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One Thing Sunni and Shi'a Militas Can Agree On: Suppress Women

by A. Yasmine Rassam and Jennifer Lynch


Ms. Rassam is director of international policy at the Independent Women's Forum. She recently gave a lecture about "Women's Participation in the Democratization Processes in Iraq and Afghanistan: Achievements and Challenges."

Ms. Lynch is a graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a Junior Fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.

For all this talk about the impending "civil war" in Iraq between Shi'a and Sunni militias, there is one thing both can agree on: suppress the women. These death squads, both Sunni and Shi'a, form the most serious threat to a democratic peaceful Iraq and disarming these vigilante militias ranks first on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's list of priorities. At his request, President Bush has pledged thousands of additional troops to help quell the burgeoning violence in Baghdad. Despite staunch objections from many Democrats, this is exactly what needs to be done to stop the reign of terror on Iraqi women.

A Shi'a militia, which enjoys the backing of the Islamic Republic of Iran, currently controls the southern city of Basra. The women of Basra have all but disappeared. Women have had their heads shaved for venturing in public without a hijab. Women have been stoned for wearing makeup and kidnapped or even murdered simply for behavior deemed 'inappropriate' by the militias. In the eyes of these vigilante death squads, 'inappropriate behavior' includes driving, working, wearing pants, or walking alone. The stranglehold of Muqtada al-Sard's Mehdi army means hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women are living in daily terror. If the U.S. is serious about the War on Terror, these women are on the frontlines and in desperate need of our support.

The situation is just as brutal in Baghdad where Sunni militias apparently strive not to be outdone by their Shi'a counterparts in terms of the amount of terror they can bring to women. Zarqawi's al-Qaeda cells, apparently unfazed by his death, continue to terrorize the innocent civilians in Baghdad, especially women. Dozens of women and their families have been forced to seek refuge from the violence and oppression in camps on the outskirts of the city. Fatwas have been issued against women driving, going out after midday, and walking with men. These fatwas are then enforced by thugs driving around and shooting women who refuse to comply.

The director of the National Organization of Iraqi Women was shot in June and the office burned. In the western Baghdad neighborhood of Amariya, militias distributed fliers warning women they will be killed if they drive a car. The women of Iraq are now utterly dependent on the men in their family. Millions of widows, who don't have a male escort, can't venture out in public and are consequently sentenced to destitute poverty and virtual imprisonment in their homes. Even in wealthy districts of Baghdad women have been killed for appearing outside unveiled; the lucky ones escaped with merely a shaved head. Iraqi women have come to fear death, not from bombs, but because of their fashion statements. The militias are systematically intimidating women and terrorizing society.

The stakes are high in Iraq. The consequences of failing are unimaginable for the more than 13 million women of Iraq. The U.S. has a responsibility to these women. Their political freedoms have grown exponentially since the ousting of Saddam, but these are meaningless without the equivalent level of social and economic freedoms. The prerequisite for the establishment of these freedoms is ensuring a minimum level of security in the region. This can only be accomplished by donating more resources and systematically disarming the renegade militias and death squads.

A U.S. withdrawal would result in an upgrade of the situation in Iraq to the Taliban revisited. Women will be treated not as human beings but as property or animals. We are not continuing to fight just to save face, or for oil, or for our interests in the region, or American hegemony. This is a war for the defense of women's humanity, and we can not afford to quit and we can not afford to lose.



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