What Kind of Liberation? is a detailed critique of the US authorities’ promise of an occupation which would liberate Iraqi women. It stands out from other writings on post-war Iraq, not only because Iraqi women are its subject, but because of the transparency of the authors in setting out how their own identities, gender, politics and activism have constructed their analysis.
The book is based on interviews with diaspora and refugee women or those able to travel outside, together with images from photo-essays by Iraqi women.
Neither author is an apologist for the Ba’ath regime, nor do they deny the scale of human rights violations against women under Saddam Hussein. But they provide a rich understanding of the comparatively privileged position occupied by women in education, the professions and public life in the early decades of Ba’ath rule, setting a benchmark by which women’s position under the occupation may be judged.
They trace the restrictions placed on women’s roles and rights during the war with Iran and the decade of sanctions (which saw the collapse of women’s employment and the welfare state). By 2003, women were eager for the change promised by the invaders. Though international organisations poured money into “mainstreaming gender” and raising women’s political awareness, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) presided over the introduction of a new constitution which eroded women’s rights, and constructed a political system based on ethnic and religious division, which has further marginalised women’s political participation.
Further, the CPA’s failure to stabilise the economy drove women into poverty, denied them adequate healthcare, electricity and clean water and led to malnutrition, maternal mortality and rising levels of violence against women.
Despite the constant violence, chaos and lawlessness, Iraqi women themselves took practical action to address humanitarian realities and their own lack of security. Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’i women worked through their significant differences to achieve the withdrawal of Resolution 137, sanctioned by the CPA, which would have allowed a far more restrictive interpretation of women’s rights in relation to marriage, divorce and personal autonomy.
Here and throughout the book, the authors emphasise that the curtailing of women’s rights is not an intrinsic feature of Islam, but a function of the occupation. Ultimately, the occupation, instead of guaranteeing them security, created the conditions which now curtail women’s freedom of movement, threaten the lives of women activists and fail to protect women from gender-based violence. As one Iraqi woman remarked: “What the US did for women is dig a grave for Iraqi women and now they have to lie in it.”