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  • What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq
  • Joyce N. Wiley (bio)
What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq, by Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt. Berkeley, CA and London, UK: University of California Press, 2009. xviii + 180 pages. Notes to p. 185. Bibl. to p. 206. Index to p. 221. $24.95.

This book is a "sophisticated one-country feminist case study" (p. xi), to use the words of Cynthia Enloe, who wrote the Foreword. Authors Nadje Al-Ali, who has family in Iraq, and Nicola Pratt highlight the ways US actions in Iraq have combined with pervasive violence and lawlessness to deprive Iraqi women of rights and freedoms they previously had, despite the vocal commitment of US officials to Iraqi women. The authors document the deterioration in Iraqi women's circumstances and position and show that the causes were "discriminatory policies, oppressive practices, and violence" (p. 2), not religion and culture as some would have it. They note the wide range of Islamic opinion on gender roles and relations and argue that President George W. Bush's talk about "women's rights" while American troops occupied Iraq created a backlash against women's rights and undermined Islamic opinions more favorable to [End Page 505] women's rights (p. 14).

The authors' methodology consisted of interviewing over 100 Iraqi women between 2004 and 2007, a period during which insecurity in the 15 Arab-majority provinces of Iraq forced the researchers to concentrate on the women of Iraqi Kurdistan and the diaspora. Their interview data is supplemented with internationally available statistics and good academic sources. In Chapter one the position of Iraqi women before the 2003 invasion is described, with justifiable weight accorded to the 1959 Personal Status Code, which was based on a progressive interpretation of Islam, which gave Iraqi women equal inheritance rights while limiting polygamy and unilateral divorce.

The 2003 invasion brought profound losses for Iraqi women as public safety vanished and unemployment soared. Violence and criminality prevented women from participating in public life. Communal groups controlling various parts of the country forced female university students to don veils and even killed professional women and female political candidates and their family members. Trafficking in women for prostitution became a feature of the criminal economy. Trapped in their homes, women were increasingly the victims of domestic violence, so-called "honor killings," and suicide. The country's falling standard of living disproportionately affected women. Of the 11% of Iraqi households headed by women, 27.8% were "extremely poor" in 2004 compared to 13.4% of male-headed households (p. 74). Better off women activists responded by starting charities for the extremely poor women and orphans of Baghdad.

Groups represented on the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council voted in December 2003 to replace the 1959 personal status law with a more conservative interpretation of Islam. Women activists protested by the thousands, and after ten weeks the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer, decided not to sign the decree into force. Communal groups were in a strong position after the 2005 elections, however, and Article 41 of the hastily written 2005 Constitution abolished the Personal Status Law of 1959, giving control over family law back to clerics in the various sects. Whereas the 1959 law had treated all communities as one, promoting national unity and giving state protection to women, the reversion to communal laws does the opposite. Women's efforts to abolish Article 41 got little outside support, but they did manage to "change the position of some political parties, including Fadila," a Shi'a party (p. 118).

The last chapter is devoted to conclusions about the relationship between women's rights and military intervention. The authors conclude that Iraqi women are suffering because no one is defending their rights, because the occupation has eroded the institutions that contribute to national unity, and because military intervention legitimizes violence, silencing those who would defend human rights and challenge patriarchal practices. Even so, the authors see "rays of hope in grassroots-based activities and campaigns of Iraqi women activists across the country" (p. 180), an optimism that may prove warranted if law...


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pp. 505-506
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