According to the findings of a recent survey by local rights NGOs, women were treated better during the Saddam Hussein era – and their rights were more respected – than they are now.
“We interviewed women in the country and met with local NGOs dealing with gender issues to develop this survey, which asked questions about the quality of women’s life and respect for their rights,” said Senar Muhammad, president of Baghdad-based NGO Woman Freedom Organisation. “The results show that women are less respected now than they were under the previous regime, while their freedom has been curtailed.”
According to the survey, women’s basic rights under the Hussein regime were guaranteed in the constitution and – more importantly – respected, with women often occupying important government positions. Now, although their rights are still enshrined in the national constitution, activists complain that, in practice, they have lost almost all of their rights.
Women’s groups point to the new government, many members of which take a conservative view when it comes to the role of women. “When we tell the government we need more representation in parliament, they respond by telling us that, if well-qualified women appear one day, they won’t be turned down,” said Senar. “Then they laugh at us.”
Government officials disagree saying that women’s political views are respected and that they are better represented in government than was the case during the previous regime.
Female activists, on their part, agree with the survey’s results.
“Before the US-led invasion in 2003, women were free to go to schools, universities and work, and to perform other duties,” Senar added. “Now, due to security reasons and repression by the government, they’re being forced to stay in their homes.”
The new constitution, approved in October 2005, makes Shari’a [Islamic Law] the primary source of national law. According to Senar, however, Shari’a has been misinterpreted by elements within the government and by certain religious leaders, which has resulted in the frequent denial of women’s rights. This is particularly the case in matters pertaining to divorce, she said.
Iman Saeed, spokesperson for another women’s NGO that helped conduct the survey but which prefers anonymity for security reasons, said that some religious leaders have also begun insisting that women wear the veil. “Many husbands now force their wives to wear the veil, just because a sheikh [religious teacher] said so,” Iman said.
Some religious leaders say that the wearing of the veil is obligatory for Muslim women and that because of sectarian violence women should stay at home to look after their children.
“Women should stay at home with their families. Participating in politics will distance them from their kids,” said Sheikh Marouf Abdel-Kader, a religious leader at one of the mosques in Baghdad.
Women represent roughly 60 percent of the population. Despite a 25-percent representative presence in parliament, however, they are seldom entrusted with high government positions, while their contribution to political debate is rarely taken seriously. “When US troops entered Iraq, we thought it would be a great opportunity for Iraqi women to begin having their voices heard,” said Senar. “But we were wrong – the opposite has happened, and we’re losing ground by the day.”
The survey also highlighted the increase in unemployment levels among Iraqi women since 2003. "Female unemployment is now twice as high as that for males, while female poverty has also increased,” said Iman. “In addition, the number of widows – already high as a result of the Iran-Iraq war [in the 1980s] – has increased since the US invasion, making the situation worse.”
Authors of the survey urged Washington and international organisations to pressure Baghdad to leave more decision-making positions to women. “The current leaders don’t think of us as potential presidents or vice-presidents, arguing that women can’t hold such important posts,” said Shams Yehia, a professor at Baghdad University who helped conduct the survey. “We appeal to all bodies to force the Iraqi government to give us our rights back.”