US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s statement last week about Iraq – "What we didn't know was how truly broken the society was” – is truly remarkable for its attempt to erase history. Still attempting to avoid responsibility, Rice blames the current chaos on “structural problems” of Saddam Hussein's authoritarian regime. However, a look back at what was actually going on before sanctions and war reveals a different picture.
In 2003, just after the Iraq invasion, Mani Shankar Aiyar, a member of the Indian parliament representing the Congress Party, published a UPI column called “The Other Saddam,” assessing the state of the country under Saddam. He had been deputy chief of mission at the Indian Embassy in Baghdad, as well as Indian charge d'affaires, in the late 1970s, before the Iran-Iraq War.
Aiyar had no love for Hussein, describing his “expressionless grey-green eyes – straight out of The Day of the Jackal,” and said he ran a brutal dictatorship. However, he also said that Saddam's revolution ended Iraqi backwardness. “Education, including higher and technological education, became the top priority,” he wrote. “More important, centuries of vicious discrimination against girls and women was ended by one stroke of the modernizing dictator's pen.”
Driving past Mustansariya University, “It was miraculous,” he recalled, “to see hundreds of girl-students thronging the campus, none in ‘burkhas’ or ‘chador’ – the head-to-toe black cape that was, and is, essential dress for women in most of the Islamic world – and almost all in skirts and blouses that would grace a Western university.” He went on to describe women in positions on authority, running Iraq’s state-owned cement company, heading up the Industry Department’s legal division, and managing the engineering division of the State Organization for Industrial Housing, “the driving force behind the massive housing program, which turned Baghdad in the first decade of Baath rule from a dirty shantytown into a pulsating modern metropolis that provided a roof over the head of every family in the city.” He also pointed to what he described as an “astonishing revolution” in health care.
“Iraq is home to some of the holiest Muslim shrines, fertile ground for religious fundamentalism,” Aiyar continued. “Saddam would have none of it. Clerics were put firmly in their place – that is, the mosque and the madrasa – and the Iraqi believer liberated from the thralldom of the priesthood. The ethos was completely secular: we interacted every day with Iraqis of numerous religious persuasions in every position of responsibility.”
Certainly, Iraq wasn’t democratic. Far from it. But that was apparently what made it possible for Hussein to ignore vested interests, improve the lives of women, dismantle feudalism, limit the power of religious leaders, and keep a lid on fundamentalism and terrorism. As Aiyar put it, George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden had at least one thing in common – they both hated Saddam. He also predicted that both fundamentalism and terrorism would increase once the dictator was gone. Somehow the Bush gang couldn't see that coming.
Asked for her opinion of this article, Nancy Gallagher, a University of California Santa Barbara professor and expert on the history of women in the Middle East, agreed that women made “amazing advances in education and work” during the Saddam era, especially before the Iran-Iraq War. Writing in April 2003, just a month after the Invasion, she noted that “many people already feel that the price of ‘liberation’ has been too high considering the loss of the museums, archives, and libraries all over Iraq. And the Shi'i will certainly demand a role in government, which may reverse the gains women still retain.”
In a recent article distributed by the French news service Agence France Presse, Shameran Marugi, head of the non-governmental organization Iraqi Women's Committee, says that today the lives of women in Iraq are being “threatened on all sides.” The article is poignantly titled, “For Iraq Women: Life Was Better Pre-war.”
Marugi notes that before the 2003 War women could engage in political and economic activities through the Union of Iraqi Women. After the invasion that group was dismantled because it was affiliated with the Baath Party. In the past few years, she said, violence against women has increased significantly. "At home a woman faces violence from her father, husband, brother and even from her son. It has become a kind of a new culture in the society.”
Women are subjected to verbal abuse on the streets if they don’t wear a hijab; in extreme cases, they are abducted by unknown gunmen, who sexually abuse and then kill them. "It has also become normal for women to receive death threats for working for example as a hairdresser or a tailor, for not wearing a hijab or not dressing 'decently'," she told the news agency. "In addition to equal rights we are now demanding the 'right to live'.”
Although no nationwide official figures are available, human rights activists report numerous cases of so-called "honor killings" in the southern city of Basra, in the northern Kurdish area, and in Baghdad. A UN report says that police in Basra registered 44 cases in 2007 where women were killed with multiple gunshot wounds after being accused of committing "honor crimes." In Baghdad, the report says, several women teachers have been shot dead by armed men, some of them in front of their students.
A new report by the US-based Women for Women International says the state of Iraqi women has become a "national crisis" since the March 2003 invasion. "Present day Iraq is plagued by insecurity, a lack of infrastructure and controversial leadership, transforming the situation for women from one of relative autonomy and security before the war into a national crisis," the report charges.
According to the group, 64 percent of the women surveyed complained that violence against them had increased. "When asked why, respondents most commonly said that there is less respect for women's rights than before, that women are thought of as possessions, and that the economy has gotten worse," the report said.
Three quarters of the women interviewed said that girls in their families were forbidden from attending school. Selma Jabu, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's consultant for women's affairs, confirms that, in addition to being sidelined politically, Iraqi women are subjected to abuse and intimidation on the streets and face violent sexual abuse.
Although it is difficult now to find much frank information about life in Iraq prior to the first Gulf War – even on the Internet – if you ferret out hard copies of publications during the 1980s a very different analysis emerges. Writing in Foreign Affairs, for example, Middle East expert Milton Viorst described Iraq in the late 1980s as "debonair" and westernized. In fact, it was one of the most secular societies in the region. The problem, of course, was that Saddam was a popular pan-Arab leader by the end of the 1980s.
As I explained in my book Uneasy Empire: “Based on the theory that domination of the Gulf region by a Hussein-led Iraq could jeopardize access to oil supplies, Colin Powell, then chairing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called on General H. Norman Schwarzkopf in late 1989 to prepare a blueprint for combat. In May 1990, the National Security Council released a white paper that cited Iraq, and Hussein personally, as ‘the optimum contenders to replace the Warsaw Pact,’ using that claim as a justification for increased military spending.”
The rest, as they say, is history. But Condoleeza Rice and the administration she serves are still trying desperately to rewrite or erase it.