Before and after Sept. 11, politically correct feminists crusaded for Afghan women oppressed by the Taliban. By contrast, little outrage has been expressed over the treatment of Iraqi women under Saddam Hussein.
The silence may be currently appropriate -- feminist goals should play no role in forming foreign policy. But the contrast between the two reactions is puzzling, especially in the face of horror stories coming out of Iraq.
Amnesty International has documented the brutal executions of Iraqi women accused of prostitution. For example, Najat Mohammad Haydar, an obstetrician in Baghdad, was beheaded in October 2000 after criticizing corruption within local health services. According to another report, in October 2000 "a group of men led by Saddam Hussein's son Uday, beheaded with knives 50 young women in Baghdad. The heads of these women were hung on the doors of their houses for a few days."
The Iraq Foundation joins Amnesty International in chronicling human rights violations, such as the methods of torture in prison, which include rape and "bringing in a female relative, especially the wife or the mother, and raping her in front of the detainee."
Why then does the Feminist Majority site have a "Help Afghan Women" button but no "Help Iraqi Women?" Why does an Oct. 10, 2002 press release from NOW warn, "A U.S. invasion of Iraq will likely entail ... dangers to the safety and rights of Iraqi women who currently enjoy more rights and freedoms than women in other Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia."
Why does Women's eNews run an article by Yasmine Bahrani who states, "As it happens, women's equality is one of the few aspects of the nation's ruling ideology ... that has survived the brutality that has marked Iraqi political life."
The theme seems to be that Saddam may brutally violate human rights but his presence is good for women. For example, the Bahrani article mentions "a recent report" compiled under the auspices of the United Nations in which Iraq "scored highest in women's empowerment" for that region. (Saddam's motives are not mentioned. "Advances," such as mandating five years' maternity leave for women from employers and equal pay with men allowed him both to curry favor with the West and to regulate the economy.)
Without making a case for or against war, I question PC feminism's comparative silence on Iraqi women. The Bahrani article reveals one reason why. It points readers who wish more information to the Iraq Foundation site, which contradicts the article by stating: "The rights of women in Iraq are going down the drain, along with everything else ... In 1998, Saddam ordered all women secretaries working in government agencies be dismissed. Now there are new laws barring women from work altogether."
What is the truth of the situation? The horror stories are starting to mount. On Oct. 4, 2002, seven Iraqi women of different regional, ethnic and religious backgrounds sat on a panel entitled "The Unheard Voices of Iraqi Women." They recounted their personal stories of brutalization under Saddam's regime.
One of the women eloquently stated, "The Iraqi woman has endured torture, murder, confinement, execution, and banishment, just like other[s] in Iraqi society at the hands of Saddam Hussein's criminal gang." She added, "the Iraqi woman has lost her loved ones -- husbands, brothers and fathers." So much for the notion that Saddam can massively violate human rights while protecting those of women.
PC feminism has not ignored such testimony but neither has it embraced the cause of women in Iraq as it did those in Afghanistan.
Several reasons may underlie this apparent reluctance. A condemnation of Saddam may be viewed as an admission that Bush is correct on Iraq. And hatred of Bush runs deep in most feminist circles.
Moreover, the sheer cost of war with Iraq is seen to threaten funding to "pro-woman" causes within the United States in a manner that the Afghanistan conflict did not. This threat was one of two arguments presented against war with Iraq in NOW's Oct. 10 press release. (The second: Invasion might disrupt the rights women allegedly enjoy.)
Regarding money, NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives stated: "As has happened during previous wars, funds will be diverted from ... vitally needed social programs from an already downsized budget. Women will bear the greatest burden of any decrease in domestic spending in order to finance war."
Another source of reluctance could be that condemning Iraq's treatment of women could raise doubts about the accuracy the United Nations' reports, such as the one cited by Bahrani. PC feminism is deeply invested in such U.N. agencies as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) to which Iraq became a signatory in the '80s.
Activists like Katrin Michael may force feminism to ask uncomfortable questions. Born in a Kurdish area of Iraq, Michael survived the infamous chemical attacks that Saddam used against his own people. Now lobbying in the United States, she is starting to receive attention from PC feminists.
Perhaps they will realize that to roundly condemn Saddam is not to argue for war. It simply gives justice to those Iraqi women who can no longer speak for themselves.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.