Civil Liberties

Feminism and Iraq

Is the war in Iraq really a feminist issue?


Whether or not we should have gone to war in Iraq is a question that may be settled quickly or debated for years; at the moment, however, it is moot. But as we follow the development of the war, specific questions about why to fight and not to fight are still worth discussing. While social issues, including gender issues, tend to be put on the back burner during foreign crises, feminist voices have been a part of the war debate—mostly on the antiwar side (even though American women are only slightly less likely than men to support the war). On March 8, in an odd embrace of a gender stereotype, about 3,000 women in pink marched around the White House to protest the war, an action organized by a group called CodePink for Peace. Speakers at the event included National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy, feminist writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Alice Walker, and Democratic Representative Lynn Woolsey of California.

Some activists resort to openly antimale cliches, denouncing "testosterone-poisoned" prowar rhetoric. CodePink for Peace organizer Medea Benjamin worries that "all of this negative male energy has really taken our country in a direction that feels dangerous … especially after September 11."

Like many other antiwar protesters, these feminists also tend to lapse into moral equivalency even when they acknowledge that the Iraqi regime is pretty atrocious. "Yes, Saddam Hussein is a maniacal tyrant, cruel and vicious," Gandy says in a March 19 statement. "But where are these brave opponents of tyranny when the threat is here at home?" She then goes on to suggest that American women and children face a tyranny of "hunger and homelessness, violence, and poverty" that is somehow comparable to Hussein's.

It is safe to say that the female Iraqi exiles who tell horrific stories of the cruelties of Hussein's secret police—whose methods of terrorizing dissenters include raping women in front of their families—would disagree.

A different view comes from Tammy Bruce, the former head of the Los Angeles chapter of NOW who parted ways with the organization a few years ago because she felt that it was putting political concerns (be it political correctness on race in the O.J. Simpson case or political allegiances in the Bill Clinton impeachment) over the good of women. Bruce believes that the American feminist elite is doing it again in its opposition to the war in Iraq.

"The feminist establishment's political game with women's lives is particularly disgraceful as they, of all interest groups, have a special duty to support ridding the world of Saddam," Bruce writes in a recent column. She recounts the horrific story, reported by Amnesty International, of a 25-year-old Iraqi woman known as "Um Haydar." The wife of a man suspected of illegal political activity, Um Haydar was beheaded in the street in front of her children and her mother-in-law (all of whom disappeared).

Addressing Gandy, Walker, and the other feminist antiwar protesters, Bruce writes, "Think of Um's children, her daughters, whom you have abandoned. . . . There are thousands of dead Iraqi women who know how you betray them, in the name of politics, in the name of hating George W. Bush, in the name of your own cynical political hypocrisy."

Bruce's charges of hypocrisy and political game-playing are undoubtedly well-deserved. But is the liberation of Iraq really a feminist issue?

Under the Taliban's radical Islamic rule in Afghanistan, both sexes suffered from egregious abuses but women and girls were singled out for especially horrific oppression—even forbidden to work and go to school. In Iraq, Hussein's secular tyranny is not gender-specific in its brutality.

Of course, when a woman is whipped with electrical cables for criticizing her government, she is unlikely to take comfort in the knowledge that she is not being singled for her gender. Still, the fact remains that Iraqi men do suffer from similar and worse abuses. A chilling recent article in The Times of London by British Member of Parliament Ann Clywd describes an incident in which 30 men were thrown alive into a machine designed for shredding plastic. It's noteworthy that Bruce's account of the fate of Um Haydar makes no mention of what happened to this woman's husband.

There is already too much of a tendency in our culture, due to the legacy of chivalry, to treat the suffering of "women and children" as worthier than that of men. Instead of reinforcing this paternalistic mentality, feminists should be speaking out for human rights, not just women's rights.