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Colonial feminism and the un-liberation of women in Iraq

Colonial feminism and the un-liberation of women in Iraq
6 min read

Jyhene Kebsi

22 October, 2021
The experience with Iraq shows the importance of recognising the dangers that emanate from feminism when it falls prey to imperialist propaganda agendas and calls for promoting women's rights through warfare, writes Jyhene Kebsi.
An Iraqi man smokes a waterpipe under a feminist mural painting with the Arabic slogan: "These are our women", during anti-government protests in Baghdad's Tahrir square on November 21, 2019. [Getty]

This past September, former US president George W. Bush made an appearance in Beverly Hills as a marquee speaker for the so-called Distinguished Speakers Series of Southern California. Yet his speech was disrupted by Mike Prysner, a veteran of the Iraq war, demanding that Bush apologises for his lies leading up to the US invasion of Iraq, which has claimed the lives of one million Iraqis

While Pryzner's act was motivated by Bush's lie regarding weapons of massive destruction, there is another lie utilized by the Bush administration that did not receive the same attention in the media: the so-called empowerment of Iraqi women.

To give "moral legitimacy" to the war, the US government engineered several "humanitarian" lies leading up to its attack. The first was related to the idea of the war being fought to overthrow a tyrant. The second lie was based on the idea of establishing democratic regimes in the Middle East and throughout the world, even if this requires the use of force. The third lie promoted by the Bush administration was on the rights of Iraqi women.

Improving the lives of Iraqi women was the "best" pretext for American "humanitarian imperialism" after the "weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" argument was losing steam, and hence, the US official discourse shifted attention to the "benefits" Iraqi women would gain from removing Saddam Hussein.

A good illustration of this shift is the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky who answered criticism over the US government for its invasion of Iraq by defending the administration's record concerning Iraqi women: "We are working to advance the interests of Iraqi women in every area, from human rights to political and economic participation to health care and education." 

Dobriansky added: "Our commitment to the women of Iraq is part of a broader effort to support the empowerment of women across the Middle East. Through the president's Middle East Partnership Initiative, we are launching programs to train female candidates, fund literacy programs for girls and women, sponsor female entrepreneurs in business exchange programs and support civil society groups working to empower the women of the Middle East. We do not believe that any country can achieve its potential if it disenfranchises or otherwise sidelines half its population.”

Similarly, to justify the war, Charlotte Ponticelli, the US Department of State Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues, made the following false public statement: “Iraqi women, just like their Afghan counterparts, had been prevented by Saddam Hussein from entering schools and universities."

The reality in Iraq was that despite the numerous atrocities committed by the previous Saddam regime, Iraqi women were until quite recently among the most educated in the region due to the previous regime’s policy of “state feminism” that sought to centralize women in the country’s modernization project. As a result of the oil price boom experienced in the 1970s and 1980s, state policies promoted the vision that the 'good Iraqi woman' is an 'educated working woman.'

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While the US government stressed the measures it took to include women in post-conflict reconstruction, transnational feminists have highlighted the gap between the rhetoric of women’s empowerment and the reality of Iraqi women’s lives. Indeed, they pointed to how the bombing campaign and the use of indiscriminate firepower in populated areas mostly impacted women.

Moreover, the researchers who conducted lengthy fieldwork in Iraq have found evidence that the situation of women was deteriorating since 2004. For instance, the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure as a result of the war has made Iraqis live in conditions where access to electricity and water was short, interrupted and unreliable.

The failure of the promised reconstruction deepened female unemployment and their reliance on men. Amnesty International and other organizations reported that many Iraqi women quit their jobs. The majority of the unemployed are women because of the increased conservatism and lack of security on the streets on their ways to and from work. Nonetheless, there were many cases in which women could not afford the luxury of not working. As a result, some women turned to sex work, while many professional women took jobs for which they were overqualified to earn a much-needed income that would allow them and their families to buy basic needs like food.

Maya Zuhair, Vice President of the Women's Rights Association in Iraq, describes this situation as follows: "In most cases, they seek work as housekeepers. But you can also find doctors working as hairdressers, dentists working as chefs and engineers working in laundromats. They're desperate, and with poverty increasing, the situation could get much worse." 

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All these problems, which followed the US imperial war on Iraq, lead us to talk about what the half-Iraqi feminist Nadje Al-Ali and Nichola Pratt called "the use and abuse of Iraqi women" within an important book entitled, What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq.

Al-Ali and Pratt argue that the strategic co-optation of women's rights was essential to allow the US and its Western allies to "civilize" and "democratize" other countries. This co-optation could not have happened without the colonial feminists who contributed to the lies of the American administration and embellished its invasion of Iraq. Several white liberal American feminists misrepresented the Iraq war as a mission to "help" Iraqi women, coupled with support towards Bush's use of feminist rhetoric to make the empowerment of Iraqi and Afghan women an issue of national security.

Indeed, a campaign called "W Stands for Women" was launched to present the imperial war on Iraq as an attempt to "save and support" Iraqi women. This campaign reinforced a logic of "compassionate patriarchy" through which the masculinized state protected the feminized vulnerable populations. The American liberal feminists who supported this campaign pretended to "save" Iraqi women and girls and protect their rights through militarism. The "empowerment and rescue" rhetoric of these colonial feminists evoked the image of white women's "burden" towards their "inferior" Middle Eastern "sisters".

The contrast between so-called liberated American women and so-called oppressed Iraqi women was essential to represent the women of the invaded country as "backward and helpless females" in need of pity, protection and "the light of Western freedom", which will "emancipate" them from totalitarian oppression. This discourse was used to make the American public believe false stories about the improvement that would affect the everyday lives of Iraqi women after the war. 

The experience with Iraq shows the importance of recognising the dangers that emanate from feminism when it falls prey to imperialist propaganda agendas and when it calls for promoting women’s rights through warfare.

As the Iraqi novelist Haifa Zangana once said, these "'women's rights' claims are mainly seen by Iraqi women as the second supply of US colonial policy in Iraq, with NGOs, especially those oriented to women's issues, damaging the possibilities for the much-needed work by genuine independent women's organizations."

Jyhene Kebsi is a Lecturer in Gender Studies at Macquarie University, Australia and a recipient of multiple prizes and awards, including Fulbright.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.