Jun 172013

The decision last week by both houses of Congress not to consider measures that would remove absolute control over the prosecution of sexual assault cases in the military from the chain of command sends a clear signal that preserving the system of power over that our military both depends upon and upholds is far more important than actually protecting the citizens of this country who serve in its ranks from attacks by those who supposedly have their backs.  While disappointing, it is hardly surprising.  After days of grueling hearings, in the end the congressional status quo effectively bitch slapped those who dared question how this country maintains its power structure.*

As Jason Easley writes,

The Senate Armed Services Committee had a chance to stand up for victims. They could have put our country on the path to joining allies Israel, Great Britain, Australia, Canada by investigating sexual assault cases outside of the military. They could have stood up the people who are victimized by sexual predators while serving their country. Seventeen senators could have, should have, but they didn’t.Instead, Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) replaced Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s plan with his own. The Levin plan is back by Defense Secretary Hagel, and would keep the military in charge of prosecuting sexual assaults. Sen. Levin said, “We need to change some things. We can do some things much better. We have to. But I think we’ve got to be very careful when we talk about taking the command structure out of this process.”

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Sen. Levin that many of these sexual assaults are being committed by people within his precious chain of command. It didn’t matter to the Armed Services Committee that Gillibrand’s legislation has bipartisan group of 27 cosponsors. For Sen. Levin and 16 other members of the committee, all that mattered was protecting the status quo. If they have to protect thousands of rapists within the military to do so, so be it.

If we are ever to truly stem this epidemic it is crucial to understand that sexual assault in our own ranks is not a stand alone issue, it is just one of many examples of military sexual trauma and abuse that has always taken place at the hands of military forces and  continues to do so around the globe today.  In a report for Women Under Siege, Kerry K. Patterson writes that,

Saran Keïta Diakité painted a dismal reality for women in Mali in a speech she gave to the UN Security Council in April. As Diakité, a lawyer and president of the Malian branch of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, explained: “The Islamists perform religious marriages in order to escape the clutches of international criminal justice.”…

…“They carry out a form of ‘marriage’ so that, at night, you can be treated as a sexual slave,” Diakité said. “During the day, you are there to serve tea to the men and attend to their every need. This is why I always say that what’s happened in Mali is unprecedented.”…

…Militant groups in many conflicts—among them Burma, Cambodia, Rwanda, Liberia, Uganda, and Sierra Leone —have practiced systemic sexual enslavement of women and girls under the guise of “marriage.”…

…Beyond forced marriages, conflict also can lead to “survival marriages,” which appear to be occurring in Syria and within refugee areas in surrounding countries.

The economic realities of life in the Syrian refugee camps and communities are such that parents are often complicit in the marriage of underage girls, literally selling their daughters into wedlock—sometimes to foreign men—in the hopes of protecting them from a worse fate, whether that is poverty or rape.

In addition, UNIFEM notes that women continue to be left out of the resolution of conflict and sexual trauma is rarely discussed in peace negotiations or addressed in treaties:

A thorough and systematic review of 585 peace agreements that have resulted from 102 peace processes in the last two decades, revealed that since 1990, only 92 peace agreements (16 percent) have contained at least one reference to women or gender…

…Ten years after the adoption of resolution 1325 (2000), gender-blind peace agreements are still the norm, rather than the exception. Many peace accords include a general equality clause and non-specific references to human rights guarantees and international treaties, but rarely mention quotas or other special measures to reverse women’s exclusion from decision-making, nor allocate responsibility to monitor that equality is indeed achieved. Sexual violence is also often absent from accords, even in conflicts where widespread sexual violence has been employed as a tactic of warfare.

As disheartening as it is that Congress is unlikely to stand up to challenging the sanctity of the concept of an inviolate chain of command, addressing these issues has been a powerful shift in the national dialog and that should give us hope because it opens up the possibility of finally addressing power over (embodied by the concept of chain of command and good order) and patriarchal structures that are the systemic root cause of sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.

Feminist theologian Carol P. Christ points out that,

Rape is not something that “just happens” in the military. It is an inevitable product of military training. Unless and until we understand this and change the way soldiers are trained, we will never be able to stop rape in the US military or any other military system.

And offers this perspective on patriarchy and violent domination,

Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.*…

…The system I am defining as patriarchy is a system of domination enforced through violence and the threat of violence.  It is a system developed and controlled by powerful men, in which women, children, other men, and nature itself are dominated.  Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that it is in the “nature” of “men” to dominate through violence. Patriarchy is a system that originated in history, which means that it is neither eternal nor inevitable.

Despite years of lipservice and inaction, Congress has finally been challenged to confront our national complicity in perpetuating the patriarchal culture of impunity implicit in militarism that allows and depends on sexual violence and intimidation.  And that is a huge accomplishment.



1.  Lest there be any notion that the military truly understands that the system needs to change, there is a continuing, constant stream of evidence to the contrary.

As Stars and Stripes reported last week,

Two defendants in military sexual assault cases cannot be punitively discharged, if found guilty, because of “unlawful command influence” derived from comments made by President Barack Obama, a judge ruled in a Hawaii military court this week.

Navy Judge Cmdr. Marcus Fulton ruled during pretrial hearings in two sexual assault cases — U.S. vs. Johnson and U.S. vs. Fuentes — that comments made by Obama as commander in chief would unduly influence any potential sentencing, according to a court documents obtained by Stars and Stripes.

And last Thursday, as we learned that Congress would not stand up to the chain of command to defend sexual assault victims, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Elizabeth Robbins, a lieutenant colonel in the Army that squarely placed part of the blame for the epidemic of sexual assault on the victims for not properly taking precautions not to be attacked and suggesting that alcohol is to blame in large part for the problem in what she repeatedly refers to as the military “brotherhood”.

This does not excuse perpetrators, nor does it mean that women in the military are destined to be victims. In most situations, warriors can avoid becoming sexual assault statistics by exercising good judgment. They can drink lightly or not at all. They can always attend social functions with a friend committed to look after them (and vice versa). Above all, they can avoid reaching a stage at which they may pass out.

Let’s be very clear–if the military has an alcohol problem, they should deal with it and it may well be a contributing factor, but it is not the cause and victims should never be blamed.  The notion of brotherhood that Robbins holds in such high regard is however at the root of this systemic problem.  Also worth noting, the San Antonio Express-News points out that victim intimidation and shaming continue to be an integral part of the military’s very broken system of prosecution.

2. The costs of the military’s inability to bring the epidemic under control are high,

According to the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), the VA spent nearly $872 million on treatment related to military sexual trauma in 2010 (the last year in which complete data is available). However, these are not the only costs associated with MST; there is a human cost as well.

More than 85,000 veterans sought treatment last year in connection with military sexual trauma, according to an article by the Associated Press. What this means is that above and beyond the cases reported this year or last year, thousands of veterans from decades past are still trying to come to grips with the abuse they suffered while serving…

…On the other end of the financial spectrum is the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program. With a rather paltry budget of just $14 million, this is the program that is supposed to prevent sexual assault in the military, but is clearly failing.


*The New York Times mirrored the slap down of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in particular, with these belittling and demeaning characterizations,

Mr. Levin’s decision to support military brass in their resistance to Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal sets up a confrontation between a long-serving chairman of the committee with strong ties to the armed forces and a relatively new female member — one of a record seven women serving on the committee — who has made sexual assault in the military a signature issue.


Ms. Gillibrand, who is among the most savvy of Senate Democrats in identifying attention-grabbing policy issues, attached herself to the effort last August and then oversaw in March the first Senate hearing in nearly a decade on the problem of sexual assaults in the military.


Lucinda Marshall is the Founder and Director of the Feminist Peace Network and has writes frequently about militarism and and sexual violence.

Lucinda Marshall, ©2013


 June 17, 2013  Posted by on June 17, 2013 Comments Off on Confronting Militarism And Patriarchy–The Take Away From The Congressional Hearings On Sexual Assault In The Ranks
Jun 092013

While the furor over sexual assault in the military has been raging for quite some time, it is significant that it is only now that the Pentagon is finally being called out for their continuing objections to reconsidering the way sexual assault and harassment cases are adjudicated because of their fears that it will undermine good order and the authority of the chain of command, an opinion that is vehemently held across the various branches of the military:

“A commander is responsible and accountable for everything that happens in his or her unit,” Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said in a May 17 letter to Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and James H. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s chairman and ranking Republican. “Victims need to know that their commander holds offenders accountable, not some unknown third-party prosecutor.”

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, warned the senators in a May 20 letter that taking away commanders’ authority in matters of military justice “will adversely impact discipline and may result in an increase in the problems we seek to resolve.”

“Sexual assault remains an unacceptable problem for our military and society,” Odierno added. “We cannot, however, simply ‘prosecute’ our way out of this problem. At its heart, sexual assault is a discipline issue that requires a culture change.”…

…“Removing commanders from the military justice process sends the message to everyone in the military that there is a lack of faith in the officer corps,” (General Martin) Dempsey wrote on May 20. “Conveyance of a message that commanders cannot be trusted will only serve to undermine good order and discipline.”


To state the obvious, we would never allow a rapist’s boss to decide whether or not to prosecute him in the civilian world and the notion that good order can be maintained while predators roam free is repugnant.

But yet again last week, uniformed witness after witness somberly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military has “zero tolerance” (1) for sexual assault and programs are in place, services are being provided, soldiers and officers are being trained and they’ve got the problem under control.

Despite the fact that the continuing epidemic of sexual assault in the military belies the Pentagon’s assertion that they are getting on top of the problem, military brass once again also dug in their heels in opposition to changing the current system of adjudication that gives the chain of command authority in sexual assault and harassment cases. Time and again witnesses at last week’s hearing  insisted that allowing the chain of command huge discretion in these cases was appropriate and necessary for maintaining good order and readiness. (2)

But in the last few weeks, numerous incidents have come to light demonstrating that the military is far from being on top of this crisis. To borrow shamelessly from Shakespeare, methinks the generals doth protest too much:

1.  A sergeant first class on the staff of the United States Military Academy at West Point has been accused of videotaping female cadets without their consent, sometimes when they were undressed in the bathroom or the shower, according to Army officials.

2.  The Army is investigating Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen, a sexual abuse educator at Fort Hood in Texas, for allegedly running a small-time prostitution ring and for the sexual assault of another soldier, senior military officials have confirmed. This is only one of several incidents of military personnel in charge of sexual assault programs charged with sexual assault themselves.

3.  The rugby team of West Point military academy has been disbanded and players disciplined over an email chain involving crude sexual references and suggesting a ‘hostile team environment or a culture of disrespect towards women.’

4.  Three Naval Academy football players are under investigation for sexually assaulting a female Navy midshipman, officials confirmed on Thursday to Military.com (which also) reported that the number of assaults at the Naval Academy in 2012 was 15, up from 11 in 2011. (emphasis mine) One of these assaults allegedly by a former Academy instructor, who stands accused of sexually assaulting one midshipman and having consensual sex with another, according to the Navy Times. Marine Maj. Mark Thompson faces up to 30 years in prison.

5.  Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin…overruled a guilty verdict because he had personal suspicions about the credibility of the woman who made the accusation…Franklin, according to a letter the (Washington) Post obtained, believed it was impossible that the convicted man, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, could have committed the “egragious crime of sexually assaulting a sleeping woman” because he was a “doting father and husband.”  He also had been tapped for promotion.

6.  On May 21, Army Brig. Gen. Bryan T. Roberts, the top commander at Fort Jackson, S.C., was suspended for allegedly having a physical altercation with a mistress…Another one-star Army general, Jeffrey Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, is scheduled to face a court-martial in July on charges that he sexually assaulted a female captain. And in March, Army Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, who led a counterterrorism force in Africa, was fired for allegedly groping a woman while he was under the influence of alcohol.


In order to truly address the problem, it is obviously necessary to really understand it.  Slate wonders if this is the case,

What is more upsetting than the current numbers (since, sadly, there is a yearly parade of dismal figures) are the signs that many in the military still have such a narrow, misguided understanding of the dynamics of rape. For example, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh noted that 20 percent of women report they had been sexually assaulted before they came into the military and blamed that on “the hookup mentality,” which he implied they carry with them into the military. Aside from the fact that hookup culture might not be nearly was widespread as current parental hysteria may lead us to believe, the real problem with Welsh’s statement is that hookups, whether we like them or not, are voluntary. They are not the same as assault or rape.

This backward thinking permeates and taints the Air Force’s education and awareness efforts. An Air Force brochure, for example, unhelpfully portrays sexual assault as largely a problem of violent stranger rape. But the reality is that most rapists usually target acquaintances and are more likely to incapacitate their victims rather than use outright violence, and they tend to offend repeatedly.

Gen. Martin Dempsey however at least partially does understand the problem, suggesting,

that the sexual assault problem has been aggravated by the strains of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Professor David Segal, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Research on Military Organization, said such strains are a key factor in the surge of suicides, spousal abuse and other problems in addition to sexual assault.

What Professor Segal says is exactly right. When we promote a national policy of violent power-over that is most definitely going to become a part of the personal lives of those we send to commit those actions. There is evidence of that in every single war that has ever been fought. And as  Mary Louise Roberts, points out in her book, “What Soldiers Do Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France” even soldiers who fought the so called great war were not above such violence,

This isn’t the “greatest generation” as it has come to be depicted in popular histories. But in “What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France,” the historian Mary Louise Roberts draws on French archives, American military records, wartime propaganda and other sources to advance a provocative argument: The liberation of France was “sold” to soldiers not as a battle for freedom but as an erotic adventure among oversexed Frenchwomen, stirring up a “tsunami of male lust” that a battered and mistrustful population often saw as a second assault on its sovereignty and dignity.

Sexualized violence has always been a part of militarism in this country and throughout the world.  Both are ways of controlling and exerting power over an other–be it a person or a country.  And as I have said many times before, that is at the root of why this problem is so difficult to address–to do so would be to question the mission of the military and the validity of the concept of chain of command and good order.


The question is, in the face of military insistence that they can address the problem and preserve the traditional chain of command, what is to be done as the epidemic rages on.  Much credit goes to women in Congress, particularly Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand who has spearheaded the most recent hearings on the subject and Sen. Claire McCaskill who last week made clear that she will continue to

block the promotion of a star Air Force general for granting clemency to a convicted sex offender, a move that is likely to end the commander’s military career.

Numerous bills addressing the issue have also been introduced in Congress this session, mostly by women.

And as Think Progress notes, late last week,

the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 (NDAA), a massive $638 billion bill designed to fund all military spending and chart military policy for the for the coming fiscal year…

…In the light of the multitude of scandals and damning reports of sexual assault within the ranks of the military, the HASC added several provisions to the NDAA that reforms the current military justice system. Under the new language, military commanders will be stripped of their ability to dismiss the findings of courts-martial’s juries, something that the military’s leadership has opposed. Commanders will also be unable to reduce sentences imposed on those found guilty of sexual crimes, as one general did in the case that first launched the renewed interest in the issue in February.

In addition, new minimum sentencing guidelines for sexual assault in the military were included, while also adding rape, sexual assault, or other sexual misconduct to the protected communications of service members with a Member of Congress or an Inspector General, essentially bringing protections for those who report military sexual assault in line with those for government whistleblowers.

A great deal of credit is also due to activists, many former members of the military who have experienced sexual violence and harassment themselves who have worked relentlessly on this and testified in front of Congress, particularly Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) who recently pointed out that, “we aren’t likely to see much change in military culture until there’s a critical mass of women at the top.” Ms. Bhagwati has also quite rightly pointed out that a high proportion of women in the military are non-whites and as a result make up a large proportion of the victims of these crimes but that their stories tend to be marginalized, with victims who are white getting more attention (a problem in the recent critically acclaimed movie, The Invisible War).

Women in the military absolutely have the right to be compensated equally for their work and to do any job that a man does and to do so without fear of sexual harassment and assault.  Those are basic human rights we all should have.  But equality is not sufficient in a system that perpetuates the very problem you are trying to resolve.


I have spoken out against sexual assault and harassment in the military many times.  I have written about the lack of access to basic reproductive services including abortion in the military and I have called out the way in which white women and women of color are treated differently in the military and in the media.  But I have also spoken about this from a broader context of the historic impact that militarism has on women’s lives both in and out of the military, in our country and in the world.  The bottom line is, if you look back to the beginning of patriarchy–militarism has done a great deal of harm and the impact on women has been severe.  Which leads to a huge Catch 22–the very system in which you seek to gain equal and safe footing is the root cause of the problems faced by women in the military.

If we are serious about ending the culture of impunity that allows for sexual assault in the military, the unfortunate truth is that we have to re-examine the military ethos and how we defend our country and what constitutes a legitimate threat to our safety.  That is an enormous task and one that will be deeply uncomfortable for many.  In regard to sexual assault in the ranks, it is particularly helpful to see this as one of many ways in which women are harmed by militarism.  Professor Cynthia Enloe has written about this many times and in her recent book, Nimo’s War, Emma’s War:  Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War, she comments about a series that ran in the Denver Post in 2003,

One had to look simultaneously at the male soldiers’ violence against women as fellow soldiers and at male soldiers’ violence against wives and girlfriends.  While domestic violence in military families and sexual assault within the ranks might be filed in two separate categories, that conceptualization would prevent uncovering a meaningful, useful explanation.  The explanation at the root of both, the Denver Post reporters and many feminist analysts concluded, was the dominant culture shaping the twenty-first-century U.S. military.  It was, they each found, an institutional culture that privileged a certain kind of combative masculinity, a culture that denied the mental health consequences of waging war, a culture that prioritized fighting a war and treated women as minor players at best, as a subverting distraction at worst. (p. 187)

Enloe also examines how the Iraq war impacted women in Iraq and this is a crucial thing to do.  While soldiers in our own military are being sexually assaulted, Iraqi women have also been sexually victimized as a result of war.  In this country, women veterans, particularly those who have been sexually assaulted are finding themselves homeless.  In the aftermath of the fighting in Iraq, many women there became homeless as well, making them vulnerable to sex traffickers.

In this country, military wives have also experienced increased violence at the hands of soldier husbands/partners/boyfriends.  In Iraq, the number of honor killings rose sharply in  the aftermath of the U.S. invasion.  As Enloe notes, it is important to see the linkage between those different forms of harm on all sides of conflicts.  Such linkage could and should be made about every military conflict. (3)

The recent hearings and increased media attention to sexual violence in the military are essential, as are fundamental changes in the way these cases are prosecuted and how victims are supported.  But in the end, they will not be sufficient to eradicate a problem that is a systemic part of militarism itself.

Robert C. Koehler wrote recently that,”Maybe the problem is that rape is an extension of military culture.”  There is no maybe about it, that is indeed true.



(1) As for “zero tolerance”,

Military leaders have been claiming for at least 20 years that they have “zero tolerance” for sexual assault in the ranks, during which time the epidemic has raged on, infecting every branch of the service and spurring arrests, convictions, resignations, investigations, Congressional hearings, bills, speeches, reports, recommendations and, recently, a chilling documentary, “The Invisible War,” which will make any parent think twice about encouraging a daughter to serve her country in uniform.


“The military says they have zero tolerance, but in fact that’s not true,” said Dr. Katherine Scheirman, a retired Air Force colonel with more than 20 years of service in the U.S. and abroad. “Having a sexual assault case in your unit is considered something bad, so commanders have had an incredible incentive not to destroy their own careers by prosecuting someone.”

(2) Former Defense Secretary Colin Powell recently weighed in on whether or not those convicted should be dishonorably discharged, saying,

…that U.S. troops convicted of sexual assault should not be automatically dishonorably discharged from the military.

“You can’t make a categorical statement like that,” he told Bloomberg TV. “We have a military justice system that is driven by our law, and it is not that dissimilar to the civilian system.”

Despite the high rate of sexual assault and instances of convictions being overturned by commanders, Powell said the military justice system was working.”

In other words, using Powell’s magical thinking,  you can commit an act of sexual assault but still serve honorably and declare that justice has been served.

(3) As another example, Roberts’ book quoted in this piece talked about the sexual victimization of women in France by U.S. soldiers in World War II while at the same time, Japanese soldiers were availing themselves of “comfort women”.


Lucinda Marshall is the Founder and Director of the Feminist Peace Network and has writes frequently about militarism and and sexual violence.

Lucinda Marshall, ©2013

 June 9, 2013  Posted by on June 9, 2013 Comments Off on Sexual Violence In The Ranks And The Gendered Impact Of Militarism
Mar 202013

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
June, 2004

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.

 March 20, 2013  Posted by on March 20, 2013 Comments Off on “Our Lives Are Worse Now”–Iraqi Women’s Lives Continue To Feel The Negative Impact Of The U.S. Invasion
Mar 192013

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.


 March 19, 2013  Posted by on March 19, 2013 Comments Off on Iraq 10 Years On–The Feminist Peace Network Statement of Conscience
Jan 252013

Since Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that women will now be allowed to serve in combat, the argument has been made from liberals and conservatives and from military brass that this move will help stop the epidemic of sexual assault in the military.  As I pointed out yesterday,

It is also hugely ironic that Panetta’s announcement came the same day that Congress was holding yet another hearing on the intractable problem of sexual assault in the military.  The truth is that women are more likely to be attacked by other members of our military than by any enemy.  The New York Times’ Gail Collins makes the unfortunate suggestion that having more women rise in the ranks might,

make things better because it will mean more women at the top of the military, and that, inevitably, will mean more attention to women’s issues.

Sexual assault in the military is not a woman’s issue.  It is an epidemic and a national disgrace that is a direct result of the misguided notion of militarism that posits that strength comes from asserting power over others.  Militarism has never been good for women because, among other reasons, it places them in harms way by armies that rape and assault women as a de facto military strategy and because women are more likely to become refugees, unable to support themselves or take care of their families and placing them in further danger of physical and sexual attack.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also makes the argument that more equality will lead to more respect and hence less sexual assault in the ranks,  but the military is still a top-down power over structure and women who do serve in lower ranks will continue to be vulnerable.  And let’s face it, we live in a country where Congress just failed to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act and where we still don’t have the Equal Rights Amendment and the Senate has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  The disrespect of women’s rights, safety and well-being is a de facto national policy in the U.S.

A compelling argument can be made that women in positions of authority and power are likely to be a constructive influence in addressing this problem.  But getting there is a slow process and let’s be real–women are a minority in the military and the odds of them being a substantive part of leadership any time soon is nil.  There is also an argument to be made that when women and men are treated equally as a matter of policy then men are less likely to treat women as less than equal.

But in this case, we need to take a very hard look at what kind of equality we are granting to women and in this case it is the equal right to participate in a system that perpetrates and perpetuates violence and creates an atmosphere where women are highly likely to be victimized.  That should not be the kind of equality we aspire to reach.

As I have said numerous times, I do not think the problem of sexual assault is truly solvable in a power over, dominator system such as the military, and as Holly Kearl’s recent reporting of the Congressional hearings into sexual assault in the military make clear, the Pentagon is not at all willing to take the necessary steps to address the issue or to even listen to the victims.

Just like the other military branches, however, the Air Force does not want to change the authority commanders have over the reporting and disciplinary process in these cases, even though clearly there are commanders who abuse their authority.

During the Q-and-A portion, I was shocked to learn from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) that not a single survivor who had come forward was interviewed during the Lackland investigation. Speier said she even wrote a letter in November requesting that survivors’ voices be included — and she was ignored.

If the military is not prepared to listen and to take very doable action now, telling women that going into combat is going to solve the problem is an outrage.  The notion of going into combat and risking our lives and our health when the military has demonstrated time and again that they don’t want to act decisively to stop sexual abuse in the ranks should really give us pause to consider just how little they value women’s lives.


I also want to share some additional thoughts in response to my earlier piece on why I don’t think women in combat is a step forward.  I am fully aware that women are all too often already in de facto combat positions and they do deserve to be compensated accordingly.  That does not mean we should aspire to that as a way achieve equality.  As someone recently pointed out to me, we need to take into account the context in which we are achieving equality, in this case a system that has traditionally seen women’s bodies as weapons of war and/or regrettable collateral damage.  Nor am I persuaded by the argument that there will always be war so therefore why shouldn’t women participate equally.  There doesn’t always have to be war and better we should work to stop that from happening.  Nor should we consider the military to be a way to get an education and job training.  That isn’t the purpose of our armed forces, only an incidental necessity.  If we want better job training and education then we need to fund those programs and make them affordable instead of sinking our money into the military.


 January 25, 2013  Posted by on January 25, 2013 2 Responses »