When was the last time you walked down the street without at least a flicker of wondering if someone would say something creepy or threatening to you? Can’t remember? I can’t either because the fact of the matter is that street harassment happens every day in every place and walking down the street while female makes you vulnerable no matter how old you are, what you look like or whether you know karate and have a lot of great responses rehearsed just in case. It’s unacceptable and we pay a terrible cost in the quality of our lives because of it. But there is something you can do to help raise awareness and work to end street harassment–participate in the second annual Meet Us On The Street Campaign, April 7-13. There are events taking place throughout the world and many ways to get involved both online and in your community. Feminist Peace Network is proud to be one of the many co-sponsors of this important campaign.
In the fall of 2004 I had the privilege of interviewing Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). We talked about how things had changed and become worse for women in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. As we observe the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war, several pieces have been published that make all too clear that things have deteriorated badly for the women we promised to liberate.
As Rania Khalek writes, women continue to be trafficked. Women have been widowed and children orphaned by the millions. Millions of women live in vulnerable circumstances without reliable income and are forced into marriages and killed for ‘honor’. Women’s representation in the government is a sham and education all but impossible and as CNN points out, civil family laws have been replaced by religious ones that deprive women of rights.
For a few years, there was much concern about the welfare of women in Afghanistan and then Iraq. That interest has faded but we need to remember the shameful legacy we have left behind in these countries. I wish in re-reading my interview with Mohammed that it did not still seem so relevant. But it does and so I am reprinting it here:
Our Lives Are Worse Now: Yanar Mohammed Talks With Lucinda Marshall About the Impact of the US Occupation on the Lives of Iraqi Women
Author’s Note: I first started corresponding with Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), early this spring when I received a frantic email from Jennifer Fasulo of the Working Committee in Support of Iraqi Women’s Rights explaining that OWFI urgently needed funds to rent a shelter in Baghdad for women at risk of honor killings. The letter asked that checks be made out to Ms. Fasulo personally, so that she could wire the money directly, because the usual method of donating via the internet would not be fast enough. Although I was familiar with OWFI’s work, I had never heard of Ms. Fasulo, so I emailed Ms. Mohammed to ask if this was a legitimate request. She promptly assured me that it was, explaining that some expected funds had fallen through, leaving OWFI without enough funds to pay the annual rent of $3200 needed for the shelter. Shocked at how little was needed, I immediately sent a check to Ms. Fasulo and am happy to say that the funds were raised. Over the course of the spring, Ms. Mohammed and I continued to correspond, and I was struck by how easily we communicated, two women, who had never met, half a world apart. In a true example of how communality transcends borders, it turns out that both of us are in our mid-forties with teenage sons. We both have degrees in architecture and have spent most of our working lives as artists turning our energies these last few years to ending violence against women, she by founding OWFI and I by founding the Feminist Peace Network. Ms. Mohammed, a long time activist, working against the Baathist regime as well as for women’s rights, was born in Baghdad in 1960. Finding that she could no longer make a living with the economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, she moved to Canada and continued her activism from there. Last spring she returned to Iraq for four months to work directly with women during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. We spoke recently about her trip, the current the situation for women in Iraq, and what she was able to accomplish while she was there.
Lucinda Marshall: First if you could, tell me about the goals of OWFI.
Yanar Mohammed: The first goal is to achieve equality between women and men and the way to that is a secular constitution and a separation of mosque and state. The second goal is to have equal representation of women and men in all councils, both social and political. Third, we need to end the compulsory veil, to have some laws that protect a woman’s right to the dress code of her choice. Last, our goal is to end segregation in the schools.
LM: What are the most important issues for women in Iraq right now?
YM: The first issue is security in their day-to-day lives. The second is that the women need a secular Constitution that equals them to the men. For the time being, it has been announced quite clearly that the temporary Constitution that has been written will be based mainly on Islamic Sharia (fundamentalist Islamic laws). If one man can marry four women, this gives you an indication of a woman’s position if this Constitution is based on Sharia.
LM: What are the conditions for women since the American occupation of Iraq? Are they better or worse than they were before?
YM: Try to imagine that in your house there is not one single penny to spend, there are five children to feed, there is a man who has married a second wife and a third wife and you are not allowed to leave the house and work because the man thinks it is un-Islamic, is your life better or worse? Conditions for women were deteriorating before, but they have deteriorated much more since the war because there was work for women before, the factories were working. So a woman who was able to bring income to the house is not able to do that anymore. And if the Americans say that unemployment is over, that is a big lie. Seventy percent of the people in Iraq are unemployed and most of those are women. And just imagine how many children are being affected. You know who gets hurt the worst? The mothers. You take your own food and you give it to your children, you sell whatever gold or jewelry you have left, you give everything possible to the children.
LM: What if anything did the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) do to alleviate these conditions?
YM: I met the person the Americans put in place as the consultant to the ministry of Labor and social affairs and I told him that hundreds of thousands of women are widows, they don’t have husbands, and they have lots of children. Social insurance needs to be given immediately, this is an emergency. This man looked at me and said we know what to do and when to do it. We need to make a census from north to south to decide who to give it to and are you here to confront with me or are you here to collaborate?
LM: What about the new Constitution, will that be beneficial to women?
YM: 25% of the government will be women, and I think that’s a very good thing and it is justified, but it is not our main demand. Our main demand is that women get respected in the Constitution, to be equal to men. What’s the use of a Governing Council that is even 50% women if their policies are not women- friendly? You have some political groups that have their women’s organizations and these women’s organizations are responsible for honor killings or for preparing the lists of women to be killed. So for us, if a woman is taking over, it doesn’t always mean that she will bring women-friendly policies.
LM: What you just said is very shocking. There are lists prepared of women to be killed?
YM: The people who usually take these matters into their hands are the nationalist groups and tribal heads. They give much importance to the honor of the family, honor of the tribe and eventually it becomes the honor of the nation. When a woman commits adultery or un-allowed love or somebody has suspected she is pregnant (by someone other than her husband) she gets killed so as to restore the honor of the family. It happens all over Iraq, but it depends on the political parties and whether they are encouraging it or not. In the 1990’s in the Kurdish northern part of Iraq, the ruling party was not only encouraging the practice, they were organizing it as well.
LM: The party itself was organizing it?
YM: Yes. Surprisingly, the head of this party is part of the American formula now. Our President now is a tribal head and the Prime Minister is an Arab Nationalist, a previous Baath person.
LM: I am at a loss of words just because it is truly unspeakable to even think about.
YM: Yes, Why does nobody speak out? You know that in Iraq, it is a taboo. If a woman goes against the will of the family, she needs to be canceled from life, she needs to be canceled from the knowledge of anybody who knew her so that nobody should ever speak about it. That is one side of it. But from the human rights side, why doesn’t anybody speak of it? It is because the American have favored this political group, they have relied on them in this campaign of war against Iraq and they have made them part of this Governing Council and they don’t care if they have killed thousands of women.
LM: While you were in Iraq, threats were made against your life. Can you tell me what happened?
YM: At the time, the Governing Council had proposed a resolution that said Islamic Sharia overrides everything in the civil law. What this meant was that men can marry four women, that all the rights are given to men in marriage and in divorce and in the custody of children and that there is no minimum age for the marriage of women. For example, a nine-year-old child can be given to a sixty-year-old husband. Under Islamic Sharia law, women are thought of just as breeders. So, turning civil law into Sharia law would have ended all rights for women in Iraq. We were one of many groups who spoke out against Resolution 137. I spoke very strongly with no compromise at a demonstration and they put it on all the local television channels, it was heard by many people. I got many good responses, especially from women, they were so happy for me to speak. But the next day, I received this letter by email. It described what I was saying as psychologically disturbed ideas to influence the women of Iraq in immoral ways and if I continued doing what I was doing, they would need to kill me under Islamic Sharia.
LM: That must have been absolutely terrifying.
YM: The internet cafe was close to my office, a five minute walk, but at the moment I read that letter, I cannot describe to you…
LM: Yet you continue your work, that takes much courage.
YM: Yes, but you know, it is life or death for Iraqi women. If I don’t do it, if other women don’t do it, we are falling into this dark pit, the darkest actually in the world right now. If women are being raped and nobody knows about it in the prisons and women are being abused in their houses, somebody needs to be brave and stick their necks out.
LM: What can be done to help women in Iraq without further endangering them?
YM: This issue of women being raped in prisons is horrific but also women are being raped and killed outside the prisons. The first thing is to make sure this Constitution protects the rights of women. It needs to be secular. One thing that many people do not know is that the previous civil law in Iraq encouraged honor killing, the criminal code did not put into prison a man who had killed a woman in his family because of honor reasons. So women have not previously been protected from honor killings by civil law. Even though it was civil law as opposed to religious law, that didn’t really matter. The civil law is based on religious law in many of its parts. And when Americans came and amended parts of these laws, they did not care about this part. For them, the lives of women and an article of law that encouraged the killing of women were not a priorities.
LM: I know this is one of the reasons you have worked so hard to open shelters for women at risk of honor killings, What have you been able to accomplish and what still needs to be done?
YM: We have just opened the first shelter in Baghdad that will take women threatened by killings and in Kirkuk we have also opened secret rooms where we also have a few women we have saved. In the coming month we will rent a house that will officially be a shelter for women in the city of Kirkuk. So then we will have 2 shelters.
LM: In all of Iraq, there are only two shelters that serve women at risk of honor killings?
YM: And these shelters are run by us, Lucinda, in very harsh situations. Managing the security for it, the expenses for it and we mostly have to work with volunteers. For months I had heard that the Americans had set up a women’s shelter and many women were asking where it was. It turns out they had decided to set it up in the Green Zone. The Green Zone is a location that nobody in Baghdad can dream of reaching, if you are a battered woman or a threatened woman, it is out of the question how you would get there.
LM: So it seems obvious that one the things OWFI needs is funds to run and expand the shelters.
YM: You know, even minimal funds translate into a number of women’s lives saved, otherwise there is no alternative. Just imagine a country that has no precedent of a woman’s shelter and you are beginning from scratch. That is what we have done in Baghdad and in Iraq in the last few months.
LM: Share with me your thoughts about what has happened at Abu Ghraib, the role of the women soldiers and what has happened to the women prisoners.
YM: In those same prisons, so many things happened against human rights (under Saddam) but it wasn’t as sexualized. It makes you wonder. I don’t approve of putting the women soldiers in the forefront of all these pictures, because most of the abuse was being done by men. It reminds me of the religious mentality. Whenever something bad happens, there is a big attempt to blame it on women. It’s like the honor killings, it perpetuates misogyny when you blame the victims. Under religious and political Islam and also under capitalism, wherever you go, it is not friendly for women.
LM: Given all the problems since the American occupation, what do you think would be the best course of action now?
YM: It would be a good idea to support substituting United Nations troops for U.S. troops. The American troops have to leave right away and they cannot leave if there is no peacekeeping force. The UN peacekeeping forces are more qualified in handling post-war zones; in administrative matters and even in political ways, they are more neutral. We do not want to see the Americans impose their political agenda on us anymore. They are bringing the most backward political groups to the forefront, imposing their political will on us, which is out of the question. The American plan of favoring some groups over others is taking us down the drain, especially women.
LM: What’s next for you, do you plan to go back to Iraq?
YM: Yes, but first I need to raise funds for our work. In the last few months we opened many offices, some we were able to pay the rent for, some are in the houses of our women activists, so we need money for rent, we need more money to distribute our newspaper more widely, we need help for the shelters. We need to make the base of women activists a bigger one so nobody can marginalize us anymore.
As we observe the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I want to re-post the Statement of Conscience that was written by early participants in the Feminist Peace Network to express our horror about and objection to this war. Re-reading the statement, I am both saddened by how right we were to object and proud that we stood up and spoke our peace in the face of the hyper faux patriotism that was sweeping the country. My deep gratitude to all who participated in drafting this statement. Tomorrow I will re-post “Our Lives Are Worse Now” the interview that I did with Yanar Mohammed about the impact of the war on Iraqi women in 2004.
Statement of Conscience
Sept. 1, 2002
Issued by the Feminist Peace Network
As citizens of Planet Earth we affirm our freedom.
We declare our right to live free from aggression and violence, and we encourage every person who reads this statement to add their own experience of terrorism in all its forms and proclaim the freedom of peace again and again.
We declare the rhetoric of “good” versus “evil” invalid. Every battle pretends to be for “good.” But victory is too often celebrated by further loss of life, the rape of mothers and children, and the forced sexual servitude of daughters. Those who create and nurture life are both the first and last casualties of violent conflict. Those who wield violence are declared heroes.
When efforts to quiet violent conflict are made, women, whose stake in the resolution of conflict is at least as high as men’s, must be involved as full members of peace negotiation teams. Any “peace” that does not address the worldwide pandemic of violence against women and girls is not Peace.
As women and men of conscience, we call for an end to the terrorism that forces upon women and children the obscene choice between prostitution and starvation, a choice that degrades us all. Warfare and its chaotic aftermath intensify the environment and opportunities for abduction and trafficking. The period following violent conflict exacerbates domestic violence. Usurping the healthy social role of men in neighborhoods under attack must also be addressed. Violent destruction, especially when followed by an apathetic and delayed restoration, effectively demoralizes families and destroys the well-being of communities. War strips men of their livelihood and dignity, and fosters hateful attitudes toward women, even their own wives, mothers, and daughters. The systematic use of rape as a weapon of war increases the alienation between men and their assaulted families. The detention, rape and torture of women and children as a strategy of warfare against their male relatives is evil in its most vile form.
As women and men of conscience, we demand that the use of rape as a weapon of war be stopped. As the linkages between gender, conflict, and a more rapid spread of the deadly HIV/AIDS plague are better understood, so too must be the devastating consequences for the women violated and the babies born of this hellish form of warfare. Special programs must be fielded on an emergency basis in former war zones to prevent, and to address, the widespread suffering faced by victims of rape and forced sexual servitude.
As women and men of conscience, we call for the education of women and girls in every nation, especially in war-damaged societies. We demand immediate response to the pleas of women in these societies for immediate assistance with literacy programs to ensure their full participation in brokering peace, in decision-making, and in post-conflict reconstruction.
We defy those who would limit our experience of life to the maintenance of a caste system that supports the pursuit of profit and personal aggrandizement at the expense of meeting basic human needs. We challenge world leaders to put an end to the terrorism of hunger, thirst, sexual servitude, racism, patriarchy, nationalism, joblessness, homelessness, ableism, homophobia, ignorance, child molestation and elder neglect that many of the Earth’s citizens face daily. When every child of this world is adequately nourished, clothed, educated and healthy; when every adult who wishes to work has life-sustaining employment; when women and children are free from abuse then human life on earth will have become so highly valued that terroristic activity will lose its attraction.
In the meantime, we will defend the lives of our children with our own lives, as necessary, but we refuse to endorse pre-emptive strikes that result in the massacre of thousands of innocents as a response to crimes against humanity.
We oppose terrorism in all its forms, whether sponsored by non-governmental groups or the state. We grieve deeply at the loss of life at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. We also grieve the untold thousands of non-combatants slaughtered in the rain of bombs in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Our hearts ache with sorrow as the slaughter of Iraqi citizens is justified to the world with the marketing of lies and fear. We are thankful that we have not yet become immune to grief.
We oppose terrorism in all its forms, but we steadfastly support the right to a fair trial, in an international court, and based on clear evidence, of all those accused of terrorism. We steadfastly oppose any prejudgment of the guilt of any individual accused of terrorism based on the color of their skin or the mother-blessing of their name. We demand a lifting of the cloak of secrecy, that prevents disclosure of evidence, in the investigations of the mass murder of thousands of our brothers and sisters in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.We demand accountability for the lack of indictments and statements of progress.
We repudiate payment for a war machine that compromises our capability to feed and educate our children and care for our parents in their old age. We demand a full accounting of expenditures for war during the past year.
We resent and resist the gratuitous encouragement of fear. We become more cynical toward the source and motives of each new rumor of imminent terrorist attack. But our children do not have our insight, and their childhoods are being destroyed by nightmares about powerlessness and destruction.
We lift our heads proudly and boldly, and join our sisters and brothers throughout the world in a call for peace and justice, in full knowledge that our plea will be labeled treasonous by those world leaders who would defend peace by generating war.
We repudiate warlords and praise peacemakers. We are brave enough to step back from the brink of global warfare, and we demand leaders who are strong enough to endure peace.
At its root, the problem of sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. military is the quintessential Catch 22. As witnesses, Senators, and even representatives of the military admitted at a Senate hearing on the problem last week, the shocking amount of sexual violence that is going on in our military is being done by perpetrators who use it to assert dominance and power over those they perceive to be weaker as a way of telling them who is in control. Which is also precisely what dominant military forces do and have done since the beginning of patriarchal time with whatever weaponry has been available to them. And that is why it is so difficult, if not impossible to get traction in eradicating sexual violence in the military. To do so would necessitate confronting the very ethos of militarism.
The impact of sexual assault against women in the military has been and continues to be horrific. A notable point that was made at the hearings last week however, and one which is crucial to understand is that men actually make up the majority of victims of sexual assault and rape in the military. Given that men make up approximately 85% of our armed forces, that isn’t surprising although women are victimized at a much higher rate:
Of the estimated 19,000 reported sexual assaults and rapes in the armed forces last year, the majority were actually committed against men.
Men are assaulted at a lower rate — 1% of servicemen reported being attacked by a comrade last year versus 4.4% of women — but that still translates to more than 10,000 cases compared with 9,000 attacks on female recruits and officers.
Last year (2010) nearly 50,000 male veterans screened positive for “military sexual trauma” at the Department of Veterans Affairs, up from just over 30,000 in 2003. For the victims, the experience is a special kind of hell—a soldier can’t just quit his job to get away from his abusers. But now, as the Pentagon has begun to acknowledge the rampant problem of sexual violence for both genders, men are coming forward in unprecedented numbers, telling their stories and hoping that speaking up will help them, and others, put their lives back together.
When Brian K. Lewis testified at the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing last week, he became the first male victim of sexual abuse to testify before Congress. But the problem is hardly a new one and has likely existed as long as there have been military forces. In recent years as hearing after hearing has been held regarding sexual assault against women in the armed forces, the problem of assaults against men has indeed been known, but has not garnered much national attention. In 2003, Florida Today published as report that indicated that the military was well aware of how widespread the problem is,
Florida Today obtained the VA’s preliminary findings from its sexual trauma survey of 1.67 million veterans enrolled in 1,300 VA health care facilities across the country. It examined VA records and interviewed government and private psychologists across the United States. And it used the Freedom of Information Act to seek reports and prosecution information from the military. It found: Thousands of victims. Nearly 22,500 male veterans — more than one of every 100 former soldiers, sailors and airmen treated by the VA — reported being sexually “traumatized” by peers or superiors during their military careers, VA survey records show. That includes 769 men in the VA’s Central Florida Health Care System, which includes Brevard County, Orlando and the Tampa Bay area. Most men who answer, “yes,” to sexual trauma are being treated for other ailments by the VA, and only a small fraction are being treated exclusively for their military sexual abuse…
…Domination the prime motive. Veterans Affairs psychologists who are treating sexually assaulted vets described most male victims as the youngest, lowest-ranking enlistees in the military, and the sexual assaults were carried out to humiliate or demean the victims. Such attacks are not homosexual acts, but efforts to assert power over others, the VA psychologists stressed. These nationwide counselors interviewed by Florida Today said most of the VA’s treatment cases involved physical abuse, not insults or harassment. “It’s pretty clear that we’re discussing unwanted sexual activity that’s coercive in nature,” said Art Rosenblatt, coordinator of the VA’s military sexual trauma program in Central Florida…
…Among the men being treated by the VA, sexual trauma victims have described officers or older enlisted men gang raping recruits, soldiers sodomizing victims with gunbarrels and forcing young enlistees to perform oral sex.
In her opening testimony at last week’s hearing, Senator Barbara Boxer pointed out that we need to see sexual violence as the vicious crime that it is, not as a problem of disrespect. Unfortunately, as the representatives of the various branches of the military testified, while they acknowledge that sexual assault and harassment is happening, the armed forces are still doggedly refusing to make the substantive changes in how these crimes are reported and prosecuted and how victims and perpetrators are treated, that would begin to realistically address the problem. Instead they point to support programs that lack the empowerment to take action and point to posters that say, “Ask Her When She’s Sober” as actions they are taking to respond to the situation. It seems all but impossible for them to address the issue without framing it in the context of maintaining order, discipline and chain of command. Time and again victims talk about having to continue to serve with their assailants, with being denied medical care and timely due process.
Former Sergeant Rebekah Havrilla spoke also in her testimony of the constant atmosphere of sexual harassment and intimidation including hearing from a chaplain that rape was God’s will. Havrilla also described how efforts to educate about sexual violence were not taken seriously,
We had a sexual assault and harassment training that we went through and one of our sergeants got up on the table and stripped completely naked and danced and laughed at it. That’s the kind of culture I lived in on a daily basis.
One of the key problems is that sexual assaults and rapes must be reported up the chain of command. All too often, it is those higher ups that are perpetrating the assaults and in other ways have a vested interest in making charges and evidence disappear because crimes in their units would look bad on their records. They are far more likely to force the victim out of the service without benefits or medical care than to force out or charge the perpetrator.
In The Invisible War, a recently released documentary about sexual violence in the military, we learn that a Navy study found that 15% of incoming recruits have attempted or committed sexual assault before entering the military (twice the percentage of the civilian population), yet they are not denied entry into the military. And as those interviewed in the film point out, when these crimes aren’t prosecuted in the military, the perpetrators are free to continue assaulting others both inside and out of the military.
As Representative Jackie Speier recently pointed out, one of the problems is that the military justice system serves the assailants far better than it serves the victims. Kirby Dick, producer of the deservedly acclaimed The Invisible War, which minces no words in documenting the atrocities that are taking place, calls the problem structural.
And that is indeed so and why addressing the problem is a real Catch 22. As Senator Lindsey Graham pointed out at last week’s hearing, the military is not a democracy. Graham was making the deeply offensive point that this was why victims could not expect the kind of justice they would get in the civilian world. But there is and always has been the horrible irony that the body that is supposed to defend a democratic way of life is essentially a totalitarian, top-down system that perpetrates the same kind of power over violence that is at the heart of sexual violence.
In the hearing numerous references were made to our being at war. But let’s remember, it is a war that we started and continue to wage although the definition of what we are fighting against is far from clear and hard questions have to be asked about whose purpose it serves. Clearly it is a drain on our resources, has done catastrophic damage to other countries and has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. There is little to demonstrate that it makes us safer and seems far more likely to simply foment more danger for the entire world.
And in the meantime, each year, tens of thousands of our own troops are harmed by their fellow soldiers. And the awful truth is that violence cannot be stopped in a system that is predicated on precisely the same kind of justification of dominator violence. Until we confront that, the atrocities that members of our military are committing against each other will continue.