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Comment II
Last Updated: 09/09/2013
The Plight of Iraqi Women
Majid Ahmed Salih

Years of war and insecurity in Iraq have had a devastating impact on society generally, and women in particular. Majid Ahmed Salih discusses the issues of gender inequality under Iraqi law, widowhood and orphanhood as results of war, and the exploitation of Iraqi women in the international sex industry.

Women in Iraqi Law

According to the General Census, women constitute 55% of the population in Iraq- roughly 29 million. But the Iraqi women do not enjoy their rights as stipulated in international documents, particularly the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Resolution (24/180) of 1979. According to Iraqi law, women are not allowed to even get a passport without the consent of her guardian- a man! They are forced to marry and they cannot get a divorce. Many must live with three other wives in the same house under the responsibility of one man. Husbands do not allow her out of the house alone and they also must wear the hijab forcibly. Women can be murdered in the name of the man’s honor if they bring him shame. Sometimes women may be killed by being stoned to death, as happened to the Iraqi girl Dua’a on the seventh of April 2007. Outside of marriage, women are turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold. However, the man to satisfy his desires may pursue a misyar marriage as a Sunni Muslim and temporary marriage if a Shia’a Muslim.

The lack of protection for women, and limiting their rights to participation in free legislative committees is a tendency of masculine legislators. The first of these violations are sexual harassment damaging women during their labor. This affects their performance and productivity, and makes them more vulnerable than others to mental disorders and health problems. Among these violations is also marital rape by forcing the wife to have intercourse without her consent and is an assault on the will of the woman and her body, which is contrary to the most basic meaning of humanity and a violation of her basic human rights. Circumcision is another flagrant physical violation of the woman’s body, which is contrary to the human right to preserve the integrity of the body and an abuse that has many complications. Other problem issues for women in Iraq are abortion rights, alimony, the right to work, and fair division of maternity leave between father and mother. Finally, Iraqi women in the prisons are tortured and raped and although this has caused a debate among members of parliament, nothing has happened. Maha Al Dori league and the Minister of Justice to allow the committees to visit these prisons but this last one refused to allow this visit (Al Sharqia, 2012).

Iraqi women need access to what is called “human security” where they can exercise of their rights and enjoy protections to secure their freedom. Generally it means protecting people from acute threats and creating the conditions that allow them to control and manage their own lives. Human Security, as defined by the UNDP report of the United Nations in 1994 (United Nation, 1979) means freedom from fear and need.

So both the international community and the government of Iraq need to work for the legitimacy of women’s human rights and support their on-going struggle for basic rights in Iraq. They can support this struggle by changing the Articles of the Constitution that neglect and contradict with the basic rights of women in Iraq, and which are among the most horrendous in the world. Also, the government has not allocated a budget for the Ministry of Women in Iraq and women have not received any key ministry positions, even though they have 25 percent of the seats in parliament under the quota system. So even the quota system was unable to repair and improve the situation of female.

Iraqi Women Since American Occupation of 2003

The Disastrous Effects of Widowhood and Orphanhood

Widowhood in Iraq has disastrous social consequences. Widowhood is a legacy of the policies from the previous violent regime, the wars and the terrorist acts by both the armed groups and occupied troops after the American occupation in 2003 and an outgrowth of more recent violence related to Iraqi political sectarianism. Widowhood is considered one of the main outcomes of the deteriorating and tragic social conditions in Iraq, along with the high proportion of crimes, homelessness, and disease outbreaks, and of course the general psychological stress, and the lack of access to health care faced by many Iraqi women because of the prevailing conditions and the deteriorating security situation.

Widowhood generates several psychological factors, which mostly affects on both the immediate behavior and the future options for the widow (Attofah, 2008). The widow holds the responsibility of her sons and daughters – economic, educational and social. Five international organizations operate in Iraq to address the high ratio of widows and orphans in the population, but their impact on improving the situation has been limited. Their reports warn that the current situation is likely to lead to higher instances crime, homelessness, and the spread of mental illness in Iraqi society in the years ahead.

Frightening Facts and Figures

The figures collected by me as a monitor with United Nation during the years 2005-2009 in the field on the deteriorating social conditions for women in Iraq are tragic. Between 90 to 100 Iraqi women are widowed every day, according to a study by the University of Baghdad. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva transferred from the records of the Ministry of Women's Affairs of Iraq that there are 300,000 widows in Baghdad alone and another 30,000 widows in Karbala, along with an estimated 3 million widows throughout Iraq by official records; meaning that widows account for about 35% of the population of Iraq, and about 65% of women in Iraq, and about 80 percent of married women between the ages of twenty and forty, which is the age of fertility and reproduction according to World Health Organization statistics.

Moreover, World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report in April 2007 referring to 4.5 million orphans in Iraq, two million widows, and nine hundred thousand disabled children.

Iraqi woman are considered among the most battered women in the world since the years of 2006-2007. Since then, violence has hampered her ability to enjoy her rights and fundamental freedoms, including clear violations of some articles of the Constitution and violations of her basic rights under international law and human rights conventions. The decision taken by the UN Security Council that violence against women is a crime against humanity, like other crimes, and thus requires prosecution and punishment, has sparked reactions far and wide. It has raised awareness about the phenomenon of violence against women and given it an international dimension that reflects the seriousness of this ancient practice.

About 5 - 6 women are murdered in Iraq every day, and if we follow statistics from the Ministry of Health and the Medico-Legal for the months of January and February of 2006, 181 women were killed. This number escalated in the months of July and August to 377 women killed; women in all the different segments of society: activists and informants and relatives of political officials and wives of professors and wives former officers in the Iraqi army. All of this has a negative impact on women's participation in political and public life, as acknowledged by Basra’s police chief, the second largest city in Iraq, south of Baghdad 500 km. He acknowledged that women in Basra are severely repressed and terrorized by a new kind of violence, not so often known before and across all ages. The criminal gangs prosecute women visually and threaten or kill any who snitch or conjecture. Official police statistics indicate that there are at least 15 women in Basra killed monthly by criminal gangs. These gangs argue the women breach moral and religious controls. These gangs roam the streets riding in cars and motorcycles, hunting the women with threats and intimidation and murder, because the do not want woman to have any status, and resent their wearing western clothes and cosmetics.

Medical Legal Institute (MLI) in the provinces of Arbil and Sulaymaniyah (Kurdistan Region) that (248) woman were killed in the first six months of 2006 and were subjected to burns as the cause of death in most cases. Detection and human rights minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq for burning 97 women in the region during the 4 months of year 2007 and this phenomenon of honor killing when women have sex with someone else illegally since the Iraqi Penal Code is killing women honor a mitigating circumstance in accordance with Article (409) which provides for the punishment of those found guilty of such offenses in prison for up to three years while the amendment to this law in the Kurdistan region so counting honor killings ordinary crimes.

When I visited some of the women and men who just left the prison in Abu Ghraib, they stated that the U.S. occupying administration in Iraq regularly allowed rape, torture and cruel sadism against women detained in the prisons of their camps, and many crimes were committed and are still being committed against women in these prisons with the support and blessing of some local officials.

Kidnapping is a very real threat for women in Iraq, as they are actively sold as slaves, often in the sex industry. Slave traders exploit the misery and unemployment in Iraq under the cover of offering jobs to work as housekeepers or other “opportunities”. They are then required by traders to pay large sums for their arrangements of the labor contracts in the Gulf States where they are forced to sell their bodies in hotels and nightclubs.

According to local journalists, the main destination for these women has been the United Arab Emirates, specifically Dubai. Syria is another destination for the smuggling of Iraqi women, while another monitoring group said that Kuwait is added to those ports. The security situation in Iraq makes the slave trade almost impossible to stop and that the freedom of action and movement of traders are is too easy.

Through my investigations, which have included repeated visits to a number of families and women who live under bridges or in slums or in-empty offices belongs to the state, I was able to gather some figures about their numbers and conditions and how they are dealing with the daily life activity under these tragic deteriorated circumstances, in collaboration with one of the NGOs, as follows:

Nearly 6800 families are homeless and over 5000 orphans are registered with the Informatics Central Government Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Manpower Planning of the Ministry of Planning. Furthermore, 11% of Iraqi families are headed by women and 73% of households headed by widows.

The Association of Women's Rights conducted a survey of displaced families and people living on the streets in 12 provinces (excluding the Kurdistan region) during the period from January to August 2007. Among the participants in the survey, totaling 3572 people, 72% are women, mostly widows. An acknowledged 9% of them moved to prostitution while 17% reported that they turned to exploration in the garbage bins for some food for themselves and their children, particularly in Baghdad. In 2010, a study conducted by the Ministry of Planning suggests that more than half of the widows in Iraq lost their husbands during the past five years and they are primarily responsible for child support and one-to three children. The study mentions that widows in Iraq are receiving a salary of social protection and adult which $US 100 (120 thousand Iraqi dinars) only, which does not fill their needs.


Despite the formation of a specific government Department concerned with support for widows in Iraq and the allocation of monthly salaries or employment, we have not touched any real impact on the vast number of Iraqi widows, who are suffering many additional complexities related to application reviews and the requirement to prove their need for a monthly stipend.

Displaced women who walk around in the streets with their children are vulnerable to violence, rape and murder by armed groups—foreign and domestic. They need a safe place to take shelter in it, because the streets in Iraq have become very dangerous. The image of Iraqi women, stretched outside of the market to sell something in hope bringing back food to her children, raises the sad feelings of loyal people, especially, those like me, who stand beside the women in their struggle for dignity and security.

Majid Ahmed Salih, UPEACE, MA in International Peace Studies 2013.