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Political Upheaval and Women's Rights

By William John Cox
February 25, 2011

Editor’s Note: At least nine Iraqi protesters were reported killed on Friday as thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators challenged the corruption and brutality of the U.S.-supported government of Iraq, a country still occupied by American military forces.

The brutal crackdown on the Iraqi protests underscores a tricky reality facing Washington as it lectures authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to avoid bloodshed after having participated in the bloody conquest of Iraq, an operation that also undermined women's rights, William John Cox writes in this guest essay:

As the youth-led Freedom Movement of 2011 spreads rapidly across the Middle East, one can only wonder what would be happening in Iraq today if the U.S. had not invaded eight years ago.

Might Saddam Hussein have been driven from power by an internal popular uprising – as happened to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia – without all the death and destruction wrought by George W. Bush’s invasion?

And, what does the overthrow of authoritarian governments – whether in Iraq from the U.S. invasion or in Tunisia from a popular uprising – portend for the rights of women? Will the changes unleash more Islamic fundamentalism and thus worsen the status of women in those countries?

Women’s rights continue to deteriorate in Iraq under the U.S.-installed Shiite government; their status is also threatened by Islamists in Tunisia, which – like Iraq – was long renowned as among the most secular of Arab nations.

It should be noted, too, that the personal liberties of women are under assault in the United States – by Christian fundamentalist politicians. The rise of fundamentalism, whether Islamic or Christian, almost always translates into fewer freedoms for women.

Iraq’s History

Under Iraq’s longtime Ba’athist government led by Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women enjoyed greater freedom than women in most other Arab nations and they played an active role in the political, economic and educational development of the nation.

The 1970 Constitution formally guaranteed equal rights to women and ensured their right to obtain an education, own property, vote and be elected to political offices. Iraq acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1986.

However, at a cost of more than $1 trillion to the U.S. Treasury, President George W. Bush’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom” led to the slaughter of well over 100,000 Iraqis, including thousands of children, and the invasion resulted in women losing many of their previous rights.

After the ouster of Saddam Hussein, President Bush often bragged that now “Iraq is free of rape rooms;” however, his illegal invasion of Iraq not only exposed its women to rape by U.S. soldiers and mercenaries, but rape is increasingly used as a weapon by warring tribal factions, according to evidence gathered by women’s rights organizations.

“Rape is being used in the settling of scores in the sectarian war,” said Besmia Khatib of the Iraqi Women's Network.

While the new Iraqi constitution adopted after the invasion requires that women hold 25 percent of the seats in the parliament, it also provides that no law can contradict the “established rulings of Islam.”

Thus, the personal rights of women are subject to the interpretation of religious leaders, and those rights are being officially curtailed by the Shiite-controlled government.

Iraqi women must now submit to any male authority, including boys as young as 12-years-old, and they are being attacked and murdered for working, dressing "inappropriately" or attending university.

Because Iraq has more than three million widows – a result of Bush’s invasion and earlier wars under Saddam Hussein – sex trafficking has become widespread, as there is little or no opportunity for these women to find other employment.

Today, as the youth-driven Freedom Movement sweeps across the Middle East, it is touching Iraq, too, where freedom demonstrations have drawn thousands of protesters in the cities of Sulaimaniya, Falluja, Nassiriya Province, and Baghdad

These demonstrations are being suppressed by the Iraqi security forces using U.S. supplied weapons and intimidation tactics, including raids on the office of the Iraqi organization that monitors press freedom.

The U.S. mainstream media and the Obama Administration have been largely silent about the Iraqi demonstrations; however, fair-minded Americans should conclude that, absent the invasion, the young people of Iraq would have been in the forefront of the Freedom Movement of 2011.

If history had taken that course, untold lives would have been spared and vast sums of money could have been spent improving the quality of life rather than destroying Iraqi standards of living. Plus, the United States would today enjoy greater respect from the world for promoting freedom and the rule of law, rather than violating those principles.

The Tunisia Example

Tunisia, the site of ancient Carthage and the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, obtained its independence from the “protection” of France in 1957. Habib Bourguiba, the leader of the independence movement and the Destourian Socialist Party, was elected president, and for the next 30 years he presided over a largely secular government.

Originally founded upon socialist principles, modern Tunisia developed a large middle class and encouraged the liberation of women. One-third of its university professors are women, as are 58 percent of its university students, more than one-fourth of its judges, and 23 percent of its members of parliament.

Since its independence, Tunisia has promulgated the most progressive policies on women found in Arab nations. The Code of Personal Status adopted in 1956 abolished polygamy, prohibited husbands from unilaterally obtaining divorces, gave their wives greater custody rights and allowed them to vote. Tunisian women can legally obtain government-subsidized abortions without their husband’s permission.

The liberal nationalists who established the government believed that the improvement of women’s rights was an integral part of creating a modern country free from “anachronistic traditions and backward mentalities.”

Tunisia signed the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1980 and ratified it in 1985.

In 1987, President Bourguiba was succeeded by Ben Ali, the minister of national security, who had been trained as a military officer in France and the United States. Receiving financial support from the United States, President Ben Ali established a repressive police state and used police action again militant Islamic groups.

Relying upon a broad anti-terrorism law passed in 2003, President Ben Ali supported the U.S. war on terrorism by making hundreds of arbitrary arrests and engaging in official torture. He increasingly controlled news, information, and the Internet, and he targeted journalists with harassment, violence and constant surveillance.

In 2010, when the popular uprising began against Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule,
educated women with a mature appreciation of their civil rights were at the vanguard of those marching for freedom in Tunisia.

However, they are also the ones with the most to lose, if religious fundamentalists come to power and erase women’s rights. During the uprising, concerned protesters carried signs that read, “Politics ruins religion and religion ruins politics.”

Since Ben Ali fled Tunisia in January, there have been indications that Islamic fundamentalists intend to crack down on Tunisia’s liberalism. A mob of religious zealots threatened legally-sanctioned brothels, which needed protection from security forces.

There also is concern about the rights of women wearing western dress, including bikinis on beaches. The unsettled conditions have caused many women to be afraid to walk outside alone at night.

The leadership of Ennahdha, a political movement allied with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has stated it is opposed to the imposition of Islamic law in Tunisia. But women have witnessed the loss of progressive women’s rights in three other Islamic nations, including Iran after the fall of the Shah, Afghanistan with the rise of the Taliban, and Iraq following the U.S. invasion.

To a certain extent, Tunisian women were protected from Islamic extremists by the repressive Ben Ali government; however, for now, they can only wait and see how the Jasmine Revolution evolves.

The Banner of Christianity

Muslim nations are not the only places where women have faced difficult battles to win and sustain their rights. Even today in the United States, Christian fundamentalists are threatening the rights of American women.

Ronald Reagan was fond of calling America “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” However, the reality is often different.

Instead of a beacon of liberty, the United States supports the suppression of freedom in other countries and has often denied constitutional rights to its own citizens, particularly women. The United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights established many rights for Americans, but excluded African slaves and women from many of those rights.
In the 1860s, the Civil War resulted in the 13th and 14th Amendments that abolished slavery and prohibited the states from abridging the rights of their “citizens.” The 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to former slaves.

However, efforts to extend voting rights to women were blocked by Southern conservatives in the U.S. Senate, forcing women activists to battle for suffrage  state by state. Women didn’t get the universal right to vote in the United States until 1920 with passage of the 19th Amendment.

Today, 90 years later, the U.S. Congress only seats 17 women out of 100 senators and 72 women representatives (16.6 percent). These percentages are less than the number of women legislators in either Iraq or Tunisia.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; however the treaty has never been brought before the full Senate for a vote! 

Indeed, the U.S. is one of only seven countries which has not ratified the treaty. (The other nations are Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Palau, Nauru and Tonga.) Although President Obama proclaimed the treaty to be a priority in May 2009, he has made no visible effort to secure its ratification by the Senate.

After gaining the right to vote in 1920, many women activists continued to believe the U.S. Constitution needed to be amended to ensure freedom from legal sex discrimination against women and to ensure the equal application of the Constitution to all citizens.

Commencing in the early 1940s, both Democrats and Republicans added support for an Equal Rights Amendment to their platforms; however, it was not until 1972 that pressure from organized labor and other mainstream groups caused Congress to pass ERA legislation.

As proposed to the states for ratification, the 27th Amendment simply said, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The usual seven-year deadline for ratification was not included in the words of the ERA itself, but in its proposing clause. Congress subsequently extended the deadline to 1982, but thus far only 35 of the required 38 states have ratified it.

The ERA continues to be reintroduced in each congressional session, and a coalition of women’s organizations are now working on a “three-state strategy,” in which, because of the ambiguity in the deadline language, ratification by only three of the remaining 15 states could add the amendment to the Constitution.

In recent years, many of the chief objections that the Right raised against the ERA have become largely moot as society’s attitudes have continued to change and women have pressed ahead into jobs traditionally held by men.

During the 1970s, one of the main objections to the ERA by conservative religious and political organizations was that women would no longer be exempt from compulsory military service and combat duty; however women are now fighting in almost every element of the “War on Terrorism,” except “close combat” troops including infantry, armor and Special Forces.

The Congressional Military Leadership Diversity Commission is currently preparing to recommend that even these restrictions be lifted.

Women are flying strike fighters and helicopter gunships, they are “manning” machine guns and mortars, and they are protecting convoys being attacked by roadside bombs. More than 134 women soldiers have been killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq and more than 721 have been wounded in action.

However, even as women soldiers brave death and injury, they also face the widespread threat of rape by their fellow male soldiers. The Department of Defense (DoD) reports that one in three women in the military will be sexually assaulted or raped by men in the military. Of these, an alarming number are dying after being raped.

As U.S. Army Reserve Col. (Retired) Ann Wright has reported, “eight women soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas (six from the Fourth Infantry Division and two from the 1st Armored Cavalry Division) have died of ‘non-combat related injuries’ on the same base, Camp Taji, and three were raped before their deaths.

“Two were raped immediately before their deaths and another raped prior to arriving in Iraq. Two military women have died of suspicious ‘non-combat related injuries’ on Balad base, and one was raped before she died. Four deaths have been classified as ‘suicides.’”

The rate of sexual assault and rape in the military is double the civilian rate.

Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, testified that, “Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.”

Harman’s testimony is confirmed by the DoD, which admits that 80 percent of all rapes in the military are not reported because the victims fear ostracism, punishment and loss of careers. 

Half of all reported cases receive no official action, a third are dismissed, and only 8 percent are referred to Court Martial. Even then, the majority of those ultimately convicted receive only mild punishments.

It is often heard in the United States that “Muslim men abuse their women;” however in 2006, almost a quarter of a million American women reported to the police that they had been raped or sexually assaulted. 

Women suffer 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes annually in the U.S., and one-third of the more than 1,100 women who are murdered each year are killed by an intimate partner.

In spite of these gruesome statistics, religious fundamentalism is driving legislative efforts that would further punish and humiliate women regarding their reproductive rights. Women are being denied basic contraception and are being punished for becoming pregnant. Some examples:

--A bill in the South Dakota legislature would expand the definition of “justifiable homicide” to include the killing of abortion providers, and the Ohio legislature is entertaining a law which would make it illegal for women to seek abortions beyond 18 days after conception.

--Although Planned Parenthood does not currently spend any federal money on abortion services, House Republicans just voted to deny any funding to the organization, cutting money for contraceptives, HIV test, cancer screening and reproductive health services.

--A Republican-sponsored bill in the House of Representatives would deny any federal funding for abortions except in cases of “forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest.”  Under the law, a 12-year-old girl coerced and impregnated by her step-father or a young woman subjected to date rape would be forced to bear the child.

--The Health Care Reform act contains provisions that are likely to cause the elimination of all private as well as public insurance coverage for abortions, and President Obama issued an executive order supporting the anti-choice provisions.

Lady Liberty must be weeping.
Already, many American women must work outside the home to support an adequate standard of living for their families, even though the federal government does little to provide safe and nurturing daycare for their young children.

However, if these new legislative changes take effect, it would mean that – while 12-year-old boys can tell an adult woman what to do in Iraq – 12-year-old girls in the United States will be forced to suffer rape and sexual assault and to endure the pregnancies that result.

And, as sexual education for women regarding their bodies and reproductive health is eliminated, punishment for becoming pregnant is increased by making abortion illegal and shameful, and by eliminating funding for organizations that provide contraceptives and health care for pregnant women.

The U.S. has used images of the plight of women in the Middle East to justify illegal wars of aggression, while curtailing the rights of American women to determine the fate of their own bodies and by failing to protect them from sexual assaults.

The evils of alleged Iraqi “rape rooms,” which Bush cited during the pre-invasion propaganda campaign and which he claimed to have eliminated in Iraq, were merely transferred to the actions of warring soldiers, both U.S. and tribal, and by the rape and murder of innocent civilian women and fellow female soldiers.

Still, the banner of Christianity is now leading another crusade – this time against women in the United States who again face mounting discrimination and abuse.

Yet, as the tsunami of freedom spreads around the world and upon American shores, women and girls can only hope that it will deliver them from the repression and violence that victimizes women in this Citadel of Freedom.

William John Cox is a retired prosecutor and public interest lawyer, author and political activist.  His efforts to promote a peaceful political evolution can be found at, his writings are collected at and he can be contacted at [email protected].

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