How Iraq became a Prison for Women

May 14th, 2008 - by admin

Daphne Bramham / Vancouver Sun – 2008-05-14 00:46:16

(May 2, 2008) — When there were no weapons of mass destruction, US President George W. Bush reframed the Iraqi invasion as a means of building democracy and restoring women’s rights.

But like the entire misadventure, things have gone badly wrong. From the 1960s through most of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraqi women were among the most liberated and liberal of all Muslim women. Girls went to school, women worked, wore what they chose, drove cars, ran for office and spoke their minds.

It was the international sanctions against Iraq that destroyed the economy and drove women from the labour force.

Yet far from restoring women’s rights, on the Americans’ watch, Iraq has become a prison for women.

Its constitution, passed in 2006, says no law can go against Islam. It is now barely safe for women to go out without wearing not only a burka, but gloves.

An estimated 10,900 women have been killed since the 2003 US invasion until the end of 2007. Many were killed because they were women. Some were targeted because they were secular professionals, liberal politicians, journalists and women’s advocates.

In Full Cover Girl, Swedish director Folke Ryden profiles several Iraqi women who were interviewed periodically between 2003 and 2007. [More information below.]

The documentary premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on the Knowledge Network.

Through the women, Ryden poses some very troubling questions. What is the nature of democracy? Can it be something other than liberal and secular? And, what about equality rights? Are they antithetical to Islamic values? Or, can rights be circumscribed to conform?

Jenan al-Ubaedy is the full cover girl, her moon face shining white against the burka and her black gloves. Far from hiding behind the burka, Jenan is an elected member of the Iraqi parliament. Representing a conservative Islamic party, she is a steely-eyed, outspoken proponent of shariah law.

One of the most interesting scenes was shot in Jordan in the fall of 2004 when Western women described as “experts” were “training” Iraqi women to be political and community leaders. Two experts talked about how women often apologize, under-estimate their abilities and have to work twice as hard as men. Jenan was having none of that. She said Iraqi women don’t believe that; Muslim women don’t believe that.

As Jenan spoke, the “experts” called time, insisting that the session was over. They tried to ignore her as Jenan talked about how the Koran gives women more rights than other religions.

In a later interview about Islamic, or shariah, law, Jenan said if a thief steals, it is only right that his fingers should be chopped off. If her husband asked to take a second wife, she wouldn’t oppose him: “It is unfair of me to say no.”

It is okay for a man to beat his wife, if he leaves no marks. But Jenan says, “We are training our daughters to be cleverly with their husbands.” They are training them to “absorb” their husband’s wrath to forestall the blows.

Three years later in 2007, burka-clad Jenan is filmed against the backdrop of the White House, where she and other leading Iraqi women had been invited by Bush, who praised them for what they were doing for their country.

Bush talked about his hope that Iraqi women would be equal, free, prosperous and educated “not in the same way as in the United States of America, but in a way suitable for the Iraqi culture.”

Small wonder the Iraqi emancipation has been such a failure. Small wonder Charlotte Ponticelli, head of America’s Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative, was so reluctant to comment on camera about women’s rights in Iraq and kept insisting, “Iraqi women would never accept a rollback of rights.”

Only two years after the invasion, Baghdad was divided into hostile camps. Militias stopped women and punished them for not being veiled. Western experts fled and soon after, so did Abir Absilani.

She had moved back to Baghdad from Sweden soon after Saddam Hussein was deposed. Hoping for peace, Abir and her father hoped to establish a secular party and help write a new, secular constitution. She eschewed guns and declared “Our passion is our protection.”

Their party won one seat in the first set of elections, but it was the father, not the daughter, who took the seat. By 2006 as Jenan was rising in prominence, Abir fled back to Sweden. Her cousin had been kidnapped. He returned bearing a death threat against her.

But Abir loves her country and returned in 2007, dressed more conservatively but still unveiled. Abir is shown tucking a handgun into the waistband of her pants. She pats the gun, calls it “my best friend,” then looks at the camera, conscious of the irony.

Using the American government’s own yardstick, Rydsn’s documentary measures its failure in Iraq. Far from being a polemic, it is understated and left me wishing that someone would do similar reporting on the women in Afghanistan — preferably before the next federal election.

Full Cover Girl:
Iraq, Women & Democracy
Original Title: Irak under slöjan

Director/Producer: Folke Rydén
Length: 52 min. Format: HDV
Release: March 2008

Aspiring Iraqi women politicians are profiled during several years. They literally risk their lives participating in the future of their country. And they differ dramatically in their views on democracy, nation building and women’s rights. Filming is took place in Baghdad, Amman, Washington DC and Sweden. By focusing on these women the film sheds light on the larger issue: What does it mean to build and practice democracy? Should a democracy curbing some rights for women be encouraged?

Folke Rydén has won numerous international awards as a producer, director, reporter and editor. His documentaries have been aired around the world. In 1993, he was awarded the Grand Prize in Journalism – Sweden’s foremost award for excellence in journalism.

Most recent awards are the Prize of the International Red cross at the 46th Monte Carlo Television Festival, and a Silver Plaque at the 42nd Chicago International Film Festival 2006. Both for “The Tsunami Generation”.

Between 1989 and 1996 Folke Rydén was the US Correspondent of Swedish Television. In 1996-1997 he was based in Hong Kong. Today he is living in Sweden, where he has his own production company, FRP AB.

FRP AB specialises in producing film & television for the domestic and international market in current affairs, social issues, human rights, history, politics, science & nature, environmental issues and sports.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.