Wednesday, March 31, 2004

stepping out, staying in
Iraqi blogger Riverbend goes shopping in free Baghdad.

Karrada was quite crowded with people coming and going. Women, of course, were a startling minority. Karrada used to be full of women- mothers, daughters and wives sometimes alone and sometimes dragging along a weary male. As we got out of the car, my confidence and enthusiasm began to wane. I was one of the few women on the street not wearing a hijab, or head-cover. One, two, three women passed by with the hijab covering their hair… the fourth one had gone a step further and was wearing an abbaya or black cloak… I tugged gently at the sleeves of my shirt which were cuffed almost to my elbows. They slid down once more to my wrists and I was suddenly grateful that I had decided to wear a long denim skirt.

There were some strange-looking people in the street- heads covered in turbans, black and white… women shrouded from top to bottom in black cloth… men with long beards and abbayas. I was getting quite a few critical stares- why wasn't this girl wearing a hijab? The rational person in me was asking the same question- why aren't you wearing one? Is it too much to ask for you to throw something on top of your head when you leave the house? Everyone else is doing it… most of the women you know are just flinging on a head-cover to avoid those disapproving glares and harsh words. Ever since the war, even some Christian women have been pressured into hiding their hair- especially in the south. And on and on went the rational voice… The stubborn voice- the one that blogs- tried to drown out common sense with, "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah... we won't be pressured..."

The San Jose Mercury News reports from Basra (via Juan Cole)

Menacing groups of men have been stopping cars at the university gates and haranguing women whose heads are uncovered, accusing them of violating Islamic law. Male students have accosted them as they walked to class. As al Asadi spoke to a reporter in a courtyard, a scruffy-looking man handed out fliers that likened uncovered women to prostitutes and murderers.

"I fear them," she said simply.

Shiite Muslim religious extremists, backed by armed militias, are waging a campaign of intimidation to enforce a strict Islamic code of conduct in Iraq's second largest city. Neither the Iraqi police nor the British military forces that occupy Basra seem willing or able to stop it.

While there are no known cases of women being attacked for not covering up, three alcohol vendors and two bystanders were gunned down in February, the latest in a string of such assaults. A few weeks ago, gunmen pumped six bullets into a woman who ran a shop that sold romantic videos.

It’s not hard to see a chain of events here. The US and British have come to rely on support, or at least quiescence, from Iraq’s majority Shia community. This is especially important for the British army as it tries to maintain stability in the Shi’a dominated south of the country. In practice, this seems to mean allowing Shi’a militias to exercise de-facto control of the streets, and, it seems, any women loose enough to walk in them, amidst a general resurgence of Islamist thinking.

Well, so what, you might ask. Liberating women usually limps along after all the other moral pretexts for aggressive war. It’s just a matter of wheeling on a presidential or prime ministerial spouse to shed a sisterly tear or two after the rough, tough, boys-own-stuff is over. The chicks just form the chorus line, they’re not the main event. The coalition depends on Shia quiescence, which means tolerating their militant confessional militias and the policies of social coercion they seem to be following. So back behind the veil with you Fatima, and don’t even think of embarrassing the folks who came to liberate you.

Of course, this is a particularly retrograde step because Iraq under Saddam had more and better educated women than anywhere else in the Arab world. This is a fact that’s half-heartedly acknowledged, since it seems to contradict the Saddam-as-Hitler narrative. For the record, I don’t think Saddam was any kind of feminist. But his regime did seem to follow the developmentalist ideology of the sixties and seventies, where educated women were considered a necessary accoutrement of modernity, along with Mig 29s and dams that silted up a year after opening. Therefore they were produced and encouraged to work.

The same factors seem to be operating in a lot of thoroughly ugly regimes, generally of a leftist bent. Afghanistan under the communists, for instance. Likewise the Soviet Union and China. The old block captain system in Chinese cities – a kind of loose neighborhood surveillance for law and order purposes - gave a lot of older women considerable clout in their neighborhoods. At a higher level, I remember meeting Wu Yi when she ran MOFTEC. She was a woman of considerable presence and enormous bingo wings, who looked like she’d spent a lot of time working on an oil derrick in Daqing, which indeed she had. No beauty myth here.

The shame in Iraq is that just as women’s opportunities were contingent to the real purposes of the regime they endured, so the ending of those opportunities seems to be contingent to the purposes of those who “liberated” them.