Feb 2, 2004
"Of course, the most dramatic recent examples of democratic progress are to be seen in the liberated countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, two years after the overthrow of the brutal Taliban regime, the Loya Jirga has approved a constitution that reflects the values of tolerance and equal rights for women. ... In Iraq, too, after decades of Baathist rule, democracy is beginning to take hold." These are words uttered by Vice President Dick Cheney in his address to the "World Economic Forum" in Davos, Switzerland, on January 24.
And what lies they are! Whatever rights the new constitution of Afghanistan grants women on paper, the reality is a totally different story. Large parts of the country are still controlled by religious fundamentalist warlords who today are allied with the U.S. and who don't allow women to work, go to school or appear in public without the burka, the head-to-toe cover.
And in Iraq, far from reinforcing democratic or women's rights, the U.S. occupation is in fact doing away with existing laws that to some extent protected such rights. Less than a month before Cheney shamelessly uttered those lies, the Iraqi Governing Council, that is, the puppet government installed by the U.S., quietly decided to replace Iraq's largely modern and secular personal status law with medieval Islamic law!
Under this Islamic law, known as the sharia, women are considered inferior members of society compared to men. For example, a man's testimony in court counts more than that of a woman; men get a bigger share from inheritance; men are allowed to marry more than one woman but not the other way around; married couples are considered divorced when the man wishes so but not the woman; men have a right to child custody, etc. And then there are, of course, the Koran's regulations about women having to cover themselves in public, which are imposed on women to different degrees depending on the country where the government claims to adhere to the sharia.
This is a huge step back for Iraq, which for decades has been one of the most secular countries in the Middle East. In 1959, one year after coming to power, the Baath Party introduced secular laws which, at least on paper, recognized women and men as equal members of society. Since then, at least in the cities, many women have been able to get an education, jobs, and to participate in social life. Even backward steps taken during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, such as the change in civil law which allowed a man to marry more than one woman "with the consent of his first wife," did not overthrow this general trend. But now the U.S.-backed government of supposedly "liberated" Iraq is ready to do away altogether with the principle of equality of women and men before the law!
By any measure, this should be embarrassing for the Bush administration. So why has its puppet council passed this regressive law? Basically for the same reason that the U.S. has turned a blind eye to the open oppression of women in other countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. As in these countries, the U.S. is in the process of making a deal with religious fundamentalists in Iraq.
The nature of this deal in the making can be seen in the developments of recent weeks. First, the Bush administration announced that elections would be held in Iraq by June 30 – a date which was obviously picked in view of Bush's own reelection campaign. The proposed electoral process, however, is anything but democratic: the current Iraqi "Governing Council," appointed by the U.S., will hand-pick caucuses of delegates, which in turn will elect a national assembly.
One of the most influential Shiite clerics in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, took advantage of Bush wanting the June 30th date. He called on Iraqi people to protest the undemocratic nature of the American proposal and demand direct, one-man, one-vote elections. Overnight, tens of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets.
Once he had his show of force, al-Sistani called off further demonstrations. He hinted he might agree to elections as proposed by Bush, to be held by June 30, if they are overseen by the United Nations and not by the U.S. occupation authorities. And sure enough, the U.N. has already sent officials to Iraq to start the process.
Why did al-Sistani make this about-turn? Because the Bush administration – by having the council pass the new law – hinted that al-Sistani could have what he wants – the sharia in Iraq. If anyone thinks that Bush or the U.S. ruling class may have any second thoughts about delivering the population of Iraq to the medieval rule of the mullahs, they need only look at Afghanistan, where the U.S. has for decades supported religious fundamentalists – including Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Or, for that matter, to Iraq's neighbor, Saudi Arabia, one of U.S.'s closest allies in the Middle East, where religious police regularly beat women in the street for not covering every inch of their bodies, or for walking "too close" to a man who is not a family member.
Bush will get his rigged Iraqi elections in time for his own reelection campaign, and al-Sistani will get to impose his medieval views on the whole country.
What a "win-win" deal for Bush and his partners, the fundamentalist mullahs! The loser? It will be the entire population of Iraq.