Saddam Wasn't a Feminist.--

There is an interesting article by A. Yasmine Rassam at on how the plight of women under Saddam compares to the current efforts to whitewash that record:

A recent report by "Global Exchange" and "Code Pink" entitled "Iraqi Women Under Siege" [available here] concluded that "the occupation of Iraq has not resulted in greater equality and freedom for women" than they had under Saddam Hussein. Published by two radical feminist anti-war groups whose primary activities include protesting military recruiting stations, organizing anti-WTO protests and sympathizing with the regimes in North Korea and Cuba, this report echoes a long line of blatant pronouncements. Hillary Clinton who once said that after liberation there were "pullbacks in the rights that [women] were given under Saddam Hussein" and Howard Dean's infamous remark that "Iraqi women were better off under Saddam Hussein." . . .

Much of the anti-war propagandists' defense of Saddam as a champion of women's rights rests on his willingness to allow women to vote (for him), drive cars, own property, get an education and work. What they choose to ignore, however, is the systematic rapes, torture, beheadings, honor killings, forced fertility programs, and declining literacy rates that also characterized Saddam's regime. A few examples can only begin to illustrate the cruelty and suffering endured by thousands of Iraqi women. One torture technique favored by Saddam's henchman and his sons involved raping a detainee's mother or sister in front of him until he talked. In Saddam's torture chambers women, when not tortured and raped, spent years in dark jails. If lucky, their suckling children were allowed to be with them. In most cases, however, these children were considered a nuisance to be disposed of; mass graves currently being uncovered contain many corpses of children buried alive with their mothers.

During Saddam's war with Iran, nearly an entire generation of Iraqi men were killed, injured or captured, leaving a dearth of men of military age in Iraqi society. As a result, Saddam launched "fertility campaigns" that forcibly administered fertility drugs to school girls as young as 10 in an effort to drive up the population rate.

After the Gulf War--particularly after crushing the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings of 1991--Saddam reverted to tribal and "Islamic" traditions as a means to consolidate power. Iraqi women paid the heaviest price for his new-found piety. Many women were removed from government jobs and were not allowed to travel without the permission of a male relative. Men were exempted from punishment for "honor" killings--killings carried out on female relatives who had supposedly "shamed" their family. An estimated 4,000 women died from honor killings in the ensuing years. By 2000, Iraqi women, once considered the most highly educated in the Middle East, had literacy levels of only 23%.

Under the pretext of fighting prostitution in 2000, Saddam's Fedayeen forces beheaded 200 women "dissidents" and dumped their head on their families doorsteps for public display. These women obviously lost whatever "rights" granted to them once they got in Saddam's way.


In the comments, Blar points out that many of Rassam's points are mentioned in the Report she is criticizing.

He expands his comment on his blog.

Blar's comments are a necessary corrective to Rassam's article, which definitely should have disclosed that many of her points were mentioned in the report, even if they were given little weight in the Report's conclusions.

The Report makes a number of questionable claims, such as, "Illiteracy is on the rise." From what I could determine from searching online, it appears that female literacy is up from the appalling 23% it was in 2000. The Report also blames the low female literacy mostly on impoverishment caused by the embargo (with little candor on the "oil for palaces" or "oil for weapons" program): "Impoverishment forced families to keep their female children out of school, and illiteracy soared." Blar quotes this line as if it were a negation of Rassam's point.

Human Rights Watch, no friend of the Bush administration, paints a somewhat more colorful picture of the actions of Saddam's regime:

"In 1998, the government reportedly dismissed all females working as secretaries in governmental agencies. In June 2000, it also reportedly enacted a law requiring all state ministries to put restrictions on women working outside the home. Women's freedom to travel abroad was also legally restricted and formerly co-educational high schools were required by law to provide single-sex education only, further reflecting the reversion to religious and tribal traditions."

To get a more general sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the Report, consider the first paragraph in the Report's Executive Summary:

From 1958 to the 1990s, Iraq provided more rights and freedoms for women and girls than most of its neighbors. Though Saddam Hussein's dictatorial government and 12 years of severe sanctions reduced these opportunities, Iraqi women, before the occupation, were still active in many aspects of their society. Now that situation has dramatically changed. While women in Iraqi Kurdistan have made gains since the U.S. invasion, in the rest of the country, women today face violence, hardship and fear daily, and their futures are more uncertain than ever.
This seems both to recognize the terrible security problems and to underplay the problems for women under Saddam's regime.

The report ends with this non sequitur:

And most importantly, women around the world, especially those from the countries that are participating in the occupation of Iraq, should push to end their governments' support for the war. None of us can sit and talk about empowering Iraqi women, while the occupation continues to disempower the Iraqi people.

How ending the occupation would empower Iraqi women is not mentioned. And the threats of radical Islam or an Iranian-style regime that the Report itself expresses would seem to be greater dangers if the US were to withdraw any time soon.

And people wonder why so many will not support the Dems. They cozy up to people like Code Pink. I saw an article with a picture of him holding up a Code Pink Tee shirt. JFK must be crying right now.
5.8.2006 2:07pm
5.8.2006 2:16pm
Mr. X (www):
Ah, we're better than Saddam, so we must have been right to invade Iraq.

Excellent argument.
5.8.2006 2:51pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
It's a sad and weird thing that a report such as this would be considered worthy of attention in 2006. The same stuff was widely reported after Gulf War I (for example, by Geraldine Brooks in 'Nine Parts of Desire').

Willful ignorance must be the explanation.
5.8.2006 2:56pm
Blar (mail) (www):
Rassam's article is extremely dishonest. It's puzzling that anyone would think that people who argue that Iraqi women are worse off than they were under Saddam Hussein were claiming that Saddam was "a champion of women's rights." For someone who is actually paying attention to what these feminists are saying to make this assertion is simply disingenuous.

Here's how the Code Pink report which Rassam cites (and you link) "whitewashes" Saddam's record (p. 4, emphasis added):

Although a great deal of policy and law continued to women's advantage when Saddam Hussein became president, his voracious appetite for dictatorial power over the entire population could not but undermine women's gains. Women, like men, were jailed, tortured, raped, and murdered. To extract information from dissidents, suspected dissidents, and opposition members abroad, Hussein was fond of sending them video tapes showing their female relatives raped by members of the secret police.
By 1990 Hussein was courting support for his warweary regime from neighboring Islamic states and from religious and tribal leaders. Hussein's public embrace of Islam's moral authority changed many of the laws governing divorce, child custody, and inheritance rights so as to limit women's rights and freedoms. Laws restricted women's ability to travel abroad without a male relative and reintroduced single-sex education in high school. The GFIW [General Federation of Iraqi Women, which implemented state policy] stopped promoting women's rights to work and education and focused primarily on humanitarian aid and health care. Honor killings of women who were suspected of pre-marital sex or victims of rape, thereby "dishonoring" the family name, dramatically increased after Hussein reduced the prison sentences of male perpetrators from 8 years to no more than 6 months—a punishment in any case rarely imposed.

And the government's brutalization of women continued. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and the subsequent Gulf War ended with U.S. President George W. Bush [sic] urging the Kurds and Shi'a, whose religious activities were strictly regulated by the Ba'athists, to rise up against Hussein's government. They did so—unsuccessfully. During and after the uprisings, government forces killed thousands of people, including women and children, who were also allegedly used by government forces as "human shields." By 2000, a militia founded by Hussein's son, Uday, was beheading women in a campaign against prostitution.

It's pretty clear who is making choices about what to ignore.
5.8.2006 3:13pm
karrde (mail) (www):
Do such beheadings, torture, and the like continue?

If not, then why does the report say that women's rights haven't improved?

Does the title and summary of the report claim that women's rights have not improved in Iraq?
5.8.2006 3:28pm
Rational Actor (mail):
Blar -
Thank you for saving me the trouble of writing the response you wrote. Just about the only thing that Rassam says that has any accuracy is that the authors of the code pink report are anti-war. apart from that, what she wrote was a second-rate hatchet job.
5.8.2006 3:30pm
Rational Actor (mail):
karrde -
read the report for yourself. it's linked. and then, you can draw your own conclusions about what aspects of the situation have improved, which have deteriorated and what red flags there are suggesting that the situation could deteriorate.
5.8.2006 3:35pm
Spawn of Jim:
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend about an article he had to read in his women's studies course (I'm a college student). The crux of the article--at least, as my friend explained it--is that feminist literature is so oriented towards Western, middle-class culture that it often gives very little insight into the experiences of women from other cultures. I'll have to ask my friend what the article was so I can post it on here, but it certainly adds an interesting wrinkle to the debate, IMO. :)
5.8.2006 9:41pm
rationalactor (mail):
Spawn of Jim -
Having no insight into the course your friend was taking or the specific critique of feminist literature to which you are referring, it is hard to respond adequately. However, based on the vague description you provided, it seems that a more appropriate conclusion was that Western feminist literature may not give wonderful insight into non-western cultures. Fortunately, there are movements in many of those places that help to fill the gap. If your interest is in what Arab feminists have to say, here's a start:

5.8.2006 11:24pm
Rational Actor (mail):
Jim -
thanks for adding your update. It is good of you to note that Blar's post provides a good counterbalance to the Rassam opinion piece. However, I would add that it is also needed to counterbalance your blog post, which puts your words "efforts to whitewash that [Saddam's] record" immediately before a quote from Rassam referencing the Code Pink report. The inference one will most likely draw from that juxtaposition is that the Code Pink report is attempting to whitewash Saddam's record on women's rights. I would agree that the report is not as critical of Saddam as it could have been, but in no way would I characterize it as an attempt to whitewash.
I also agree that the ultimate conclusion of the report is a bit of a non-sequitur, though the authors did try to link the presence of foreign troops with increased hostility to equality for women.
Having said that, there is substantial validity to the main thrust of the report, i.e. that Iraqi womens' rights are not yet secured. Although I don't know anything about you, I will take the liberty of assuming that you, like the authors of the Code Pink report, would prefer that Iraqi women to enjoy safety and security, at the least. Though I don't claim to have a monopoly on ideas, I believe that it would is constructive to try to work with those who share common ideals, rather than highlight differences that may not even exist.
5.9.2006 1:41pm
Blar (mail) (www):
I appreciate the update, Jim, but I think that "necessary corrective to Rassam's article" is a bit of an understatement. I thought that the quotes were pretty much self-explanatory, but maybe not.

The point is that Rassam's article is completely off base. She spends most of her article detailing how Iraqi women suffered under Saddam and chastising anti-war feminists for ignoring these facts, but the anti-war feminist report that she cites details pretty much the exact same facts. Are they "[r]evisionist history-writing?" Do they "have very short memories?" Are they "apologists" for Saddam who defend him "as a champion of women's rights?" No, no, no, and no. "What they choose to ignore," Rassam writes, "is the systematic rapes, torture, beheadings, honor killings, forced fertility programs, and declining literacy rates that also characterized Saddam's regime." This would be true only if we were to replace "choose to ignore" with "write about on page four." If she disclosed this fact, that the she was barely reporting anything that these anti-war feminists hadn't already reported, then she wouldn't have had an article. She would've had to come up with a completely different thesis for her editorial, preferably one that had some evidence to support it rather than just a bunch of evidence to contradict it.

Of course you can quibble. When Saddam had male detainees' female family members raped, were they generally forced to watch the rape in person or just on video? When the report describes how women were forced into a more domestic role, and their participation in employment and education fell (along with the literacy rate), did they include all of the relevant causes and put the emphasis in the right place? ("The deteriorating economy, social crises, and Hussein's courtship of religious and tribal leaders were reflected in the government's support of returning women to domesticity" is how they sum it up.) When the report describes how the oil-for-food program provided a modest but inadequate improvement in health care when it was implemented in 1997, after the nation's health had been deteriorating since the war with Iran (and especially since the UN sanctions began in 1991), should they have said more about why the program was not more effective (including Saddam's shenanigans)? Why didn't the campaigns to force girls to take fertility drugs or the dismissal of female secretaries from government ministries make it into the report? Should the Executive Summary be so exclusively focused on the current situation, with harsh language about Saddham's "brutal and violent" government only appearing in passing? Yada yada yada. All completely beside the point. Reread Rassam's article, if you must, and then try to tell yourself with a straight face that this is the revisionist history that she's talking about.

If anyone would like to talk seriously about the Global Exchange/Code Pink report or the current situation for women in Iraq, then the only thing to do is to completely set aside Rassam's article (which only really has value for what it reveals about the credibility of the author and the paper that published it) and discuss the report and the facts. The main question in the report is whether the Iraq war has improved conditions for Iraqi women, and it is distressing that this isn't any easy question to answer. I don't know whether it has, but it does seem that whatever improvements there have been leave much to be desired (to put things mildly rather than colorfully). I guess a more relevant question would be how bad things are for women in Iraq right now, and what can be done about it. That is what they spend most of their report discussing, and I wonder if people criticizing the report actually agree with most of what they say. A lot of what they say about the current and prospective difficulties for women due to the chaos and violence, the struggling infrastructure and economy, and the power of conservative Islamists doesn't seem like it would be all that controversial. Other areas would be controversial: how much of the problems are created by the presence of US troops, and what would change if the troops left? Have the Bush administration's efforts to secure rights for Iraqi women, and their rhetoric of women's liberation, had much of an impact, or have they just kept up appearances? Are they backfiring and making women's rights seem like something imposed by occupiers? I'm not convinced of all of the reports answers on these points, but they do seem like good questions to raise.
5.9.2006 5:06pm
James Lindgren (mail):
Rational Actor &Blar,

Thanks for your reasonable (and rational) comments. They make a significant positive contribution to the debate.

5.9.2006 7:33pm