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Essay
Last Updated: 03/05/2009
Women in Iraq
Patricia Rich

This article introduces a gender-framed analysis of the Iraq war and continuing occupation. Through this analysis the author illustrates how the coalition forces’ ignorance of the cultural context within which their actions took place has impeded upon women’s empowerment. By analysing the conflict and occupation within the framework of honour and shame, the further argument is made that, despite the rhetoric of ‘women’s liberation’ used to justify the war, the consequences of the conflict have run contrary to any claim made to emancipate women.

The author concludes that it is only through re-framing our analysis of the Iraqi conflict, with gender at the fore, that we are better able to understand the conflict as a whole. Further that it is only through self-reflection and a concentration on the peaceful empowerment of society as a whole that we are able to counter all forms of violence against women.

Keywords: Gender, Iraq, Insurgency, War on Terrorism, Occupation, Humiliation, Honour and Shame, Self-reflection, Empowerment.


As part of the United States led, so-called and on-going “war on terrorism”, the US government has used a discourse of women’s liberation as a moralistic justification for their actions.[1] Tales of the Taliban’s treatment of women in Afghanistan emerged from the White House and the western media fixated on the image of the veil;[2] the west became obsessed with women oppressed by fundamentalist Islam. Indeed many feminists pledged their support for the “war” upon the basis that these women needed to be saved from the palms of tyranny.

The main purpose of this paper is to re-frame analysis of the Iraq war with the issue of women brought to the fore. I propose that the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by coalition forces has hindered the empowerment of the women who live there. Practically, the implications of this paper stretch beyond Iraq and should resonate among all readers. The recommendations that I shall make will be based on changing perceptions and re-framing analysis and therefore should apply to all conflict situations, in the broadest understanding of the term conflict.

Two models of conflict analysis that are useful to bear in mind whilst reading this paper are the conflict spiral model and Galtung’s conflict triangle model (for visual representations, please see appendix). The conflict spiral model (see diagram 1) contends that conflict escalation forms a “vicious circle of action and reaction.”[3] Actors on all sides consider themselves to be the victims of aggression on the part of the other party. This self-perception of victimhood breeds further and increasingly violent behaviour spurred by fear and a desire for revenge. Although designed specifically for two party conflicts this model is useful for the Iraqi conflict, despite the plethora of actors. The coalition forces, the Iraqi population and the insurgent movements (both local and foreign) comprehend themselves as the victims of attacks perpetrated by others. Fear and the perception of insecurity have fed into the escalation of violence in Iraq throughout the occupation.

Galtung describes cultural violence as “those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence ... that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence.”[4] The conflict triangle model (see diagram 2) offered by Galtung highlights the intimate relationship of the three manifestations of violence (direct, structural and cultural), and serves to remind us that for positive peace to be achieved, the elimination of all these forms must be realised.  Further, this model clearly shows how cultural understandings inform the action and policies of all conflicting parties and explains to us how direct and structural violence become understood as justified.

The phenomenon of utilising the rhetoric of women’s rights is not new: British colonial propaganda stated “female emancipation”[5] as an aim of the project of empire. The language served to moralise colonisation, spurring western women to enter into the “service of colonisation,”[6] the civilisation of local women.[7] The recent employment of a discourse of women’s liberation within the “war on terror” is comparable to that used during colonisation. As a result, the perception of the “hegemonic western feminist” has created division between the “west” and those they declare themselves to be saving.[8] It is an attitude of saviour or protector which feeds the division and indeed runs concurrent with established gender stereotypes; it is the woman that needs to be saved, as with every western fairytale, there is a damsel in distress. This stance denies the equality of the “oppressed” woman, rejects her agency, pities her and elevates to a pedestal the western woman’s conception of liberation. It must also be remembered that the rhetoric of women’s rights is indeed precisely that, mere rhetoric, there has been no effort to address or highlight issues of gender beyond the stereotyped ‘women oppressed by fundamentalist Islam’ image presented to the public in order to “moralize and justify.”[9] Women have largely been left out of the ‘reconstruction’ process in Iraq, despite the U.S. being a signatory to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for the inclusion of women in the peace and reconstruction process.[10] The manipulation of the “oppressed woman” rhetoric can be described as “embedded feminism”, which Hunt defines as the “incorporation of feminist discourse and feminist activists into political projects that claim to serve the interests of women but ultimately subordinate and/or subvert that goal”;[11] it is with this definition in mind that we should turn to the case of Iraq.

Under Saddam Hussein, women in Iraq had begun to make some progress in the improvements of their rights and empowerment. 1978 saw the introduction of a national literacy campaign which legally obliged all illiterate adults, men and women, to attend literacy classes. Primary education is compulsory for both boys and girls and indeed “the majority of girls in urban areas go on to secondary school and many to higher education.”[12] Most forms of employment were open to women from “lorry- and bus-drivers ... to doctors, university professors and the top executive positions in ministries.”[13] As a result of the Iran-Iraq war, which took so many men to the battlefield, women stepped up to fill their posts. Whilst this did not represent the emancipation of women in Iraq, the onset of change had begun. However, as a result of the Gulf war of the 1990s, Hussein began to solicit support from his neighbours on the basis of “Arab and Muslim solidarity”[14], a by-product of which was the hindering of the women’s movement. The 1980s provided women, of a certain generation in Iraq, with the experience of the initiation of change in their societal position. Whilst the younger generation, which had not been privy to the leaps made by their mothers, are generally more conservative, there exists a generation in Iraq which continues to mobilise for women’s rights.

The ideology of honour and shame carries much weight in Iraqi society. There exist two main dimensions to honour, that of the sharaf and the ird: whilst sharaf refers to honour in a more general sense, something which can be ascribed at birth or attained through action, the other, ird, is related to sexual conduct, the safeguarding of women’s purity.[15] [16] Primary importance is granted to the ird as it reflects upon “male circles”[17], although its preservation is held by the women.

Women’s honour is tied up with the honour of their birth family, as it is to them that she “belongs”; Al-Khayyat describes women as “possessions of their natal family.”[18] After marriage a woman retains her “natural” family’s name and if she was to be divorced it would be to them that she would return. If an honour killing is to be carried out it is “usually her brother or father, uncle or cousin”[19] who would carry out the act. Further, it is to them that she would turn for protection. Honour in Iraqi society is not individually held but bound within kinship and societal relations. Therefore dishonour is communally held. An individual woman’s honour is a matter for her family; collective women’s honour is a matter for society.

In May 2003, U.S. and British led coalition forces invaded Iraq, and since the “end” of the war, they have been an occupying force in the country. Relations between the coalition forces and the local population have been notoriously fragile, to say the least. Since 2003 the country has witnessed spiralling levels of violence; each conflicting party became increasingly fearful of the other, thus stepping up their level of retaliation and entering into a cycle of violence. The mindset of fear which is rife with regards to either side has served to further polarise the conflicting parties, and led to a dire situation. The treatment of women was never brought to the fore of public attention – it was not perceived to be an important issue in comparison to security and weapons of mass destruction, for example. However, as Victoria Fontan states, this was a grave error as “gender represented the symptom of what was to come in terms of insurgency.”[20]

Through a re-framed analysis of the conflict with specific reference to gender, I intend that the consequences of the war and occupation for women in Iraq and the conflict as a whole can better be understood. Further, this action in itself is a recommendation for practice; as Enloe states, “Once you make inequities visible you are also likely to make visible the power dynamics that create those inequities.”[21] This is the first step to dealing with any situation: acknowledgement and visibility.

The importance of honour and shame, analysed above, allows us to understand the war and occupation of Iraq as a humiliation for Iraqi society, as Fontan highlights in Voices from Post-Saddam Iraq. The toppling of Saddam itself was viewed as a point of humiliation from the perspective of the Iraqi citizenry: “The greatest humiliation of all was to see foreigners topple Saddam, not because we loved him, but because we could not do it ourselves”[22], construing a sense of disempowerment. Occupation itself must be understood as shameful for Iraqi society, the coalition forces came to save the population of Iraq from tyranny, removing a dictator through military force in a display of what the ‘west’ could do but the people themselves could not.

With regards to gender, practices carried out by the coalition forces served to humiliate the carrier of honour, the woman and therefore society as a whole.  Following the invasion of Iraq:


rumours of rape and abductions increased because of unverified and inflated media coverage of the issue, fewer and fewer women chose to leave their houses unaccompanied, and more resorted to wearing a hejab, or scarf, over their heads when they ventured outside their homes.[23]

Whether or not these rumours were “true” is not of importance here; what is fundamental is the belief that they were true, and perception is reality. People reacted to the rumours as if they were true, the rapes and abductions existed in hyper-reality;[24] a communal feeling of insecurity was fostered. As a response to this fear women withdrew from the public sphere, “reverted back to being that of a creature to be protected from herself for the sake of family and collective honor”[25] and the fires of insurgency were further fuelled.

Soldiers on the ground seemed to have a distinct lack of cultural training which led to gendered humiliation. One example is that, following a rocket-propelled grenade hitting a Military Police patrol, killing one, in June 2003, a raid was carried out on a road in Fallujah. It is important to understand that the soldiers who were carrying out the raid would have been the same as those who would have cleared up “the remains of their colleague scattered on the road.”[26] This information is key. Bearing in mind the conflict spiral model we must seek to understand that the soldiers would have been fearful and angry; these emotions will have guided their actions. One woman who was alone in her house refused to allow the soldiers to enter her home brandishing an AK-47 to protect herself. Within the context of honour in Iraqi society, it would have been unacceptable for these men to enter her home whilst she was there alone, “their intrusion would tarnish her honour and that of her family.”[27] She was arrested and taken to Abu-Ghraib prison, upon her release she disappeared, neighbours professed that “she was thought to have been raped during her time in prison, and that she was killed in order for her family’s honour to be cleansed.”[28] Here again the issue of hyper-reality becomes important, the suspicion of rape – the rumour – led to actual consequences. Coalition forces throughout Iraq act out of fear and anger, whilst remaining simultaneously ignorant of the cultural context of their actions, thus feeding the perception that women are not being respected by coalition forces and further entrenching the idea that women need to be afforded protection.

Despite the rhetoric regarding women’s liberation in the discourse surrounding the “war on terror”, there exists a stark lack of gender awareness in the policies and actions of the U.S. led coalition forces in Iraq. In August 2003 the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) sent a letter to Paul Bremer, the head administrator of the occupation in Iraq, asking that he “use his authority to address the ‘unprecedented violence against women’”.[29] They never received a reply.

Vast numbers of women are trafficked out of Iraq and sold into prostitution in other Gulf States. It is arguable that the routes these women are forced to follow are the same used by foreign insurgency movements to enter the country. The issue of trafficking is overlooked by the media and coalition, and they are therefore blinded to the link between gender based violence and insecurity in Iraq.[30] Violence against women is considered to be a private, individual matter, not constituting a security threat to the same extent as man-fighting-man-with-gun, and is thus absent from the policy-makers’ agenda. The sidelining of gender has held negative consequences for both the women in Iraq and the coalition forces.

In order to address the situation of women in Iraqi society and beyond we must seek to work for the empowerment of society as a whole upon the basis of equality. Rather than further polarising women and men by solely focusing on women’s empowerment, efforts should be made to enter into a peaceful empowerment process aimed at the transformation of societies scarred by conflict.

One of the ways that this could be approached is to avoid the masculinised language of security and instead adopt a discourse of peace. Issues of security are associated with the masculine image of militarism; therefore in order to address insecurity policy tends to focus on the men-with-guns issue. To achieve peace however we must address all manifestations of violence: cultural, structural, and direct.[31] By changing the language through which we understand conflict we can start to avoid the male dominated image that is most apparent.

Violence against women is largely attributed to the private sphere, where acts are presumed to be individual and are rarely placed in the public realm. Sana Al-Kayyat’s analysis of women in Iraq reveals that this perception is internalised by women themselves who consider the violence to which they are subject a personal issue rather than connecting it with the wider societal level problems.[32] In the U.S. violence against women is also “treated as private matters with little public consequence”[33] and is thus ignored at the policy level. Violence against women needs to be elevated to a central socio-political issue, and afforded the attention paid to insurgency and weapons of mass destruction, for example.

By re-framing our analysis to centralise gender issues and re-focusing our language within the paradigm of peace, women can no longer be dismissed as an issue to be sidelined, until “security” is achieved.

It is important to realise that primarily what is needed in terms of change is self-reflection. Throughout history the white feminist has alienated herself from her fellow woman by working within the patriarchal “western” establishment. “Western” feminism must no longer enter into the discourse of saving majority world women, but rather note that women in all societies are not afforded emancipation. Often, the “western” woman is blind to her own situation, believing herself to be “free”. One way to self-reflect is to change all language which refers to males and females to that of race. In this way it becomes clearer where oppression and discrimination are still rife.

As a British female, dare I say, feminist writer, it is important for me to turn to my own culture, question and critique it, and fight against the continual ignorance of gender issues in my own society. Further it is important to attempt to understand how my society could be perceived as a threat to women in Iraq. The commodification and sexualisation of women in western societies, when understood in relation to honour and shame in Iraq, could be perceived as threatening. The “western” feminist coming to save the oppressed majority world woman, compounds with the “western” model of women’s liberation marketed as “progress”. We need to recognise the need for gender to become a mainstream issue beyond individual societies if we intend to empower society as a whole.

Whilst women were by no means “free” in Iraqi society under Saddam Hussein, this paper has sought to show how a lack of gender awareness and a pattern of violence and humiliation have served to repel women from the public sphere: “chained [women] ... back to the Iraqi kitchen floor”.[34] Insecurity is understood in a masculinised light, and must be re-framed and viewed through a gender sensitive lens. A gender aware analysis of a conflict must not remain an area of specialisation and indeed should be apparent in every analysis of conflict. It is only through gender issues becoming “mainstream” that we can hope to empower society as a whole on the basis of equality. Until then, women in Iraq and the world over will not break free of the direct, structural and cultural manifestations of the violence inflicted upon us.


[1] Hunt, Krista. 2006. ‘‘Embedded Feminism’ and the War on Terror’. In Hunt, Krista & Rygeil, Kim.  (En)Gendering the War on Terror: War Stories and Camouflaged Politics. Aldershot: Ashgate. Chp 3, pp. 51-71.

[2] Enloe, Cynthia. 2004. The Curious Feminist, Searching for Women in the New Age of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[3] Pruitt, Dean & Kim, Sung Hee. 2004 (3rd ed). Social Conflict: Escalations, Stalemate and Settlement. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

[4] Galtung, Johan. 1996. Peace By Peaceful Means. London: Sage Publications

[5] Hunt, Krista. 2006. ‘‘Embedded Feminism’ and the War on Terror’. In Hunt, Krista & Rygeil, Kim.  (En)Gendering the War on Terror: War Stories and Camouflaged Politics. Aldershot: Ashgate. Chp 3, pp. 51-71.

[6] Ahmed, citied in Hunt, Krista. 2006. ‘‘Embedded Feminism’ and the War on Terror’. In Hunt, Krista & Rygeil, Kim.  (En)Gendering the War on Terror: War Stories and Camouflaged Politics. Aldershot: Ashgate. Chp 3, pp. 51-71.

[7] Enloe, Cynthia. 1989. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. London: University of California Press.

[8] Hunt, Krista. 2006. ‘‘Embedded Feminism’ and the War on Terror’. In Hunt, Krista & Rygeil, Kim.  (En)Gendering the War on Terror: War Stories and Camouflaged Politics. Aldershot: Ashgate. Chp 3, pp. 51-71.

[9] ibid

[10] Caiazza, Amy. 2001. Why Gender Matters in Understanding September 11: Women, Militarism and Violence. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Briefing Paper, Publication no: 1908.

[11] ibid

[12] Al-Kayyat, Sana. 1990. Honour & Shame: Women in Modern Iraq. London: Saqi Books.

[13] ibid

[14] Cockburn, Andrew & Cockburn, Patrick. 1999. Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein. New York: Harper Collins Publishers

[15] Al-Kayyat, Sana. 1990. Honour & Shame: Women in Modern Iraq. London: Saqi Books.

[16] Fontan, Victoria. 2008. Voices From Post Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency and New Forms of Tyrrany. Westport: Praeger Security International.

[17] Al-Kayyat, Sana. 1990. Honour & Shame: Women in Modern Iraq. London: Saqi Books.

[18] ibid

[19] Al-Kayyat, Sana. 1990. Honour & Shame: Women in Modern Iraq. London: Saqi Books.

[20] Fontan, Victoria. 2008. Voices From Post Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency and New Forms of Tyrrany. Westport: Praeger Security International.

[21] Puechguirbal, Nadine & Enloe, Cynthia. 2004. Failing to Secure the Peace: Practical Gendered Lessons from Haiti & Iraq. The Boston Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, 26th October 2004.

[22] Cited in, ibid.

[23] Fontan, Victoria. 2008. Voices From Post Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency and New Forms of Tyrrany. Westport: Praeger Security International.

[24] ibid

[25] Fontan, Victoria. 2008. Voices From Post Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency and New Forms of Tyrrany. Westport: Praeger Security International.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Enloe, Cynthia. 2004. The Curious Feminist, Searching for Women in the New Age of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[30] Fontan, Victoria. 2008. Voices From Post Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency and New Forms of Tyrrany. Westport: Praeger Security International.

[31] Galtung, Johan. 1996. Peace By Peaceful Means. London: Sage Publications.

[32] Al-Kayyat, Sana. 1990. Honour & Shame: Women in Modern Iraq. London: Saqi Books.

[33] Caiazza, Amy. 2001. Why Gender Matters in Understanding September 11: Women, Militarism and Violence. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Briefing Paper, Publication no: 1908.

[34] Fontan, Victoria. 2008. Voices From Post Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency and New Forms of Tyrrany. Westport: Praeger Security International.


Patricia Rich has a Bachelor’s of Science in Politics and Sociology from the University of Bristol (UK) and is currently studying for a Masters degree in International Peace Studies at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. Research interests include female empowerment and emancipation, and the media’s role within this, and national identity in relation to securitisation.
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