Monday, May 28, 2007

Women, please be patient - still

By Rowan Wolf


A couple of week’s ago, a young woman in nothern Iraq (Kurdish region) was stoned to death for wanting to marry outside her sect (Yazidi). Since then, the event has kept returning to me as emblematic of the deteriorated status of women in Iraq that has occurred since the United States took control.

The stoning of Doaa Aswad Dekhil of Bashika, aged 17, is tragic in a place that is supposedly becoming “democratic,” but it is consistent with the ongoing segregation of women’s personhood and so called “human rights. This deterioration is expanding. A student of mine from Iran has approached me recently to talk about his concern for women in Iran as conditions for women deteriorate their as well. Part of an overall response and retreat to extremeism that is characteristic of the politics of fear. I wrote the piece below in 2003 in response to the ongoing deterioration of the status of women in Afghanistan and Iraq - places where the US boot print is particularly strong. I share it with you because it seems as appropriate now as it did then.

Women, please be patient

It seems that everywhere there are struggles for freedom and equality women are told to be patient. Afghanistan and Iraq are two interesting examples. Women in Afghanistan were brutally repressed under under the Taliban. There was hope that with the overthrow of the Taliban, women could become active citizens in their nation again. After a brief surge of semi-freedom the veil (literally) is dropping again.

In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, women faced largely the same controls as males, but were remarkably free to pursue education and occupation. For all that Iraq was a dictatorship, it was a secular dictatorship. Women in Iraq are among the most educated in the Middle East.

Now Iraq is “liberated” and the conditions for women are rapidly deteriorating. Women are being ridiculed, kidnapped, attacked and raped. But fear not, a “democracy” is being established.

There is a logical fallacy in the argument that “womens’ rights” somehow are second to liberation. In the US, during the leftist and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s, women were told that “their turn would come.” Or that somehow women’s social equality would naturally flow from other struggles for equality. Seeing that was not happening, women started organizing for our own equality.

Somehow, consistently, women’s conditions are subordinated to, and considered less fundamental than, the “people’s conditions.” When these kinds of distinctions are made, who then are the “people?” If you extract women’s equality and participation from the collectivity of “people,” what remains are men. Men’s concerns and conditions; men’s freedom and equality; men throwing off the yoke of “oppression;” men creating another society (or reshaping society) for the “people,” and people equals men.

If there is active concern for the full participation of various ethnic and religious groups within Iraq as a prerequisite for a “democratic” Iraq, how can the group which composes over half of each of those ethnic and religious groups be excluded from the table? If it is despicable to oppress the Kurds (for example), then why is it not equally despicable to oppress women? And why can this fabrication go on and on?

The simple answer is that patriarchy systematically excludes women - whether that is the patriarchy of US mainstream society, Afghan society, Iraqi society, etc. But underlying the process is the conceptual doublethink that “people” and “human” equals everyone when in fact it consistently means “men.” Further, because we are so used to this conceptual machination and the systems that support it, it seems only appropriate that somehow the health and freedom of the “people” supercedes the health and freedom of “women.” There is more than a suggestion that women are somehow being selfish and cruel to assert that their issues be considered and accommodated. “Step back ladies, we’ll get to you.”

Excluding women from the processes of the society, especially the reconstruction of societies, seems doomed to recreating the same structures over and over again. Some would argue that this is a cultural issue, and certainly culture plays a huge part in this, but there is something bigger than culture. Certainly in US international policies the often brutal conditions which women experience is not a significant barrier to political and economic exchange. Despite global pleas for pressure to be placed on the Taliban because of the brutality of Afghan women’s lives, the US (and other nations) continued to support the Taliban. It only came up as a public political issue to help justify the invasion of Afghanistan and overthrow of the Taliban. Of course, women are not “equal” in the US either though the myth exists that we are.

So I posit the radical notion that the denial of rights and oppression of women is equally important as the denial of rights and the oppression of any other group in a society. Underlying this notion is that women ARE those other groups and one cannot separate them out from “the rest of the population” seeking a better life.

Articles of interest
Where are Iraq’s Women? Westcott, BBC, 5/08/03.
Iraq: Women’s Rights Put on Hold, Pejman, IPS, 10/04/03.
WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN: A human rights catastrophe Amnesty International 1995.
The Plight of the Afghan Women, Afghanistan Online.
Beaten, Abused, Chained. This is One Afghan Woman’s ‘Liberation’ Monakhov, Observer/UK, 10/05/03

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