Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Women's rights in Iraq and anti-imperialist double-think

Interviewed in today's Guardian about her new book, Nadje Al-Ali bemoans the lamentable state of women's rights in post-liberation Iraq (which I discussed here and here). Although she describes herself as 'anti-imperialist and anti-war', Al-Ali has attracted opprobrium from the anti-war movement for daring to criticise the Iraqi 'resistance':

A significant proportion of Iraqi groups engaged in armed resistance against the occupation are also harassing, intimidating and even murdering ordinary Iraqis, particularly women and vulnerable groups. 

(In their craven indulgence of the fundamentalist militias, the 'anti-war' movement demonstrate that they were not, in fact, against the war: they just wanted the other side to win.) Even interviewer Sara Wajid can't escape the double-think of the stoppists. She writes: 'Her use of the slippery term "Islamists" at time seems interchangeable with "terrorist insurgents", and progressives are invariably tagged with the approving "secular" but never "Muslim". (Well, duh...)

But Al-Ali is caught in a mental double-bind of her own. She derides as 'imperialist feminists' those western women who criticise the misogynist culture of Muslim countries, apparently unable to make up her mind whether she really wants their solidarity (we've been here before), and disagrees with 'fundamentalist secular groups' who think the problem in Iraq is Islam (well it sure isn't an excess of secularism...). Finally, she lays the ultimate blame for the setback in women's rights on the US invasion and argues that Iraqi women cannot be liberated by military intervention. For anti-imperialists, the West is always the real culprit.

Failing to halt the rise of militant fundamentalism has certainly been one of the signal failures of the Iraq campaign, particularly in the south. But it was a failure that might have been avoided, given a different strategy and sufficient manpower, and it wasn't an inevitable consequence of toppling Saddam. At the same time, the end of the Ba'athist tyranny, however it came about (and it's hard to see how it would have happened without military intervention), was bound to let loose all kinds of dark political forces that had been repressed for decades. Moreover, surely the government of Iran (not mentioned in the Guardian piece) should be accorded at least some of the blame  for arming and funding the misogynist Shia militias?

Despite her entanglement in anti-imperialist rhetoric, western progressives should pay attention to Nadje Al-Ali's compelling account of women's experience in Iraq - and support organisations like this one

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