Back to the Margins (3/98)

In the long struggle between Iraq and the US, Iraqi women have been the most harmed of that nation’s beleaguered masses. Like men, of course, they’ve lost opportunities and seen their living standard plummet. But they’ve also been forced into social contracts which they thought ended a century ago.Seven years of sanctions have desiccated more than bombs could. The casualties include not only Iraq’s modern, secular society, with its advanced medical and educational systems, self sufficiency, university research, and child vaccination programs, but also the progressive lives of eight million Iraqi women. Before 1990, Iraq had an exemplary policy of educating women and opening the professions to them. Before the Gulf War, women were found in all sectors of life. But in the years since then, those gains have been reversed.

It’s well known that women everywhere endure a double victimization during war. We saw it in Bosnia and Rwanda, in the hardships of Nicaraguan mothers, and the targeting of women in Algeria. But modern warfare also has its peculiarities. For example, civilian casualties in 20th century wars are far higher than “combat” casualties. Women and children, left undefended, are subjected to rape and other brutalities. With their men away fighting, they’re often obliged to flee, never to reunite with their families. In exile, they must accept any kind of work to support other survivors, often subjected again to exploitation.As far as we know, Iraqi women were not raped – not directly. But as a result of war conditions ignited by the sanctions, they’ve lost many of the rights they had – even under Saddam Hussein. And let us be clear: The UN sanctions, now in their eighth year, are a terrible form of war. The economic embargo on Iraq, policed by the US, is proving to be the most punitive and strictly enforced in human history. Well over a million civilians – mostly children – have perished, all of them needless deaths created by a lack of food and medicine. Hundreds of thousands of children are stunted or retarded due to disease and malnutrition, while war-related pollution and contamination has pushed up cancer rates. At least four million Iraqis have fled the country, seeking refuge elsewhere.

An unreported effect of the sanctions – and another reason to consider them a weapon of war – is the social disruption they’ve created. Over the past seven years, Iraq has experienced a complete economic breakdown and class upheaval. Its once substantial, educated, and comfortable middle class is devastated and in flight. The urban cultural and intellectual life of the cities is gone. Meanwhile, a new, very wealthy small class of merchants and farmers who profited from the shortages is moving into Iraq’s urban areas. And, as more of the impoverished urban middle class join them, the once minuscule poor class has swelled to include most of the population.

As a result, there are many more poor and dependent women in Iraq. In the recent past, girls were well educated and entered the work force, taking prominent roles in professions and public life. But recently, many older women have left their salaried jobs. They claim they can’t clothe themselves properly. But they may also be making room for young men just out of college.

Certainly, fewer jobs are available to women. After the war, when foreign businessmen and new war-rich Iraqis provided a market for prostitution, some desperate families found themselves offering their daughters in order to buy food for the other children. Most families refused this option, but their daughters still faced special hardships as women. With the collapsed economy, unemployment rose. To secure work, men traveled to other parts of the country or emigrated in search of work. Employers also began to give priority to young men for the few available places. Even so, inflation (a 6000 percent increase since 1990) is so high and salaries so low that families haven’t been able to manage.

To help their parents, young men delay marriage. And any boy with dreams of emigrating in search of a new life (according to reports, 200,000 single men have already left for New Zealand) isn’t likely to marry before leaving. So, Iraq’s male:female ratio is now unbalanced, and young women find themselves without a choice of partners. But women have fewer chances to emigrate, since their families don’t want them to travel abroad alone. And remaining at home is no solution.

Within Arab society, women are under immense pressure to marry, especially if they have no profession. Meanwhile, sexual contact outside marriage is hardly possible. The chronic dilemma has intensified, increasing already overwhelming burdens.

Societies have different ways of absorbing strain. Sometimes the adjustment is positive, sometimes not. In Iraq’s case, coping with the gender imbalance created by the sanctions has led some families to adopt polygamy as a solution for their daughters’ limited marriage choices. To assure their daughters a future as mothers and some kind of economic security, parents are offering their daughters as second, junior wives. The marriages are legal. Arranged by the family, they generally involve an older man already supporting a wife and children. The first wife objects and protests, but many men welcome such arrangements.

Though sanctioned in Iraqi religious law, for many decades polygamy wasn’t practiced in most parts of the country. In fact, multiple wives were discouraged by both the state and educated society. Today, however, due to social upheaval, a woman has less leverage to refuse a second wife. And parents who never would have allowed it in their youth see polygamy as a solution. It’s a desperate strategy to help their families cope with the intolerable conditions all Iraqis face.

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a New York-based journalist and anthropologist, has followed developments in Iraq since before the Gulf War. She is also a producer and news reporter with Pacifica Radio.