Women Left Behind in a Long War

Posted September 21, 2009 at 3:34pm

By now the story of the U.S. military invasion in Iraq has been told many times. While U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, they did not find the weapons of mass destruction that U.S. leaders claimed Iraq had.

The latest episodes of the Iraq War continue to play out on the world stage, and there is intense focus on President Barack Obama’s military strategy for working with Iraqis in the post-Saddam era. Will Iraq become the new “forgotten war,— or will a vibrant democracy flourish after years of war?

Democracy is said to be maturing slowly in Iraq, despite reports of violence still dominating the headlines. But throughout this saga, one story has not been fully explored, until now.

Many women were once equal partners in Iraqi society under Saddam’s regime, according to scholars and historians. Women were doctors, lawyers and educators, yet most of that changed after the U.S. disrupted the status quo and forced the Iraqis to move forward with a new government.

In “Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family, and Survival in the New Iraq,— journalist Christina Asquith describes the trials and tribulations of women living in present-day Iraq. Asquith writes about the lives of two sisters, Nunu and Zia, who grow up in a society that can only provide them with limited opportunities.

The sisters were told they could become professors, lawyers or engineers and enjoy more privileges than most of their Arab sisters in the region. But that didn’t happen, and it was in part because of the U.S.’s involvement, according to Asquith.

Asquith explained: “At first, however, Saddam’s social programs proved to be popular. … He used the country’s exploding oil wealth to eradicate illiteracy, improve health care, and provide free higher education. He even encouraged women’s rights, and soon women were allowed to own properly, join the police force, drive cars, and have bank accounts. He mandated that all children enroll in school, especially girls, and he won a UNESCO prize in 1982, the year Zia was born, for improving girls’ education.—

Asquith, an award-winning journalist who worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, spent two years in Baghdad reporting about the violence and politics strangling the country. By 2004, as Iraqi insurgents gained strength and U.S. forces appeared defeated, journalists lived under constant death threats.

Asquith ended up living with an Iraqi family, giving her an up-close look at how the war had affected their lives. She found many families lived without electricity or water, and in constant fear of mortar attack or suicide bombs.

The women in these families had walked the streets freely under Saddam’s rule, but now they could no longer leave unaccompanied without risking being raped or killed.

The book opens with an account of Nunu and Zia in their home, as American forces begin to invade Iraq. After some initial worries, the sisters soon pin their hopes on the Americans’ ability to bring about a better Iraq.

From this starting point, the plot moves flawlessly. Asquith travels from Baghdad to small towns outside the major cities, chronicling the problems many mid- to low-income families faced during the height of the war.

The book has some faults. Asquith reveals much too little about the various scandals that defined the Iraq War in order to present what it is like for women to live in a country experiencing the growing pains associated with its infant democratic process.

There is no clear solution for the women in Iraq. Their choices are rather simple: Stay in Iraq and suffer or go elsewhere and leave everything behind.

This leaves readers asking a depressing question: Will Iraqi women ever have equal rights in their home country?

Other writers have explored this issue more broadly. Fortunately, readers will learn something new about what life is like in Iraq post-Saddam. Asquith also forces readers to not only want Nunu and Zia to survive in their new country, but to thrive and become the shapers of a democracy that promises so much.

Asquith has won admiration from many feminists and Iraqi activists for exposing this struggle. Her resounding message is that a country committed to ensuring the needs, success and prosperity of women is a country worth fighting for.