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Empowering women in Iraq and Afghanistan: Is this the actual question?

September 22, 2021 at 11:04 am

Afghan women hold banners and taped their mouths as they gather to stage ‘silent protest’ for their education rights at the entrance of the shopping mall opposite the Ministry of Education, in Kabul, Afghanistan on September 19, 2021 [Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency]

At a time when the voices of American and British officials, and the official media in the West in general, are loudly denouncing the lack of support for Afghan women in the recently formed Taliban government, and the failure to allocate a percentage of political representation to them, in any other position, the absent Iraqi women live like their Afghan counterparts, in the shadow of the silence of the same parties. If the Taliban movement is known for its position on women, and there is a general fear that its position will not change, despite its statements, the plight of Iraqi women is greater and deeper than that. They have been living, since the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003, in a constant decline of the same rights that the Taliban movement is supposed to implement after taking power. These are rights that are absolutely indisputable for women. It is a given that women’s rights are human rights and guaranteeing them is a moral and legal responsibility in a world where we should be working on meeting human rights in all countries around the world without discrimination.

However, the experience of 18 years in Iraq makes it difficult for anyone following women’s affairs, let alone the women themselves, not to compare the statements and actions on the ground regarding the extent to which human rights are applied, especially those of women. It is also difficult for one not to conclude the great harm caused by the double standards policy practiced by the US and UK, especially regarding the issue of women in the occupied countries. After the concept of “human rights” has become linked to the West, and what women are exposed to has become exploited as a political playing card used for a certain period of time, the need for it will soon no longer be needed and women will end up the biggest losers in all fields, including education, health, work, freedom of movement, and equality in political representation at every level, as is clearly demonstrated by the situation of Iraqi women. If Iraqis, both men and women, suffered major losses throughout the years of occupation due to the systematic sabotage manifested by sectarianism, corruption, arrests, killing and the spread of terrorism of all kinds, then the loss of women is doubled because they became the main breadwinners for their families in a country where competition for work is fierce, and based on sectarian and partisan quotas.

READ: Who represents Afghanistan: Genuine activists vs ‘native informants’ 

The controversy surrounding the failure to empower Afghan women leads us to follow the course of empowering Iraqi women and to dismantle the claims of “liberating” women and the promises made to them about equality, in light of the political process established by the occupation, and to which successive Iraqi governments have remained committed. The period immediately following the invasion was characterised by the activity of “colonial women” who chose to be the face of the occupation with a discourse that often replaced or opposed basic national, social and class issues with issues of other variation, which produced an elite that professionalised “feminist” work at the expense of women’s activities and the organically growing popular struggle from within the community itself. What makes the situation of Iraqi women a model for dismantling allegations of improving their political participation compared to the deprivation of Afghan women is that Iraq is a “partner” of America according to the “The Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States and the Republic of Iraq.”

The US administration issued a statement in April this year, in which it said the two sides reaffirmed their close bilateral relationship, which benefits both the American and Iraqi nations, related to the issues of security, counter-terrorism, economy, energy, environment, political issues and cultural  relations. It is worth noting that they avoided mention of human rights, especially women’s rights which was used to promote the invasion, and now they are cast aside and their presence in government and political decision-making centres is no longer of importance.

As for the number of female ministers, the transitional government headed by Ayad Allawi (2004-2005) included six female ministers. The number gradually decreased, until it disappeared completely, in the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, in 2018. Abdul-Mahdi was forced to resign under pressure from demonstrators in the October 2019 uprising, in which women contributed strongly and revived hope for women to restore their natural position in the general popular struggle. The Ministry of Women was abolished in the government of Haider Al-Abadi (2014-2018). As for the current government, headed by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, it includes one female minister out of 22 ministers. If we add to the ministerial exclusion the fact that political clerics have imposed their sectarian interpretations that are consistent not with religiosity as a personal belief, but with the politics of the parties that adopt them, and often their militias, on female parliamentarians and women in general, we find ourselves in front of questions that have not lost their importance despite how old they have become.

READ: Dozens of girl students flee Afghanistan to settle in Canada

Is empowering women, as it is sometimes proposed globally and locally, the solution to the deteriorating situation of women, their exposure to violence, and the deprivation of their basic rights to education, health and work? How can we separate personal and public violence when family, clan and societal traditions are mixed with state violence, militias and terrorist organisations? How do we separate between private and public? What is the difference between having a male or female if the daily currency in circulation, politically and socially, is corruption in all its forms represented by the parties to which they belong? Is it sufficient to obtain positions and repeat slogans, without listening to the voices of women on the ground, and isolating the feminist struggle from the general popular liberation, to erase the injustice that women are subjected to? Observing the struggle of Iraqi and Palestinian women and all the countries that have lived or are living under occupation and imperialist domination shows that the experience of women in their environment, and their joint organic struggle with men to consolidate the right of citizenship, may answer many questions. As the Iranian academic Elaheh Rostami-Povey reminds us in her study on the resistance of Afghan women and their struggle in Afghanistan and the diasporic community, that with the continued violence against women, sexual discrimination, and traditional gender relations, the major super powers in the world and the financial and military institutions have adopted feminist language and discourse, and that these concepts have been redefined to mean that the West, specifically the US, is civilised, while other cultures are on the verge of barbarism. These issues were manipulated with unparalleled success, to justify war and imperial domination.

This article first appeared in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 20 September 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.