Two recent studies have found that both Iraqi women and female soldiers within the United States military are suffering under the patriarchal structures of post-invasion Iraqi society and the United States military. A report released last week by the international women’s rights group MADRE titled “Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-based Violence and the US War on Iraq” found that women in Iraq are targeted for violence from both Iraqi Islamists and the United States military. Helen Benedict, a professor at Colombia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is currently working on a book about women veterans of the Iraq War and recently published a piece titled “The Private War of Women Soldiers” that examines how female soldiers in Iraq live under the constant threat of violence from their male comrades in the military. The perspective of both groups of women–Iraqi women and female soldiers–has been largely excluded from the debate about Iraq in the corporate press or in the government–just as women have frequently been systematically marginalized and oppressed under the system of patriarchy.
The MADRE report explains that from the start of the United States’ occupation of Iraq in spring of 2003, women have been violently targeted by Islamists–defined by MADRE as those who pursue a reactionary social and political agenda in the name of Islam–who are seeking to establish a theocracy in Iraq. This phenomenon has been largely ignored by the corporate media, the United Nations, and human rights organizations, as few examinations of civilian casualties in Iraq have aggregated data by sex. This omission has ignored the fact that women are attacked not only because they are civilians but because they are women, whom Islamists view as second-class citizens and as threats to their own power, as is shown by the killing of targeted killing of women with political power. Moreover, women are seen by many militias as “carriers of group identity” and have been targeted for the role that they play in maintaining communities.
Violence against women in Iraq has taken many forms according to the report. The framework for the violence has been given by the occupation and the United States’ support of Islamist political parties, as well as the United States’ refusal to codify legal protections for women in Iraqi law. There has been a concerted legal attack on the rights of women have been restricted beginning at the start of the occupation, when the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) replacing Iraq’s family law with one that allows discrimination and L. Paul Bremer’s refusal to consider the demands of Iraqi women for equal rights. This has continued with Iraq’s constitution, which legalizes violence against women by making numerous provisions that allow legal matters to be decided on the basis of religion. In addition to the legal attack on women, Islamists have used violence to impose theocracy by intimidating and killing women to force them into subservient roles with little opportunity for political participation. Much of this violence has been perpetrated by death squads backed by the United States who have turned their resources not only against militias hostile to the United States but also women whom they see as an obstacle to establishing their theocracy. At the same time, honor killings have increasedWomen have also experienced violence when detained by United States, British, and Iraqi forces, a form of systemic violence that is quite common under an occupation that is essentially run through a system of collective punishment. Women are frequently detained without due process, threatened with rape, raped, harassed, assaulted, or tortured.
The report assigns responsibility for this violence to a number of different conditions, while arguing specifically that the United States has failed to take the problem seriously. MADRE argues that since 2003 when a wave of kidnappings, abductions, public beatings, death threats, sexual assaults, and killings targeting women took place by Islamists, the United States has chosen to ignore the problem and instead has made political alliances with those committing the violence. Despite obligations under international law as an occupying power, the United States has failed to make a commitment to protecting women’s rights in Iraq. Instead, the United States has based its approach on flawed understandings of Islam that has viewed violence against women as at worst a “cultural” phenomenon or a “private” matter. This has ignored the reality that in many cases, women are targeted for political reasons. Despite this, the United States continues to provide financial and military support to the Iraqi government, which has in turn formed various alliances with groups such as the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army who have committed a campaign of terror against women using weapons, training, and money from the United States. It is also important to understand that violence against women in Iraq is not a distinct phenomenon from the larger civil war, but that the treatment of women and the sectarian violence are intertwined. This is perhaps most clear in Articles 39 and 41 of the Iraqi constitution, which codify gender discrimination by establishing separate laws on the basis of sex and religious affiliation.
Just as there has been little exploration of the way in which Iraqi women have been affected by the occupation, there has been little exploration of the conditions facing female soldiers serving in the United States military. As is the case with the treatment of Iraqi women, this may have something to do with the fact that comprehensive statistics on the experiences of female soldiers in the war have not been collected. Nevertheless, what has come out publicly indicates that the situation in Iraq for female soldiers is very dangerous. Journalist Helen Benedict writes that the situation is so bad that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2004 ordered a task force to investigate the situation and in 2005 published guidelines defining and prohibiting sexual assault in the military. While a few cases, such as that of Air Force cadet Beth Davis or Army Specialist Suzanne Swift have received occasional attention by the corporate media or the antiwar movement, the everyday experience of serving in the military under patriarchy has been ignored. Benedict has reported that women frequently arm themselves and live in constant fear of rape on military bases in Iraq and that on some bases women stop drinking water at 4:00pm each day because they are afraid to go to the bathrooms at night. At least three women soldiers have died of dehydration due to this practice.
160,500 women soldiers have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, with 1 in 7 soldiers being women (15%). More women have been killed and wounded in Iraq (71 and 450 respectively) than in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars combined. Despite this, the military has not recognized the contributions of women as equals and has instead persisted in viewing women as objects that exist for the satisfaction of men. Historically, women have never been well treated in the military and the military has always upheld the system of patriarchy by institutionalizing , normalizing, and ignoring sexual aggression in the military (while also using sexual aggression and violence as a weapon of war). A 2003 survey of women serving in Vietnam through the Gulf War found that 30% of women were raped in the military. A 2004 study of female veterans seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder from Vietnam on found that 71% of women said they were sexually assaulted or raped while in the military. A 1992-1993 study found that a staggering 90% of women reported being sexually harassed in the military. Much of this goes on unreported in the military as it is difficult to report harassment, assaults, and rapes in the closed and hierarchical military, especially when many of those attacking and oppressing women are in leadership roles or ignore the issue, providing the silent consent that is so often necessary for systems of oppression to continue to function.
One point not touched on by Benedict is the sexual assault and harassment faced by female recruits and potential enlistees who are often preyed on by military recruiters. A study last year found that more than 80 military recruiters had been disciplined for “sexual misconduct” in the past year. The study defined “sexual misconduct” as anything ranging from paperwork errors to rape and found 1 out of every 200 recruiters was disciplined for sexual misconduct. The study reported that female recruits, often between 16 and 18, are assaulted by recruiters in government cars and at recruiting centers after meeting the recruiters at malls or in their high schools. As is the case with assaults inside of the military, assaults are not always reported and must be evaluated within the context of a system that rewards misogyny and awards power to those higher up in the military’s hierarchy, making it difficult for female recruiters to both say “no” or to report crimes once they occur. Moreover, the military’s code of justice sets the age of consent at 16, making it possible for recruiters to attempt to prove that sex was consensual and thereby getting only a reprimand rather than a more serious punishment. This is the most common punishment, with most recruiters being disciplined administratively by receiving a reduction in rank or forfeiture of pay.
While it is easy to get lost amidst the staggering statistics that come out of Iraq–655,000 civilians killed, 500,000 children killed due to the United States’ sanctions, 3 million Iraqis forcibly displaced since the invasion–it is important to remember that women–both Iraqi and soldiers in the United States military–have experienced the horrors of war in unique ways. A focus on the ways in which women have been affected by the war can both enhance the movement’s understanding of the reality of occupation as well as provide a starting point from which the movement can begin to takes its understanding of the war to the next level by realizing the interlocking ways in which systems of oppression such as war and patriarchy are connected.