Women’s Rights are Key for the U.S. Policy Toward Iraq

Twenty years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, women’s rights are nowhere near where they should be. The fall of the dictatorship did not bring about the much-advertised “women’s liberation”. Quite the opposite, the two decades of post-Saddam Iraq could be described as “one step forward, two steps back” for women’s rights.

When the U.S. announced its invasion of Iraq, women’s rights were used as a major justification. For many policymakers in Washington D.C., the war seemed a plausible scenario as long as certain achievements in the human rights sphere could be implemented. Then, they could be portrayed as a success and a good reason to overthrow the local dictator – even if it meant war.

However, the promised women’s rights agenda did not materialize. True, women did get greater representation in the Iraqi parliament as there is currently a quota of 25% seats for women, but even this success if filled with controversies. For instance, women activists and civil society groups highlight that the quota is used by radical sectarian politicians who then give seats to their female relatives and push for a more patriarchal agenda through them.

In addition, Iraq remains at a crossroads when it comes to other women-oriented policies. For years, the parliament is debating laws regarding women’s shelters and punishment for gender-based violence, which, despite pressure from civil society, are going nowhere. This is the result of the great influence sectarian conservatives play in country’s politics, and many of these groups came to power thanks to the U.S. intervention and support.

Indeed, these same groups emphasized on keeping intact personal status law which gives husbands freedom to discipline their wives even using physical force. In addition, the government attempted to legalize child marriages, and the legislation was blocked only thanks to a mushrooming civil society that strongly opposed this measure. However, the parliament can bring forward more conservative legislation, and it gets harder and harder for civil society groups to stand their ground given the persecutions and harassment from the government.

Where do international organizations come into the picture, then? Is there anything they can do to facilitate more women-oriented policies? Can foreign governments contribute to a more human rights-themed policymaking without actual interventions and meddling into Iraq’s domestic affairs?

Previously, any attempts to influence domestic policies have been met with a lot of criticism from diverse groups of Iraq’s civil society as well as political parties. This mostly stems from the U.S. disastrous policy toward Iraq as well as other cases of bad decision making from the U.S. allies.

However, ignoring Iraq’s domestic developments – such as the crackdown on women’s groups and rising harassment of various activists – is hardly a policy that any foreign government can afford to take. When it comes to Iraq, staying engaged is key, and that means actual commitment to human rights.

Previously, the way the U.S. cooperated with Iraq was mostly through the country’s political parties; whoever was in the government was also the one directly communicating with the U.S. policymaking and benefitting from the funds and other forms of international support. This often meant that the U.S. would engage with sectarian and conservative political groups which had little regards for human rights and which were mostly interested in short-term power gains. Women’s rights were largely overlooked, which gained a lot of rightful criticism from Iraqi civil society groups.

Also, the U.S. presence received another wave of criticism: this time, from Iran-oriented entities which promoted more radical and sectarian policymaking, and which viewed the US as a source of all evil.

In the meantime, Iraq’s political elites were losing more and more credibility, which diminished U.S. popularity in the country even more due to the U.S. affiliation with these elites.

The U.S. managed to lose the little support it had within Iraq by upsetting its allies and triggering its enemies in the country. This means that the current policy toward Iraq needs to change.

In addition, the U.S. has been committing to Iraq through various support schemes as well through direct financing of government initiatives. The U.S. development agency, USAID, is an important partner for the Iraqi government, and it can have a great influence on the local decision makers. Thus, when committing its aid to Iraq, the U.S. should make it conditional on the real commitment to human rights. If the Iraqi government wants to continue receiving the U.S. support, it needs to reverse its sectarian policies that aim to limit women’s rights and make the country less democratic.

The conditions set by the U.S. government should be transparent; they are not there to manipulate the government or set traps. Rather, the U.S. needs to communicate clearly that support comes with strings attached, and these are all about human rights. The U.S. must communicate this strategy to its international allies – other foreign governments, which also contribute to Iraq’s development.

Furthermore, the U.S. needs allies. It needs long-term partners which share its values, and which are committed to a democratic and stable Iraq. Given the low support toward Iraq’s current government and an impressive influence militias place over civilian politicians, it makes little sense for the U.S. to affiliate directly with the current political elites and give them too much support. Hence, NGOs and reliable civil society groups are the partners the US needs.

With conditional aid and an actual support for democracy-oriented groups, the U.S. can build a network of reliable partners who are here to stay and work for Iraq’s future. Working with them can help not only improve the U.S.’ image in the country, but also build a lasting foundation for a democratic and stable society.

The U.S. claimed that it is committed to human rights – and especially, to promoting women’s rights in Iraq. Now is the time to act on this commitment.