Yasmine Bahrani

(WOMENSENEWS)–If the United States invades Iraq to achieve what President Bush calls “regime change,” there will be consequences for women that have thus far received little if any attention.

Most Iraqis are torn about the possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. Experts such as Michael O’Hanlon predict that “tens of thousands” of Iraqi civilians will die, and I believe the vast majority of them will be women and children.

Iraqi women for decades have enjoyed greater equality and opportunity than have the women of neighboring Arab countries. Iraqi women never accepted their fate as citizens without rights. To the contrary, they have struggled for their rights for nearly 100 years. Women began taking positions in the mainstream job market as early as the 1920s and 1930s.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, these rights continued. Men and women receive the same salary and may pursue the same professions; Iraqi women are not required to cover themselves from head to toe the way women are in Iran and Saudi Arabia; and women receive five year’s maternity leave from their employers.

Today such authors as Rend Rahim Franke, activists such as Dalal Mufti, and many others struggle to make sure that the voices of Iraqi women continue to be heard.

At the same time, the sanctions against Iraq have created enormous suffering among women and children. I know this because I was born in Baghdad and I still hear regularly from my extended family there.

Traditionally most women had only one job but now many must hold down two or even three jobs so as to feed their families. Women-headed families are not uncommon in Iraq, which lost many soldiers in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and in the Gulf War of 1991. The same schoolteacher who was once able to live relatively well on her salary must now take in sewing and perhaps bake for extra money because her salary buys so little. The government makes rations available, but these last only about 10 days, and Iraq’s women must find ways to survive until the end of each month.

In the days when he was currying favor with the West, opportunity for women gave Saddam a valuable credential as a secular ruler opposed to the region’s religious fundamentalists. As it happens, women’s equality is one of the few aspects of the nation’s ruling ideology under the Ba’thist party that has survived the brutality that has marked Iraqi political life.

Iraq Scores Highest in Region for Women’s Empowerment

Indeed, a recent report prepared by Arab experts and compiled under United Nations auspices concluded that although Iraq remains among the region’s least developed countries, it scored highest in women’s empowerment.

Thus, while many Iraqi women long for the basic rights that are denied them under Saddam, they have reason to be wary of the future as well. There are a number of possible regimes that may replace Saddam–a fundamentalist Muslim regime, for example, or another military dictatorship–that could actually take away the gains of Iraqi women and set them back.

Regimes such as these are guilty of many well-known crimes against their citizens. But an egregious crime that was long overlooked involves their systematic discrimination against women. In some Arab countries today, girls don’t have access to school, many women are unable to travel unless accompanied by a male relative, and some are even forbidden to drive a car. Iraqi women do not wish to be subjected to such discrimination.

Iraqi women’s concerns about the future regime are not theoretical. In fact, they have reason to mistrust Iraq’s “opposition” movements, such as the Iraqi National Congress, because they have failed to include women members in key positions.

During the planning for a post-Taliban Afghanistan, the West made sure that two women ministers were included in Afghanistan’s ruling cabinet. But no similar effort has been made to include Iraqi women in a post-Saddam Iraq.

This must be addressed. Regardless of how the conflict between the United States and Saddam Hussein is resolved–either through negotiations or war–the rights and well-being of Iraqi women must be preserved and even expanded.

Yasmine Bahrani, who was born in Baghdad, is a copy editor at USA Today.

For more information:

The Iraq Foundation:

United Nations Development Programme:

Iraqi National Congress: