war,” involving a deliberate effort to provoke sectarian conflict among the Iraqi people, perhaps by outside forces.

Echoing sentiments widely expressed by Iraqis, she said, “All our life we have lived as Shia, Sunni, Christian, Turkmen — together. Never ever in my life were the Iraqi people thinking of each other as Shia or Sunni. This is now the main thing they think about.”

In Chicago, Rashad told of a small child whose parents and siblings were all killed in U.S. aerial bombing of Fallujah. Because her 72-year-old grandmother can’t take care of her all day, she comes to a kindergarten run by Rashad’s group. Asked to write on a slate what she wanted, the little girl wrote the word “home,” saying, “Can you please give me my home and my family?”

The impact of such traumas “will be a problem for years — these people will grow up with hate,” Rashad said. “We try to give them love.

“Iraqis were not a violent people but became pushed to violence,” she said. She worries that horrors like Abu Ghraib have created an “out-of-control psychological state” among some people. Citing U.S. news reports on divorce among returning U.S. vets, she told her Chicago audience, “This will destroy your country also.”



Daily life

With electricity available just a few hours a day, those who have money have bought their own generators. But hundreds of thousands have no money for this, said Souad, “and the generator can’t run all day. You have to choose between the fan or the refrigerator or the lights. And there is no petrol. You need petrol to run the generator. And we are a country very rich in oil. And there is no water. Can you believe it?”

789.jpg Many children go to school only one or two days a week, if at all, because of the violence. Souad told me her niece’s teacher was killed recently. Now the sister-in-law is afraid to send her daughter to school. Huda’s 6-year-old son should be in first grade, but Huda keeps him home.

Huda told me she and her husband want to sell their house and go to Cairo so her son can go to school. It’s not clear if they have enough money to do so. But they are lucky compared to others who have no money for food, Souad commented.

“Many facts have been hidden from the American people,” Rashad said in Chicago. “The most important is the mass destruction that happened to my country.”

Because of a severe shortage of medicine, illnesses cannot be treated, she said.

Depleted uranium used in U.S. weaponry has led to an increase in cancer among Iraqis. In the 10 years following the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi health officials recorded a 200 percent rise in cancer and leukemia cases, particularly in young children, in southern Iraq. Symptoms can take years to develop. Today cancer is showing up especially among women and children, Rashad said, but “we don’t have chemotherapy, we don’t have sophisticated treatment.”

“Most important,” she said, “we don’t have security. Every day, we have bombings and shootings and military operations.”

“We got no benefit” from the U.S. war, she said. “We have been promised freedom, democracy, but we got nothing.”



Women’s rights endangered

Iraq’s 1959 personal status law was considered one of the most progressive family laws in the Middle East. The 1970 Iraqi Provisional Constitution and other laws of that period guaranteed women equal civil, political and social rights, and provide significant social benefits like substantial maternity leave. Women achieved high levels of education and participation in the workforce.

In the 1980s and ’90s many of these advances were reversed as Saddam Hussein used religion and tribalism to consolidate power. In addition, UN economic sanctions disproportionately impacted women and girls.

But since the U.S. invasion, Rashad pointed out, the growing military and sectarian violence has forced women back into the home. Today only around 10 percent of women can go to work because of the security crisis, she said. And when a husband is killed or imprisoned, the woman has to bear responsibility for the family. “We have to fight again for women’s rights,” she said.



Women organizing

Despite their unbelievably difficult situation, Iraqi women are fighting tenaciously for women’s rights and the future of their families.

The Iraqi Women’s League has local groups throughout Iraq, even in troubled cities like Mosul, Ramadi and Najaf, and abroad. They provide classes in organizing, media, computers and literacy, educate women about changes needed in the constitution to guarantee women’s rights, and work with orphans and the elderly. Last July, they held a national conference in Baghdad attended by over 100 delegates, despite the security problems. They are planning another national meeting this month.

Rashad started the Women and Knowledge Society when the U.S. invaded. It offers women classes in literacy, computers, sewing and raising sheep. “We give them support, try to build their capacity,” she said. The group runs children’s clinics, with volunteer doctors, and a kindergarten for orphans in Fallujah.

It’s all done at great personal risk. Souad, 53, travels around Iraq meeting with women and speaks on women’s radio programs about the constitution battle. She always has to have a bodyguard with her.

Rashad, 47, mother of four, said, “Every time we go out — this is our habit now —when I leave in the morning, I say ‘Goodbye, maybe we’ll not meet in the evening.’” Her voice broke and tears filled her eyes. “We go and say ‘God will save us because we go to help others.’”



Bringing peace to Iraq

“It’s time to start in another way,” one that will stop the suffering of both American and Iraqi families, Rashad told the Chicago meeting.

In addition to calling for an end to the U.S. occupation, the Women Say No to War appeal calls on international organizations like the UN to “step forward” and assist in peacekeeping and achieving a political solution.

As to the U.S., Rashad said, “At least just give us a schedule [for withdrawal]. Then the majority of the people holding weapons will stop. Even this simple thing the U.S. president refuses. You have to show another side, that you are not looking for oil, you don’t want to stay forever. Just start a step.”

Susan Webb (suewebb@pww.org) is a member of the People’s Weekly World editorial board.





Facts

At least 1,038 Iraqi civilians died in March in war-related and sectarian violence. In the three days after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Samarra mosque, about 1,300 people were killed.

More than 20 percent of Iraqis are in abject poverty. Government food rations have been slashed. Prices of staple foods are soaring, some jumping by 300 percent or more, and prices of fuel, rent and other basic needs have skyrocketed. Millions of families have relied on the monthly rations since sanctions were imposed on Iraq in 1991. Officials say the cut in rations is part of a move to curtail state spending and develop a free market economy.

Iraqis have to wait in line for as much as 10 hours to buy a bottle of gas for cooking.

Supply of electricity, clean water and sewage disposal are all down from 2003. In Baghdad, electricity is on for about 2 hours a day.

Some 311 teachers and 64 schoolchildren under age 12 have been killed in the past four months. Attacks and threats shut 417 schools during the same period disrupting the education of thousands of children. At least 30 percent of Iraqi students are not attending school, with the situation much worse in Baghdad.

In Mosul, nine doctors were killed in early March and 60 others left because of fear of violence. Doctors and nurses went on strike there in February demanding the government provide protection.

More than 40,000 Iraqis have reportedly been displaced in the current sectarian violence, nearly half of them children.

Iraq’s oil production is at the lowest rate since the U.S. invasion.









Women’s call for Peace: An Urgent Appeal

Women’s rights, peace and social justice advocates from the U.S., Iraq and other countries are calling for withdrawal of all foreign troops and foreign fighters from Iraq, women’s equality in Iraq, no foreign bases, Iraqi control of its oil and other resources, a massive reconstruction effort, consideration of a temporary international peacekeeping force, and a stepped up role for international bodies like the United Nations in reaching a political solution for Iraq. For more information, see www.womensaynotowar.org.