WaPo Misses Another Story

A small portrait of the translator

December 9, 2008 @ 1:42 UTC

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Gender, Media & Internet, War & Conflict

If we are to believe the Washington Post, Iraqi women were doing just fine under Saddam Hussein's Baathist rule. In a story today, a reporter writes about a woman, “[Muna] Saud remembered when Iraqi women didn't need wasta — connections — to find a job. In the late 1970s, thousands of Iraqi women, then among the most liberated in the Arab world, worked as doctors, engineers and civil servants.”

As always, the WaPo's Sudarsan Raghavan contradicts the same story. The next paragraph says, “The daughter of a tailor, Saud wanted to become an accountant. But she soon realized that only women who joined Hussein's Baath Party could succeed in such a profession, so she left the university and found work in a pharmacy. There she held secret meetings of the Women's League.” Trust me, being a Baathist opened all sorts of doors — much like the definition of connections.

Nobody would argue that women have not lost a great deal in recent years. But to credit Saddam with the liberation of women is misleading at best. Women in Iraq were doctors and lawyers and engineers in the 1930s and 1940s. They were already driving cars when Saddam was busy pulling the wings off flies, in preparation for his career. But the story gives the impression that Democracy has newly brought violence towards women in Iraq, and they would have been better off under Saddam.

WaPo says: “In their quest for stability in Iraq, U.S. officials have empowered tribal and religious leaders, Sunni and Shiite, who reject the secularism that Saddam Hussein once largely maintained. These leaders have imposed strict interpretations of Islam and enforced tribal codes that female activists say limit their freedom and encourage violence against them.”

Had the reporter read anything about Iraq, he would have learned that it was Saddam Hussein who reinstated tribal laws after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He was afraid he was losing his grip on the country, and chose to lean on tribes to strengthen his position. Saddam had started during the Iran-Iraq War to take away some rights from women. He did not care about honour killings.

Certainly violence against women is on the rise, as are all crimes in Iraq. The war has made it easy for criminals to commit crimes with little or no fear of prosecution. But honour killings have been a serious issue for women for a very long time — especially for Kurdish women. Even living overseas hasn't stopped Kurds from killing their daughters. It would be foolish to argue that Saddam or any other leader had this under control. It is much more complicated.

The mainstream media presents the Kurdish region as the coolest in Iraq. WaPo says, “Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, satellite television, cellphones and Internet access have deepened the West's imprint on the relatively stable Kurdish region of Iraq, known as Kurdistan. Today, many urban women wear Western clothes and eschew Islamic head scarves.” As though the majority of Baghdad's women were wearing the black thing in the 20th century.

The real story WaPo should have written is that women, just like all Iraqis, have been gradually losing their personal freedoms. First under Saddam, and more recently under the influence of Iran. The real story is that Iran is imposing its fanatical ideas on Iraq, with the help of the religious Shiite parties that control the Iraqi government. The Kurds, the Sunnis, and the seculars aren't particularly strong, but they are working on change. The situation is definitely reversible, and Iraqis look forward to voting in the provincial elections early next year. The election will hopefully bring more balance to representation in Iraq. But don't count on reading about it in the Washington Post.

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