Reviewed by Susan Chenelle
Contrary to the cliché, ignorance is not bliss; it breeds destruction and despair -- a fact that is amply proved in Iraqi journalist Haifa Zangana's incisive look at women in Iraq, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman's Account of War and Resistance.
Zangana, who is now based in London, and whose analysis regularly appears in numerous publications in the UK, was imprisoned and tortured at Abu Ghraib for her political activities during Saddam Hussein's reign. In this slim volume, she covers the rise of the modern Iraqi state, life under Hussein, the years of sanctions and occupation, and the status of women throughout. The fact that Zangana can offer so much enlightenment in so few pages is less a testament to her wisdom or writing than to the gaping void that is what most Americans know about Iraq -- even now, almost five years after invading it.
To understand Iraq in the present, Zangana explains, one must take a look at the past and the foundation upon which Iraqi society was built. To that end, she outlines the evolution of modern Iraqi society from the Ottoman Empire through British colonialism to the rise of Hussein's Ba'ath Party and into the present day.
Iraq was and is a society based on tradition, but, until recently, it was also relatively secular. Due to the efforts -- often made at great personal risk -- of many activists and artists, Iraq eventually adopted one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world, guaranteeing equality for all individuals -- and for women, the right to inherit property and the right to divorce, among other provisions. Zangana also notes that, in contrast to common Western perceptions of women's status in Arab and Muslim societies, in Iraq, the education of women (at least among the upper classes) was seen as a critical part of its advancement as a nation.
Unfortunately, much of the civil infrastructure that maintained Iraq's secular balance was destroyed during the current occupation, and now religious fundamentalist groups have grown in strength, often through collaboration with the occupation, and have begun exerting their restrictive codes of behavior upon women throughout Iraq.
The book's title reflects the plight of women in today's Iraq. According to one report cited, each day 90 women become widows. Zangana recounts many of the horror stories of the occupation, like the rape and murder by U.S. soldiers of 14-year-old A'beer Qassim Hamza al-Janaby, whose family was also murdered and their bodies burned in an attempt to cover up the terrible crime. In discussing various aspects of the occupation -- such as how deadly it's been for media professionals as well as Iraqi citizens -- she reveals how women's experiences in particular have been buried and misunderstood.
The author lays a large part of that confusion at the feet of those she calls "imperialist feminists." Leading up to the invasion, the Bush administration adopted sudden concern for the plight of Iraqi women as one of its reasons for wanting to "liberate" the country. To convey this idea to the U.S. media, several U.S.-funded Iraqi women's organizations were founded, staffed largely by Iraqi exiles and Iraqi-Americans. Their job was to convince the U.S. public that Iraqi women were desperate for "regime change"; after the invasion, their role was to promote democracy. Funding for these NGOs came from the U.S. State Department, but also from conservative U.S. think tanks like Lynne Cheney's Independent Women's Forum. Zangana calls out these NGOs as tools of U.S. foreign policy, completely divorced from Iraqi women's real concerns under occupation -- feeding their children, keeping their families safe, etc. -- not learning how to vote. She notes that several of the Iraqi women involved in these NGOs have gone on to serve in the post-invasion Iraqi government while rarely speaking out about the atrocities the occupation has caused.
In the final section of the book, Zangana examines Iraqi resistance to the occupation. Reminding readers that armed resistance against occupation is a right enshrined by international law, she shows how difficult it's been for peaceful political resistance to develop during the last four years, with leaders having to go into exile and occupation forces practicing collective punishment in areas where even nonviolent anti-occupation activity has taken place. She contrasts homegrown women's organizations, like Iraqi Women's Will and Knowledge for Women in Iraqi Society, with the imported, "depoliticized" NGOs funded by the U.S. These independent groups have been active in protesting the occupation and human rights abuses, and providing financial, occupational, medical, and educational support.
City of Widows is a somewhat disjointed read, but only because there is so much to tell, and Zangana attempts to do it in so few pages. Though it may feel wrong for Americans to ask anything of an Iraqi at this point, Zangana's readers will feel compelled to ask for more.
Books mentioned in this post