Iraqi Women: Four years after the Invasion

Intisar K., who works as a doctor in a teaching hospital in Baghdad, summed up what has also been documented in several UN-related documents: “We only have electricity for three to a maximum of five hours a day. There is not enough clean drinking water. Lack of sanitation is a big problem and continues to be one of the main causes of malnutrition, dysentery and death amongst young children.”

It is not only lack of electricity, clean water and petrol that affects the very-day lives of Iraqi civilians. According to recent reports published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the British-based charity organization Medact, the 2003 invasion and ongoing occupation has led to the deterioration of health conditions, including malnutrition, rise in vaccine-preventable diseases and mortality rates for children under five. Iraq‘s mortality rate for children under five rose from 5 percent in 1990 to 12.5 percent in 2004. (1)  Similar to the humanitarian crisis during the sanctions period, women suffer particularly as they are often the last ones to eat after feeding their children and husbands. They often watch powerlessly as their often sick and malnourished children do not obtain adequate health care.

Despite incredibly difficult circumstances, Iraqi women have been at the forefront of trying to cope with and improve the exceedingly difficult living conditions and humanitarian crisis since 2003. There has been a flourishing of locally based women’s initiatives and groups, mainly revolving around practical needs related to widespread poverty, lack of adequate health care, lack of housing, and lack of proper social services provided by the state. Women have also pooled their resources to help address the need for education and training, such as computer classes, as well as income generating projects. Many of the initiatives filling the gap in terms of state provisions where welfare and health are concerned are related to political parties and religiously-motivated organizations and groups. However, independent non-partisan professional women have also been mobilizing to help.

Violence against Women

While aerial bombings of residential areas are responsible for a large number of civilian deaths, many Iraqis have lost their lives while being shot at by American or British troops. Whole families have been wiped out as they were approaching a checkpoint or did not recognize areas marked as prohibited. In addition to the killing of innocent women, men and children, the occupation forces have also been engaged in other forms of violence against women. There have been numerous documented accounts about physical assaults at checkpoints, and during house searches. Several women I talked to while conducting research, reported that they had been verbally or physically threatened and assaulted by soldiers as they were searched at checkpoints. American forces have also arrested wives, sisters and daughters of suspected insurgents in order to pressure them to surrender.(2) Female relatives have been literally taken hostage by U.S forces and used as bargaining chips. Aside from the violence related to the arrests, those women who were detained by the troops often suffer as well from the sense of shame associated with such a detention. There has been mounting evidence not just of physical assaults and torture but also of rape. Women who have been detained may even become victims of so-called honor crimes.

Islamist militants and terrorist groups also pose a particular danger to Iraqi women. Many women’s organizations and activists inside Iraq have documented the increasing Islamist threats to women: the pressure to conform to certain dress codes, the restrictions in movement and behaviour, incidents of acid thrown into women’s faces and even targeted killings. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, many women in Basra, for example, reported that they were forced to wear a headscarf or restrict their movements in fear of harassment from men. Female students at the University of Basra reported that since the war ended groups of men began stopping them at the university gates, shouting at them if their heads were not covered.(3)

Not only students, but women of all ages and walks of life are nowadays forced to comply to certain dress codes and well as restrict their movement. Suad F., a former accountant and mother of four children who lives in a Baghdad neighborhood that used to be relatively mixed before the sectarian killings in 2005 and 2006 was telling me during a visit to Amman in 2006: “I resisted for a long time, but last year I started wearing hijab, after I was threatened by several Islamist militants in front of my house. They are terrorizing the whole neighborhood, behaving as if they were in charge. And they are actually controlling the area. No one dares to challenge them. A few months ago they distributed leaflets around the area warning people to obey them and demanding that women should stay at home.”

By 2007, the threat posed by Islamist militias as well as the mushrooming Islamist extremist groups has gone far beyond imposed dress codes and calls for gender segregation at universities. Despite — or even partly because of the U.S. and U.K. rhetoric about liberation and women’s rights — women have been pushed back even more into the background and into their homes. Women who have a public profile, either as doctors, academics, lawyers, NGO activists or politicians, are systematically threatened and have become targets for assassinations. Criminal gangs have increased the general “climate of fear” by kidnapping women for ransom as well as to sexually abuse them and to traffic young women outside of Iraq to sell them into prostitution.

What kind of Liberation?

UN resolution 1325/2000 aimed at reducing gender inequality by appointing women to the government and all ministries and committees dealing with systems of local and national governance in Iraq. However, appointing women within political parties and government institutions constitutes only one element of political transition. More significant action would be the inclusion of women’s presence and activism within the judiciary, policing, human rights monitoring, the allocation of funds, free media development, and all economic processes. Also important is the creation of independent women’s groups, NGOs and community based organizations. Female illiteracy rates and the general deterioration of the education system would need immediate and urgent attention.

Unfortunately any discussion about women’s rights and women’s inclusion in reconstruction processes remains a theoretical exercise as long as the condition on the ground remains. For the majority of women, basic survival for themselves and their families overshadows any other concerns. Iraqi men and women are nowadays known to leave their houses and say goodbye to their loved ones as if they will never return. Depending on where you live in Iraq, in which town and which part of a city like Baghdad, for example, the chances of being killed by a U.S. sniper or missile might be high. In other places, the risk of a suicide bomb or militant attack might be greater. For women, the lack of security often results in severely restricted mobility, generally only in the company of at least one male guardian.

“Gender Mainstreaming”: A Failure in Post-Conflict Zones

The international community, including the U.S. and UK governments, have increasingly supported the idea of “gender mainstreaming” in post-conflict reconstruction and peace-building as stated in UN Resolution 1325/2000. However, a stated commitment to promoting women’s participation does not guarantee that women are empowered to participate. Indeed, the case of Iraq demonstrates that gender concerns may be sacrificed to “greater priorities” — namely, security and the political agendas of different actors. It is necessary to examine how and when gender-sensitive policies are pursued in post-conflict situations and with what results for women and for men.

Most significantly in the context of post-9/11 interventions — the so called war on terror — is the way women and human rights are being severely compromised by the type of foreign military interventions, the “internationalization” of reconstruction and state building as well as the instrumentalization of development and humanitarian aid as tools of global security. Feminist activism within the UN framework has been discredited by the inability of the UN to uphold international law and in some instances even rubberstamp illegal operations. Women’s rights and gender mainstreaming have become part of transferable packages driven not only by women’s rights agendas but by neo-liberal international organizations, institutions, and government agendas.

As is evident in both Iraq and Afghanistan, “post-conflict” political processes and reconstruction are severely curtailed by escalating violence, and increasing sectarian or ethnic conflicts. Similarly, women and women’s rights have taken center stage. Democracy initiatives imposed from outside and above inadvertently consolidates and possibly even legitimizes social forces that oppose women’s equal rights and participation in public life.

Despite all these severe restrictions, there are still Iraqi women activists who are trying to continue to provide services and humanitarian assistance as well as mobilize politically to safeguard their shrinking rights. It is these women who risk their lives on a daily basis who deserve the support of the international community through solidarity activities, funding and training. Rather than sending Western “gender experts” to train Iraqi women, Western governments and international organizations should facilitate encounters and exchanges with women from comparable conflict and post-conflict situations, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan, for example. As it is impossible to organize meetings in Baghdad and most other cities in Iraq, except for the Kurdish North, international organizations and governments should also help more intensely facilitate Iraqi women to meet in safe spaces such as Amman or Erbil.

However, as long as the U.S. and British occupation lasts, there will be Islamist forces that, in the name of fighting the occupation, will severely restrict women’s participation in public life. Although I am under no illusion that the violence will subside or that women will be better off immediately after troop withdrawal, it will have to be a necessary step on the way to create a sovereign state in which women’s rights can be discussed without creating a bigger backlash for women inside Iraq.

Dr. Nadje Al-Ali is a professor at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, UK and a Founding member of Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq. She is the author of the recently published book, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present, 2007.


1. See and


2. Those suspected of being involved in both the resistance as well as in terrorist activities are regularly detained without informing their families about their whereabouts and their well-being. People disappearing, random arrests as well as torture and abuse in prisons are ironically common phenomena in post-Saddam Iraq.

3. "Iraq: Female Harassment from Religious Conservatives,",  April 14, 2004.

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