February 4, 2008
My twenty-year-old cousin Renda is currently a student at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, Iraq. Established in 1227, Mustansiriyah is one of the oldest university in the world. Extremists have targeted this university since the 2003 U.S. and British-led invasion, the most brutal act having taken place on January 16, 2007 when a double bomb attack killed sixty five people, mostly female students, and wounded 138. Though these incidents did not deter Renda from attending classes, they have had a negative impact on the majority of the country’s students. According to a joint Ministry of Interior (MoE) and UNICEF study, 800,000 Iraqi children, 74 percent of which are female, do not attend school.
I met Renda five years ago during my visit to Iraq. She loved school, and told me how she envisioned a great future for herself and her family. She had said, "I know life is hard now. But it will get better. When innocent people suffer, eventually they will rise." She meant because the country had gone through wars and back then was under sanctions.
I watched as she brushed her hair, put ribbons on her braids, dressed in her blue uniform and carrying her back pack left off for school, walking. That spring night after we had supper, blankets were placed on the front lawn where I, along with Renda’s parents and younger brother, lay under a star filled sky. We shared stories and jokes until the middle of the night when we finally fell asleep. We woke up to the scent of grass and the sounds of birds chirping.
To walk to school or sleep in the front yard is no longer a luxury in Baghdad. All sorts of chaos lurks in the streets, from the insurgents who entered Iraq’s unprotected borders after the invasion, to the thugs who had been in jail during Saddam’s regime, to organized crime and the U.S. military who might mistake an innocent civilian for a bad guy and shoot – or who might just themselves be bad men and women behaving badly towards the Iraqis.
Renda had no idea that in a couple of years, matters would get much worse in Iraq – especially for her as a Christian. Since the invasion, many women have been executed, assaulted, raped or released only after their families paid considerable ransom money. Serious threats and deadly attacks have forced Christians and Muslims to wear the veil and quit their jobs, and to avoid makeup and education. My friend’s sister-in-law, at the start of the war, was stabbed in the heart simply because she was wearing a cross, which was ripped off her neck and thrown over her body.
Today when you talk to Iraqi women they remember "the good old days" when Saddam was in power and women were able to safely go to work, participate in social activities, take part in politics or stroll outside in the middle of the night. During Saddam’s regime, women were free to choose whether to wear western-style dress and make-up or the black abaya. When I was in Baghdad, I wore the clothes I’d packed from America. No one in the streets blinked an eye.
Yet in October of 2003, at the Conference of the National Association of Women Judges, Mrs. Bush compared the women of Afghanistan to the women of Iraq, stating, "They too lived under an oppressive tyrant."
Mrs. Bush was once a teacher and librarian. Surely she knows that Afghan women and Iraqi women are so different it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Historically, Iraqi women and girls have enjoyed more rights than many of their counterparts in the Middle East.
Mrs. Bush further claimed, "One tragic legacy of Saddam's rule is an overall adult illiteracy rate of 61 percent. And a staggering 77 percent of women - three out of four - cannot read."
In December of 1979, the Iraqi government passed legislation requiring the eradication of illiteracy. Many of "literary centers" were run by the General Federation of Iraqi women. By 1987, 75% of the population was literate. In 1986, Iraq became one of the first countries to ratify the convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Under Saddam’s regime, there was compulsory free education in Iraq – universal free schooling up to the highest level. There was also free hospitalization. Iraq created one of the best public health system in the Middle East, earning Saddam an award from UNESCO. Saddam created a western style legal system and abolished the Sharia law courts, except for personal injury claims. Since the U.S.-led invasion, aside from violence, displacement is a contributing factor to student nonattendance.
"Today, I'm proud that this oppression has ended," Mrs. Bush continued to say.
She is mistaken. The oppression is alive and well, has been since it began in 1991, when more than 142,000 tons of bombs and 350 tons of depleted uranium shells were used in the 43-day military war, thus killing, during and post-war period, over a hundred thousand people. Afterwards, it remained robust as millions of people – mainly young children – died as a direct result of the U.S.-led blockade. The lack of food and medicine, along with the deteroriating sanitry conditions caused one-fifth of the population to starve to death in Iraq (UN FAO report, 1995). Up to 95% of all pregnant women suffered from anemia, thus giving birth to weak, malnourished infants. Every month, according to the 1996 UNICEF report, more than 4,500 children under the age of five died from hunger.
At the 2004 Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, Mrs. Bush again compared Afghan women with those of Iraq. A whole year passed and she hadn’t learned the difference. "As they are making their voices heard, the women of Iraq are also experiencing the freedom that education brings."
The Iraqi women were the most educated in the Middle East and had more freedom than other women of that region. In the years following the 1991 Gulf War, however, many of the positive steps that had advanced their status in Iraqi society were reversed due to a combination of legal, economic, and political factors. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as a result of the national literacy campaign, as of 1987 approximately 75 percent of Iraqi women were literate; however, by year-end 2000, Iraq had the lowest regional adult literacy levels, with the percentage of literate women at less than 25 percent.
"We have an obligation to help our sisters who face prejudice and injustice. We know that no society can prosper when half of its population is not allowed to contribute to its progress."
In 2003, Iraqi women’s hopes for freedom and democracy were encouraged by George Bush and Tony Blair’s declarations of a better life with new opportunities. What they received instead were insurgents and religious extremists using rape, acid and assassination to force them into submitting to their extremist beliefs. Every day dozens of women are widowed, and a number of families struggle to cope without a wage-earner. Paid work for women is scarce and leaving home to find work puts women and children at risk.
Once the model of education in the Middle East, twelve years of grueling sanctions and three years of bloody occupation have left Iraq’s system in shambles, a generation of children both traumatized and, it seems, deprived of education. Pretty soon, Mrs. Bush will be able to correctly compare Afghan women’s prior situation with the Iraqi women’s current one.
Weam Namou lived in Iraq as part of the Christian minority and has been on many radio and TV shows to discuss the misconceptions Iraqis have of Americans and vice versa. Her book, "The Feminine Art", is an acclaimed novel set in America and the Middle East during the Gulf War aftermath.