Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Washington politicians in favor of the Iraq war like to talk about how they are "planting seeds of democracy," supporting "freedom-loving people" and "fighting terrorists in their streets so we don’t have to fight them in ours."

What they rarely talk about are the vanishing freedoms for Iraqi women, for whom democracy is a receding goal. Their lives are being destroyed by the thugs in their streets that the United States and its dwindling number of allies have no hope of controlling.

There’s not nearly enough coverage of this outrage.

The woman cutting my hair, asking what I was working on, was stunned when I told her about the few but powerful articles and radio and television transcripts I’d read describing harassment of Iraqi women by fundamentalists eager to see them veiled, jobless and uneducated; widowed, destitute women’s grim decisions to turn to prostitution to survive; raped by police, soldiers, contractors.

"I had no idea," she said. "We’re not getting this from our news."

Reporting and commentary about Iraqi women’s frightening predicament is gradually emerging, according to my Nexis-Lexis search of the last six months.

The most recent stories were spurred by the March 6 release of a devastating report about conditions for Iraqi women by the global women’s human rights group, Madre.

Inter Press, Women’s eNews, and others moved summaries of the report. The Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union ran a commentary by Madre communication director Yifat Susskind, who also was interviewed on "Between the Lines," a syndicated radio program. California’s Stockton Record published an essay by Margee Ensign, dean and associate provost of the University of the Pacific’s School of International Studies. It was good to see this issue dealt with on newspapers’ op-ed pages, where women’s concerns are so often absent.

‘Pushing a Rock Uphill’

The following week, in the San Francisco Chronicle, political consultant and Republican activist Eileen E. Padberg, who worked in Iraq from 2004 to 2006, wrote, "Every day, my work was like pushing a rock uphill–because our own people could not see the incredible benefits of providing equal opportunities for women . . . providing Iraqi women opportunities was low on the list of priorities for our U.S. contractors as well as our State Department . . . Not only did they face the ‘good old boy’ system in Iraq, not necessarily of Arab culture, but of American contractors . . . Iraqi women didn’t have the financial backing needed to meet (reconstruction) start-up requirements, nor did they have U.S. partners.

"In failing them, we failed ourselves. I truly believe if we had kept our commitment to the Iraqi women, we would not be in the situation we are in today," Padberg said.

A few months earlier, in a Baltimore Sun op-ed, Kavita N. Ramdas, president-CEO of the Global Fund for Women, flayed the assumption that war would improve the lives of women.

"The Global Fund for Women and the humanitarian community have long known that the presence of military troops in a region of conflict increases prostitution, violence against women and the potential for human trafficking," Ramdas wrote. Furthermore, the failure of U.S. officials to listen to secular Iraqi women leaders led to a new Iraqi constitution that elevated Islamic law over women’s rights. "For the first time in more than 50 years, Iraqi women’s right to be treated as equal citizens has been overturned," she said.

In addition to reporting on economic and civic reverses Iraqi women have experienced, more attention is being paid to the danger they are in. The Women’s Media Center in New York mounted a campaign, "Action for Abeer," to raise awareness of the gang rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza Al-Janabi in March 2006 and push for justice in this case, in which five U.S. soldiers and an Iraq war veteran have been charged. The center’s approach has been to publish and link to articles and commentary that highlight the deadly conditions for women in Iraq’s war zones.

Increasing Poignancy

Reporting about the plight of Iraqi women seemed to grow in poignancy, depth and audience reach during the six-month period I studied.

The first was an Oct. 28 report from Agence France Presse on the murder of Iraqi women’s rights champion Halima Ahmed Hussein al-Juburi, shot at home in front of her three children.

The next day, writing in the New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise began a story this way:

"The things the women missed were almost too small to notice at first."

Their lives were "shrinking," they told Tavernise. They had ceased organizing or attending family gatherings, even weddings; were frightened by security guards at an Iraqi ministry run by religious Shiites, who warned them about the consequences of "inappropriate" dress; they were less affectionate, less trusting, more fearful, more forgetful.

On Nov. 15, UPI reported the assassination of two Iraqi female journalists, Lama Riyad and Fadia Tai.

On Dec. 7, Inter Press Service readers were able to look through the eyes of reporters Dahr Jamail and Ali Al-fadhily at the lives of Iraq’s many widows.

Kidnapping for Sex, Ransom

After decades of violence have left more than a million men dead, detained or disabled, the widows are the sole support of their families in a country less able, and whose religious leaders are now less willing, to offer them work. The authors followed up that report on Dec. 11 with a harrowing account of the rising violence–including kidnapping for sex or ransom–that Iraqi women face. "Most of us now stay at home unless we absolutely must go out for food," one said.

On Jan. 3, NPR’s Isra Abdulhadi reported for "All Things Considered" about the challenges Iraqi women have finding suitable mates for marriage. "In a culture where marriage and family are the highest aspirations for both women and men, that’s a disaster," said host Renee Montaigne.

"There’s a growing stream of men from all over the Middle East eager to prey on the most desperate refugees from the war," reported Elizabeth Palmer for the "CBS Evening News" Dec. 7. Iraqi women living in refugee camps they’d fled to in Syria and Jordan were turning to prostitution to support themselves, Palmer said.

On Feb. 21, Marc Santora, Damien Cave and other New York Times employees wrote about how an Iraqi rape survivor appeared on satellite channel Al-Jazeera to talk about the crime and struck down an old taboo, in which "rape is not mentioned by the victims, and rarely by the authorities." The woman, a Sunni, was promptly castigated by Shiite leaders, who called her charges propaganda. Fear, hate and sexism seeped through every line of their account.

What has come through in all these reports is how utterly alone these women are, and how thorough has been their betrayal by their government and ours.

Alternative and mainstream media must build on what they’ve published and aired thus far; the national Sunday talk shows in particular need to take up this aspect of the Iraq war. Only then can we comprehend the full human consequences.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.

For more information:

Andrea Buffa, "Iraqi Women Silenced":

Eileen E. Padberg, "U.S. Failed Its Commitment to Iraqi Women":

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