As much as I try to see myself as a citizen of the world, as much as I work to embrace my kinship with all humans and with life itself, what makes me the most angry about the war in Iraq is its impact on My Kind: Women.
Many aspects of this war “against terrorism” or “for oil” or “for freedom and democracy” or “for hegemony” or whatever it is–many aspects of this war grieve me. I am grieved by the thought of my countrymen – country kids, many of them – coming home in body bags or without limbs. I am grieved by the images of Iraqi mothers holding their dead children and of dazed children clinging to dead parents. I ache about cities shattered, about the shared patrimony of humankind stolen and destroyed by looters, about black oil clouds billowing into carbon-heavy skies. But one thing in particular clenches my stomach and pounds in my temples: the systematic degradation of my kind.
I felt it this morning, when the newspaper confronted me with imams in black halos followed by a crowd of marchers chanting, their faces distorted with anger, all male—not one of us in the whole mob. I clenched my teeth, dropped the paper on the table, and left the room.
I felt it last week, when the same newspaper celebrated the face of freedom – an Iraqi woman at the polls, shrouded in black. I stared. I stared, and I wanted to scream. Does anyone see the irony here?! Is anyone seeing this?! Iraqi women didn’t wear black shrouds, for the most part, before we took out Saddam Hussein.
Perhaps you noticed the Reuters footage before the war – of Baghdad women in Western clothes or scarves and outerwear strolling between boutiques. Did you also hear that Iraq had the highest level of education for females in the region? That’s university education. We’re talking Islamic women getting B.A.’s and Ph.D.’s — before a club of old boys in D.C. who don’t wear black shrouds decided on behalf of all Iraqis that theocracy was preferable to repressive dictatorship.
That’s not what they decided, you say? They sure as hell did. The current and growing fundamentalist oppression of Iraqi women was as predictable as the consequences of driving drunk on a crowded sidewalk. Some of us – male and female – tried to say so before the bombing started, before the vegetable patches of desert dwellers became craters and the mosques of Fallujah lay in rubble. Before the leering specter of a hated occupier recruited thousands of –I’m going to say it– fanatical willing-to-die-for-virgins males from all over the Islamic world to the streets of Iraq. That was before they started systematically targeting females with professional jobs or too many years of schooling: women with voices, women with power. That was before the women of Iraq began clothing themselves like the legions of the dead. Camouflage, I call it. The theocrats aren’t in power yet, but their minions are patrolling the streets. Look dead, and they may save their bullets.
After the Taliban fell, the media loved to show us faces of Afghani women. Soft, round faces or old and creased, faces with brown eyes, green-flecked or surprisingly blue. Freeing women from burkas in Afghanistan was great P.R. Forcing them into Saudi abayas in Iraq is a minor inconvenience, one of those collateral consequences not worthy of mention when people are still losing limbs and lives in a war that consumes ever greater tons of explosives against non-military targets. To the American media, it is simply uninteresting that women have been forced out of school, sequestered in single room dwellings, even executed and dismembered for wanting to marry someone they loved. It doesn’t matter to the people who are exporting “freedom” that the free lives these women lived or dreamed of living are – for all intents and purposes – over.
The farce of it all is bitter and grinding. Which “freedom” would you rather have—the the right to vote or the right to feel the sun on your face? The right to cast a ballot or the right to learn – to become a psychologist or teacher or engineer and to hope the same for your daughter? The right to stand in line at the polls every few years and check a box for one of the feudal patriarchs competing for the loyalty of your clan, or the right to love whom you will. Suffrage has meaning only when it builds on a foundation of personal and intellectual freedom. In Iraq these days, it is merely window dressing for servitude.
I, personally, am nowhere close to forgiving those who calculatingly or casually substituted this façade for the genuine, if limited, freedoms once held by my Iraqi sisters.
What I feel when the newspaper shoves in my face those images of disinhibited males and shrouded females is beyond anger. It is rage. When it hits, my whole body reacts. I want to throw rocks. I want to destroy things. I want to pick up a gun and annihilate the forces that are turning my kind into Undead who carry their schoolbooks inside of shrouds, shop inside them, and do their grieving muffled in polyester darkness.
I haven’t started accumulating weapons— in fact, I rarely touch them since my NRA rifle club dropped away sometime during high school. I don’t throw rocks through windows or set anything on fire or talk to military recruiters or search the underground for private militias. That isn’t what my kind do, is it? But I am shaken by the power of hatred – my own – and by the power of tribalism – also my own. And I am left with a slow, simmering burn that waits for the uprising of my kind on behalf of my kind.
February 6, 2005