Thursday, August 18, 2005

Howard Dean and Human Rights for Women

On Sunday Howard Dean, chairman of the DNC, outrageously claimed that woman had more rights under Saddam Hussein, then under the new as yet ratified Iraqi constitution. Not only is this a premature assessment of the unfinished document. It is a misstatement of what it means to have rights, and a misunderstanding of Saddam’s Iraq. It is certainly important to Iraq’s future for women to be allowed to participate politically. But Iraq is not a nation in the western tradition and it will be a harder road.

The first mistake that Dean made was to assume that because women may be losing rights that were elaborated by law under Saddam’s regime they are losing something they actually had. But one can not be said to have rights under a Stalinist dictatorship, where the whims of one man are above any law that he promulgates. While it is true that women were legally accorded certain rights, it doesn’t mean they were worth anything.

As with African-Americans afforded the right to vote by fifteenth amendment, the assignment of rights to women by Saddam was not universally enforced in his regime. Women were still subject to tribal and religious mores where these were entrenched. This includes honor killings, and enforced prostitution of rape victims. Those women subjected by Baath party strongmen (wives, daughters, nieces) were afforded rights in name only. The only women who truly enjoyed some of the rights enumerated in Iraqi law under Saddam were those who lived in middle class regions of cosmopolitan Baghdad.

It is problematic to assert that women had “rights” in a society that had no basic concept of human rights. All citizens of Iraq were subject to imprisonment, disappearances, and state murder. Women in particular were subject to brutal rapes. The fact that women had a right to own property under Iraqi law, does not negate the lack of respect for any laws by Saddam and his cronies. In fact Saddam’s actions nullified the very concept of rule of law. In a society without rule of law, laws and any rights there enshrined are meaningless.

The events that unfolded in the city of Ad Dujail are a case in point. In 1982 men, belonging to the Shiite Dawa party staged an attempted assassination, ambushing Saddam Hussein’s motorcade as it moved through the city. As is now known Saddam ordered mass murders in retaliation. The killing a verifiable one hundred and fifty males in the immediate aftermath is one of the main counts against Saddam today. But the terror campaign against this tiny Shiite city in the Sunni heartland continued for years.

In 1991 a Sheik sat in the teahouse in Ad Dujail. He had retired from government service and owned a small business. He was already a saddened man, having lost a son in the aftermath of the 1982 ambush. This day years later a friend rushed into the teahouse and told him he had best go to his sister’s home where there was some trouble. The house was cordoned off by police under the local magistrtate. Inside lay the raped and beheaded remains of five women from teenager to grandmother. Continuing retaliation for the possible participation of one young male family member in the ambush.

Governor Dean, and all of those talking heads who support his assertion, you know not what of you speak. Yes Iraqi law offered women rights. But it was a sham. The law meant less then nothing. When police can rape and murder with impunity, there is no law and there are no rights.

The rights of women in Iraq remain tenuous. In my time in Iraq we constantly commented that the culture wasted half of its intellectual power by disenfranchising women. But if the Iraqi constitution should disappoint on this issue we need not despair. It is less than a century since women gained the right to vote here. The Iraqis, if they truly want prosperity will soon find women’s participation essential in today’s world. I hope they find it in the new constitution. But if they don’t the need to compete, and participate in a global economy may soon enlighten them.


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