The buzzwords and catchphrases become tiresome after eight years – “the global war on terror,” “democracy,” and “because our freedom is at stake” – all the reasons Pentagon officials and White House residents cite as the to send more troops, first here to Iraq, and now to Afghanistan, to continue US foreign policies of quelling violence and ending terrorism.
To be sure, and in the interest of full disclosure, the majority of my career in uniform has been at a time when the United States is engaged in foreign wars – having joined the Army just months before Sept. 11th, 2001 – and as a result, I see and understand the need for both Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. I support the president’s decision to send the additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.
Yet, anyone who supports this war, whether in the military or not, has a solemn responsibility to ask the critical questions about the impact of war, and whether the military engagements we’re a part of are truly making better the lives of those we wish to fight for. In this case, I ask: what about the women, and to a greater extent, ending terrorism for whom?
For me, one of the greatest failures in the wars on both the Afghanistan and Iraq fronts is that, while we consider the planting of IEDs and mortaring of US military bases, roadside bombs and sniper attacks, car bombs and flying planes into buildings, to be acts of terrorism, we’re forgetting and failing to include and consider one of the greatest acts of evil known around the world: the systematic practice of misogyny hidden behind the veils of religion – which I believe ought to be appropriately named gender terrorism.
“They say terrorism is when a lot of people are killed, but a lot of women are killed here, and they only talk about IEDs,” said a local Iraqi woman who works with me. “The Iraqi government can’t do anything about it, and Soldiers are supposed to protect us, but the military won’t do anything about it, either.”
She is, of course, correct in this assessment. My line of work here consists of “winning hearts and minds,” and civic engagements, encouraging Iraqis to act and think the way we want them to. Each day, the new engagement campaigns that come through my desk consist of encouraging Iraqis to vote, to report their terrorist neighbors and to stop the fighting, and to instill trust and confidence in the Iraqi army and police forces, but none of these projects ever mention the outward misogyny that takes place each day here in Iraq.
In short, on the list of priorities for the US military, ending sexism and misogyny takes the backseat to “real world” problems like stimulating the Iraqi economy and ending “traditional terrorism.”
While it may be true the traditional Muslim practices of bride burnings, gang raping women as a way of waging war between tribes, murdering women because of perceived “sexual impurity,” and the double standards of sexual access for women and men are not found in the major cities of Iraq, such practices are still common place, my interpreter said, in rural places outside of the cities. For Iraqis, these practices have existed for as long as women have existed.
Realistically, even if the military had the desire to take on women’s rights as an issue in Iraq and Afghanistan, local Iraqi progressives – like the interpreter I work and spoke with, don’t see changes coming anytime soon.
“There has to be something we can do about it,” I pressed, hoping for an answer as to what the military can do.
“You can’t change it – Islam is not a changeable religion,” she said. “People have to want to change, we can’t just teach them.”
And thus that’s the way it is, has always been, and will always be, my interpreter added. No matter which government is put in place, how many troops Americans send, and what empowerment tools we give women, they will always take the backseat to men, and their welfare non-existent. Welcome to Islam.
One of the reasons for such acceptable and outward misogyny, my interpreter tells me, is because of Islam’s double standards toward sex. Women in Islamic cultures are defined not by their humanity, but rather, their sexual purity and virginity, the most prized possessions belonging to women. Couple this with a sex-negative culture, in which while couples are not supposed to have pre-marital sex, but men can “do whatever they want,” and Iraq also sees a problem with prostitution – some as young as 12 and probably forced into their lines of work, because such sexual releases are deemed acceptable for males.
“In Islam, man is on top. Man is always right,” she said, adding that if Islam wanted to enforce sexual purity, it must do so fairly, for both women and men – because it made no sense for men to be exonerated for visiting prostitutes or freely have sex with their girlfriends, yet prostitutes and other “fallen women” are killed and maimed for their lack of purity. But I suspect the problems here – all the problems, with outward misogyny and the forced prostitution of young girls, aren’t simply about double standards – it’s about Islam’s view toward “purity,” in general, and a lack of education.
At the beginning of this war, and post Saddam, Iraqis began seeing new freedoms and because of such, television and other media, once prohibited, began taking flights in Iraq. Through it also came pornography and erotic movies, all of which made men sexualize women as objects, yet at the same time, also punished women when men treated them as objects. In short, Iraq is caught between two periods of time – one in which sex is welcomed, and seen as normal for men, and another distant time when sex is seen as sacred and holy. The result of this, as with any war, is the unseen effect of women suffering – both at the hands of those who wish to sexualize them as sexual commodities and weapons of war, and those who wish to protect their “sexual purity.” While it may seem to defy logic to us, in this culture, women can and often do get both exploited and then punished for being exploited.
So, how do we stop these misogynistic practices? Iraqi police and army officials most certainly aren’t stepping in to help – partly because of a lack of equality training they receive from the US military, but also because often times, village elders and tribal leaders have much more of a say in what happens to women. The authority, in this case, lies in the hands of religious leaders, who might be seen by US Forces as allies, but in truth, are the true terrorists in women’s lives and are often the ones calling the shot in the maiming and murdering of women.
With every fiber of my being, I believe the two keys to ensuring women’s lives and welfare are taken seriously here in Iraq and Afghanistan start with education, for boys and girls, as well as the Iraqi Security Forces, who are supposed to be the first line of defense for women.
It’s often said that we empower girls through education, but what’s not often talked about is the kinds of education we need to engage them in. Aside from literacy and professional training, both girls and boys, women and men, need to be taught to view the world differently – they need to taught the true value of a woman doesn’t lie between her legs in the form of a piece of tissue that often doesn’t even exist on wedding nights regardless of whether or not she is a virgin, but rather what she can do for her nation. Time and time again, we’ve seen first-hand accounts that when women do better and have more opportunities, her family, community and nation do better. We need, then, to include these examples and thoughts into our educational efforts of the Iraqi people.
But until we teach the protectors of the Iraqi people – the people in the security forces of Iraq, that no matter how “impure” a woman might seem, or whether or not she bleeds on her wedding night, she deserves the full protection that are afforded men in Iraq, “democracy” and “freedom” will mean absolutely nothing; stopping terrorism will mean absolutely nothing, either, if all groups of people are protected from violence, except for women and girls.
Until we do so, until we change the perceptions of “sexual purity” in Iraq and Afghanistan – until couples are free to have sex before marriage, women will always be burned and stoned, forced prostitution will always exist, and gang rapes as a way to dishonor another tribe’s family will always take place. In short, until Islam stops practicing its moral enforcement of its followers sex lives, it will always engage in the immoral acts of killing and raping women. They need to be trained differently, and the US military – with the biggest budgets and best trainers in the world, owe it to women to train the Iraqi security forces.
This might not change overnight, and it might not change in a year, but it needs to, and will change if the US military dedicates enough efforts to taking on these cultural issues. Until we do, gender terrorism will continue to take place and, to quote a Unitarian Universalist preacher who recently spoke about sexual violence against women around the world: “boys will be boys and men will be men; and girls will suffer, and women will die.”