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Houzan Mahmoud: Why I Am Not Taking Part in These Phoney Elections

Originally published in:
The Indepedent (UK)

Following is an election commentary by V-Day awardee – Organization For Women’s Freedom In Iraq.
Women are the new victims of Islamic groups intent on restoring a medieval barbarity

I am an Iraqi woman, and I am boycotting Sunday's elections. Women who do vote will be voting for an enslaved future. Surely, say those who support these elections, after decades of tyranny, here at last is a form of democracy, imperfect, but democracy nevertheless?

In reality, these elections are, for Iraq's women, little more than a cruel joke. Amid the suicide attacks, kidnappings and US-led military assaults of the 20-odd months since Saddam's fall, the little-reported phenomenon is the sharp increase in the persecution of Iraqi women. Women are the new victims of Islamic groups intent on restoring a medieval barbarity and of a political establishment that cares little for women's empowerment.

Having for years enjoyed greater rights than other women in the Middle East, women in Iraq are now losing even their basic freedoms. The right to choose their clothes, the right to love or marry whom they want. Of course women suffered under Saddam. I fled his cruel regime. I personally witnessed much brutality, but the subjugation of women was never a goal of the Baath party. What we are seeing now is deeply worrying: a reviled occupation and an openly reactionary Islamic armed insurrection combining to take Iraq into a new dark age.

Every day, leaflets are distributed across the country warning women against going out unveiled, wearing make-up, or mixing with men. Many female university students have given up their studies to protect themselves against the Islamists.

The new norm - enforced at the barrel of a gun by Islamic extremists - is to see women as the repository of honour and shame, not only on behalf of family and tribe but the nation. Ken Bigley's abductors perversely wanted to redeem the "honour" of Iraq through obtaining the release of female prisoners. Since when did Islamic groups - the very people doing the hostage-taking, torturing and killing - start caring about the rights of Iraqi women?

Take the case of Anaheed. She was suspended to a tree in the New Baghdad area of the capital and then first shot by her father (a solicitor no less) and then by each member of her tribe. She was then was cut into pieces. This to clear the shame on the tribe's honour for having wanted to marry a man she was in love with. This happened in late 2003, months after the "liberation".

In the last six months at least eight women have been killed in Mosul alone - all apparently by Islamic groups clamping down on female independence. Among these, a professor from the city's law school was shot and beheaded, a vet was killed on her way to work, and a pharmacist from the Alkhansah hospital was shot dead on her doorstep.

The occupation has in effect unleashed this new violence against women, while in some cases adding its own particular variety. Iraqi women have been tortured by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. The social taboo against speaking about sexual abuse is so strong in Iraq that these women will almost certainly have no-one to turn to upon release.

Methal Kazem is one woman who has spoken publicly of her treatment at the hands of the occupiers. Last February a US helicopter landed on the roof of her house. She was hooded and handcuffed and taken to Abu Ghraib. Accused of being a former Baathist secret policewoman, she was made to run on sharp gravel, tied up and suspended and made to listen to the screaming of other inmates. She heard one man repeatedly screaming "do not touch my honour", and Methal believes that the man's wife was being raped in front of him.

When Allied forces handed over power to the interim government last June, they should, as Amnesty International has argued, also have handed over prisoners. Instead they have illegally detained over 2,000, without charge. Few of these may be women, but it still leaves thousands of wives, mothers, sisters and other family members in distress and despair.

I also believe that Iraqi women have been raped by American soldiers. They dare not talk about it, however, as they face being killed by their own families if they do. My associates in Iraq have been counselling Liqaa, a former Iraqi female soldier, who was raped by an American soldier in November 2003. The savage truth is that if she returns home, male family members may murder her for her "dishonour".

If Iraqi women take part in Sunday's poll, who are they to vote for? Women's rights are ignored by most of the groupings on offer. The US government appears happy to have Iraq governed by reactionary religious and ethnocentric élites.

The one glimmer of hope is that courageous demonstrations against rape and kidnapping have taken place. In September, a women's protest fused opposition to the occupation, a demand that all Islamic militia forces leave cities, and a call for safe streets for women. This new women-led secular progressive movement is against the interim government and against the violence and restriction of political Islam. Those who support us should publicly renounce these phoney elections and campaign for a truly free Iraq.

The writer, an Iraqi living in Britain, is the UK head of the Organisation of