The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] Before the invasion: Voices from Iraq (I)

Here is another of these articles from a visit
to Iraq in February 2003. Again the topic is
women's emancipation. Here they are talking to
the External Relations Secretary for the Iraqi
Women's Federation.



Posted on February 2, 2003.


By Ginny NiCarthy


"Think of a mother, living with her child -- a boy, lets
say -- dying, day after day in front of her eyes, for
forty-three days."

Anisa, External Relations Secretary for the Iraqi
Women's Federation, was answering my question about how
war and sanctions affect Iraqi women. Our peace team had
been in Iraq for nearly ten days, and this was our first
opportunity to focus especially on the lives of women,
and the impact of war on them.

"Can you imagine a mother," Anisa continued, "unable to
do anything for him, because there is no medicine,
because every instrument in our hospitals cannot work?
There was no water, no electricity, no telephone. And
then, afterwards, began other suffering: lack of food."

>From the distance of the U.S., I had heard about the
greatly increased number of deaths of Iraqis, especially
children, after Desert Storm and the ensuing twelve
years of Security Council sanctions. Estimates differ,
but the most reliable ones, from UNICEF and other
sources, say that approximately 50,000 Iraqi children
under five continue to die each year. That's 50,000
above the usual mortality rate. The very fact that the
number is so large means it is nearly impossible to make
the imaginative leap necessary to empathize.

Few people can take in the concept, "six million Jews,"
or "two million refugees," until, for instance, a TV
image shows a close view of a few people, perhaps one
family in a concentration camp, or one old man stumbling
on weak legs through the mountains. One kidnapped or
murdered child, a single adult crying for help under a
pile of rubble, even one cat trapped in a tree, can open
our hearts or our sense of outrage -- or even our minds.
Then we can feel the enormity of the losses and
injustices experienced, and if we multiply the image, we
might begin to understand what has happened.

But compelling images of individual Iraqi mothers,
children and soldiers enduring "Gulf War Syndrome" or
what I suppose might be called "Sanctions Syndrome" are
notably absent from virtually all U.S. media. When I
watch news of the impending escalation of war that shows
only Saddam Hussein or generic battle scenes, I want to
bang on the television screen and holler at the anchor
or reporter, "Where are the Iraqi people? Who are the
people the U.S. is planning to bombard? The abstractions
of "war torn countries," or "combat losses," or the
deliberate euphemism "collateral damage" extinguish the
connection between viewers and the real human beings in
anguish, or dying, or dead.

When the Korean War began, a World War Two veteran told
me he was thrilled at the chance to re-enlist in the air
force, to be a bombardier again.

"You're glad you're going to kill people?" I asked,

"I don't see the people," he said, and the grin he shot
my way made my stomach queasy. "I just get the target in
the crosshairs, and wham! There goes the bomb!"

Fifty-some years later those words and the smile of
exhilaration haunt me. The escalation of the Iraq war
will once again place noncombatant children, women and
men in the crosshairs, beyond which we Americans are not
able to see. A major purpose of our Iraq peace team was
to donate medicine to hospitals. But I also hoped to
meet at-risk ordinary people who are usually invisible,
beyond U.S. crosshairs that target "Iraq" -- as if that
means only Saddam Hussein and his inner circle.

Our group's officially arranged interviews of doctors,
Red Crescent and U.N. officials were all with men. On
the street, men were eager to have their pictures taken
and to exchange a few words of pidgin English with our
less-than-pidgin Arabic. It was more of a challenge to
meet women, so Sharon and I -- the only women on our
team -- were pleased by the opportunity to interview
Anisa, Secretary for External Relations of the General
Federation of Iraqi Women, in Baghdad. We were joined by
team members Tom, a business professor from Washington
D.C. and James, a videographer, who graciously left most
of the questioning to Sharon, a Baptist minister, and
me, a freelance writer and former social worker.

We met in Anisa's office where a desk covered with
stacks of papers and an insistently ringing phone gave
testimony to her demanding job. Close to sixty years
old, Anisa is an energetic, pleasant looking woman with
casually combed waves of light brown hair, who spoke
with authority on a wide range of women's issues. She
wore a print blouse, and the reading glasses hung from
her neck gave her a businesslike appearance. When we
said we were from Seattle, she said, "Oh. The place that
has all the demonstrations." Throughout our interview
she took notes on our brief comments, and made a point
of being precise about our occupations, associations and
our questions.

When I asked about the impact of sanctions on women,
Anisa looked away for a moment and, as if posing the
question to herself, she asked, "How can I describe the
hardship of those twelve years?" She heaved a deep sigh.

"First of all we face the forty three days of continuous
savage bombing. Not a kilometer was saved from that
bombing. You find children, elderly people, men and
women, facing that catastrophe. Of the bombing -- of the
desolate years, let's say -- it was difficult for an
injured person to be carried from his house to the
hospital, because there was no means for the person to
go from one place to another, due to the destruction
done to the roads. Due to the damage done to the
bridges. There was no electricity. Petrol stations were
damaged also. There were fires everywhere; death
everywhere. This is for forty three days." Anisa paused
and it seemed clear that she was seeing clearly those
horror filled days.

But when the topic switched to her work, her voice took
on a tone of pride, as she told us the Federation boasts
eighty branches, and one million, two thousand and
twenty-seven individual members of all ages from every
part of Iraq. The all-volunteer organization is designed
"to train, empower and educate women, through health,
economic, social and political activities," she said. It
offers occupational skills, and guidance in how to start
a small business.

"Through sub-branches, and even sub-sub branches for
streets, it is easy to connect with virtually all women
throughout the country," Anisa said, "and communication
is facilitated by the organization's TV program, monthly
and weekly newspapers, a magazine, lectures, forums and
meetings. So we have a net distributed all over the
country...directed to every Iraqi woman, in fact, to all
Iraqi families."

Our interview of Anisa was the only official visit with
an Iraqi for which we weren't required to be accompanied
by a government minder, and we never learned why that
was so. Virtually all of Anisa's comments might have
come from an official government handbook, so perhaps
she was trusted never to say anything that might have
differed from the official Baath party line.

Sharon asked about an unemployed widow we had met, a
mother of eight. "How can a woman in those circumstances
manage," she asked. "Or even exist?"

"First, it's faith, and love for the country, and love
for the cause that Iraqis are still determined to
continue -- to continue until America admits to being
wrong. Second, traditionally, if I have something that
is more than I need, or more than sufficient for my
family, and I find someone who is in need, it is my duty
-- and my religion -- to help this family. So Iraqi
woman, for instance, even if they have jobs in the
government or private sectors, have done their best to
face their challenge. For instance, we are not
accustomed to bake bread, because it's already
available, but now because of the rations, because of
high prices, nearly every Iraqi woman has learned to
bake bread at home.

"Most of the ladies who have the desire to train
themselves on certain jobs -- professions, for instance,
like sewing, knitting, typing, making flowers -- are
trying these activities, and begin small projects to
earn where they may help their husband or father. This
is the way women face the situation."

I asked whether I had heard correctly, when I thought
she had used the word feminist. "Is there a word for
feminist, in Arabic," I asked.

"Feminist means works for the rights of women, as I
understand it."

I agreed, and she continued, "We are also feminists,
because we are concerned about the needs and conditions
of women."

"And this, then, is a feminist organization?" I asked,
and she readily agreed.

In the U.S., the word is considered too radical for many
women to use in reference to themselves or their work,
and I would not have expected it to be in the official
Iraqi lexicon. Anisa attended the 1995 U.N. forum for
women in Beijing, and gave us a copy of a report
analyzing successes and failures to implement
recommendations of that meeting.

The cover of that report, published in 2000 by the NGO
General Federation of Iraqi Women, prominently features
the message "The Embargo Imposed on Iraq: A Defeat to
Equality Development and Peace. The report, "Beijing --
25," gives examples of recommendations made at the
Beijing U.N. conference, and explains why they have not,
for the most part, been carried out. The translation
from Arabic into English is poor and not always easy to
comprehend. However, the thrust is that, though the
government and the Federation had the will to improve
the human rights of women, wars and sanctions made
implementation impossible.

"But the outbreak of two subsequent wars," the Report
says, the "Iraq-Iran dispute in 1980 which lasted for
eight years, and the continuous military aggression and
embargo for 10 years, pushed the political volition in
Iraq to change its priorities of the political programs
at the levels of legislation and practice. In order to
defend its sovereignty, Iraq was obliged to suspend the
programs that aimed to abolish the exceptional
legislation issued during the two-armed disputes.

"The continuity of imposed embargo has also led the
state to concentrate on the rights of survival and
endurance... to secure food and medicine at the least

Though our group had seen plenty of evidence of poverty
and disease suffered by women and children, all of that
seemed distant from the offices in the Federation's
attractive modern building. It is several stories high,
and the front fagade displays a large dramatic tile
design of women's profiles. It is a relatively grand
building, at least in contrast to substandard buildings
or modest offices that house most independent women's
programs in the U.S. So I asked whether I was correct
that the organization is supported by the government.

"How do you define 'supported by the government'?" Anisa
asked, frowning.

"Well, the building to start with, and the salaries...."

"Oh, no," Anisa said. "We are all volunteers. Her strong
chin lifted a bit, and her voice took on a note of
pride. "It is completely self-dependent. It is supported
by our magazine, newspapers, investments in land, and
small fees for classes." When I said she should come to
the United States and teach us how to raise money, she
laughed, delighted, and with enthusiasm, said,
"Willingly. Willingly."

"But," she added, shaking a finger, "It is not easy. Do
not think that it is easy."

Sharon said, "You are a woman of great responsibility.
What is your history, and how did you get to this

Anisa responded in her usual clearly articulated English
and, in her usual emphatic tone, which gave an
impression that she would not easily brook contradiction
or qualifications. "First, I am Iraqi. Second I am Arab.
Third, I'm connected to the fate of my country. What
harms my country injures me so much. I love my people
and try all the way help everybody, not
only women.

"I'm a university graduate." I studied English,
graduating in 1963, a long time ago. I have six sisters
[and] three brothers. I am married, and have only one
son. So this is the history of Iraq: from ten children
to only one. All [my brothers and sisters] finished
college, two with PhDs, and my brothers are MDs. My
sisters are teachers, journalists and a biologist -- all
high levels of education. Even now, education is free
for all families, from primary, even kindergarten,
through higher education."

When Anisa began college, there were not many women on
campuses. It is difficult, Anisa admitted, "for a family
to ensure the full needs of the student at school,
whether primary or higher education." Even so, she said,
there are more women than men in higher education, a
ratio that has not changed in the past twelve years. Yet
more girls stay at home to care for younger siblings
now, while their mothers go out to work. Since those
girls are missing out on lower level education, when
they reach college age, that ratio of women to men may
change again at higher levels.

Anisa must have begun college about 1959, a year after
Iraqi independence was finally wrested from England.
Already, a young Hussein was making his way up the
political ladder, though periodically halted by
participation in failed coup attempts, and time in
prison. Throughout the interview, Anisa conveyed a
strong impression of patriotism and loyalty to her
organization and to the regime. And why not? From the
early sixties we in the United States had lived under
numerous presidents, from Kennedy to Johnson, Carter to
Nixon to Ford, then Reagan to Bush, Clinton and the
present Bush. But during most of those same years,
Hussein had been the dominant figure in Iraqi
government, either under another dictator or in direct
charge himself. He was almost the only leader Anisa had
ever known.

Asked if she had a message for American women, Anisa
answered at length:

"As women we share many things. We are all really
responsible for taking care of our families.... We have
a saying, that if your neighbor is in good condition, it
means that you are also in good condition.... If
American women and Iraqi women are well, this means that
women all over the world are in good conditions. So what
we need to do, whenever there is a chance to work for
peace or goodness, fight evil, challenge war or fight
aggression, we are requested to do it, wherever we
are.... What we need is your support for human rights,
for good causes. And our cause is one of them."

That brought us full circle, to what she had said about
the bombing in Baghdad, the part we knew from numerous
other sources to be accurate, and which may soon
dramatically escalate again: "...imagine a water... no electricity, no telephone. And
then, lack of food."

Beyond the cultural crosshairs new clouds appeared here
and there, obscuring clarity, but a few of the clouds
were thinning.

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]