Is ‘freedom’ a good thing for Iraqi women?

  • Froma Harrop / Providence Journal Columnist
  • Saturday, August 6, 2005 9:00pm
  • Opinion

Lincoln said our government could not endure “half slave and half free.” The same can be said about most democracies, including ones we hope to establish in the Muslim world. In these countries, the unfree half is not slaves, but women.

It would be a remarkable thing if our removal of Saddam Hussein led to an actual loss of rights for Iraqi women. But that seems a distinct possibility. The latest draft of the Iraq constitution would let religious authorities curtail rights Iraqi women have enjoyed since 1959. Saddam oppressed everyone, but women were still freer under his secular thumb than under the clerical tyrannies of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Not a lot of Americans seem to care about this, which is why Steven Vincent deserves a special tribute. Vincent was the American journalist abducted and shot dead last week in Basra. A firm believer in the rightness of the war, he was a rarity in his vocal defense of Iraqi women. His articles appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The National Review.

“I’m feeling isolated in my neo-con feminism,” Vincent once wrote. Americans on the right, he said, maintain “a reflexive opposition to feminism.” And he feared that the White House might ultimately wink at a loss of women’s equality if that would score points with the Shiite clergy, whose followers make up 65 percent of Iraq’s population.

Many on the left, meanwhile, follow a brand of multiculturalism that puts women’s dignity a distant second to men’s insecurities. That mindset holds that if Muslim men want to encase their women in the hijab – the head-to-toe covering that reveals only the face and hands – well, we should not interfere with their culture.

This Western blindness to women’s plight in Muslim countries goes back centuries. In his book about the decline of Islam, “What Went Wrong?” Princeton historian Bernard Lewis wrote: “The powers of Europe, so solicitous on behalf of Christians and slaves, remained unmoved by the condition of the female population of the (Ottoman) Empire, though it was no doubt known to them, at least in its more picturesque aspects … “

To Lewis, one of the things that went wrong was the subjection of women. This deprived Muslim societies of half their brainpower. And it left their children under the guidance of ignorant caretakers. Lewis believes that until Muslim societies accept some Western notion of gender equality, they will never catch up.

So the hijab, literally “curtain,” is not some cultural oddity, but part of a bigger civilizational problem. And many bright people in the West don’t get it. Just three years ago, Saudi religious police let 15 girls burn to death in a school rather than have them emerge without their veils. You’d think that event alone would have turned the veil into a toxic symbol in Western eyes.

But when a public school near London later tried to ban the hijab in class, a British court stopped it. The lawyer defending the total body covering was Cherie Booth, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Protests by Iraqi women and American pressure led writers of the new Iraqi constitution to soften some of its more oppressive aspects. But the new version still lets clerics control women’s lives. Its big concession was permitting each family to choose which Islamic sect’s laws their women must follow. Women need civic rights that no mullah can withdraw.

Some clerics in Iraq are demanding a return to sharia, or Islamic law. Sharia permits polygamy and lets men divorce their wives by simple repudiation. It deprives women of the right to travel or choose their husbands – and could put them all under the hijab.

Iraq’s female half is already going downhill fast. Iraqi women were once among the best educated in the Mideast. Now, 35 percent of Iraq’s girls are dropping out of school. Women used to confidently walk Baghdad’s streets without head covering. Now, male bullies feel free to humiliate any female whose hair is showing.

Installing a democracy in Iraq was always an iffy proposition. But this dream of creating a shining example in the Arab heartland will come to dust if it leaves women in worse shape than before. It won’t even do much for the men.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Contact her by writing to

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