GEORGIE ANNE GEYER Changes in Iraq will hurt women

WASHINGTON -- While the world's attention is on London, enormous stories for the future of the United States and the Middle East are developing in Iraq.
First, an originally classified Pentagon assessment shows clearly the dangerously slow development of Iraqi & quot;sovereignty. & quot; Only about half of Iraq's new police battalions can conduct operations at all, the report said, while the other half of police and two-thirds of the new army battalions are only & quot;partially capable & quot; of carrying out counterinsurgency missions -- and that, only with American help.
This is according to a report presented this week to the Senate by Gen. Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Second, as if that news were not bad enough, one Sunni politician who dared to take part in the constitution-writing was gunned down, thus scaring away other Sunnis who might take part. At the same time, and little reported until now, leading Kurdish politicians (our & quot;good guys & quot;) have been redrawing the map of Iraq with an enlarged Kurdistan that would extend Kurdish territories 75 miles southeast of Baghdad; as well, they have kidnapped hundreds of Arabs and members of the Turkmen minority in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and taken them to prisons in the Kurdish zone.
'Other stories'
Americans still hope that "other stories & quot; -- those about the Iraqi army gradually finding its legs, about schools and hospitals opening, and about Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds cooperating on a constitution that may eventually prove workable -- are truer than these. I hope so myself.
Let's look at the positive side: Many of the war's sponsors, though historically challenged, believed they could bring democracy to Iraq. They believed they could white-out all of Iraq's history with their good intentions (and a lot of not-so-good intentions, as well). As the primary symbol of their "goodness, & quot; they would make sure that Iraqi women (and soon, Saudi women, and Egyptian women, and Syrian women) would be equal to men. That would be the Washington war-planners' gift to the world.
And what has happened there?
In fact, Iraqi women's rights are about to be set back by nearly 50 years, The New York Times reported this week, "because of new family law provisions inserted into a draft of the constitution at the behest of the ruling Shiite religious parties. & quot;
Koranic law -- the harsh Sharia best known for keeping company with the Saudi Wahabis, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Taliban in Afghanistan, where women are stoned to death for adultery -- would come to Iraq. Shiite women, even secular ones, would no longer have the right to choose their own husbands, to inherit property or to seek court protection if their husbands declare them "divorced. & quot;
But there's an odd turn here. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women actually DID have equality with men. Except in the high inner circles of the mass murderers, you saw women everywhere, doing everything. I visited the Iraqi Women's Association in 1978 -- and wondered that they didn't have them on the front lines!
Positive impact on women
When the Arab Baath Party took over the country with Saddam in the 1970s, it was a renaissance party. Not the outcome, but the original idea was to modernize the Arab world, which included the economy, education, and the place of women and the family. The fact that the party became sordidly corrupted does not take away from what the Baath originally tried to do -- and for a while, did.
And here's the rub. When we look at countries in these stages of development, we see over and over that women's rights can be secured only during a period of authoritarian rule, where an enlightened and usually popular autocrat simply puts the rules into place. That is what happened in Tunisia with Habib Bourguiba, for instance, and with Gen. MacArthur during the occupation of Japan.
Otherwise, the majority of the men in virtually any country, if they have the choice, are too much against women's rights to even allow the fight to begin.
Unfortunately, our American planners of this war and occupation are sociologically and tactically limited. They didn't figure out that when a society still holds certain (to us) retrograde principles and you provide a sudden opening such as elections, they will vote for exactly what they had in the past.
This is why women in Iraq are likely going to be far worse off than they were. And if that is what America finally leaves behind, presuming we are ever able to leave anything behind, it will be a sad legacy, indeed.
Universal Press Syndicate

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