Monday, January 19, 2004

Stand Tall for the Women of Iraq 
So it seems the relatively modern, secular recognition of the natural rights of Iraqi women is in jeopardy.

Check out Riverbend for what this means to the women of Iraq in real life.

For a campaign named “Iraqi Freedom,” our sights have been set pretty low.

Every so often, the Coalition Provisional Authority puts out a set of “talking points,” to help guide soldiers and commanders in dealing with sensitive subjects, when talking to Iraqis.

For instance, if the subject of U.S.-Israeli ties should come up, American troops are not to get involved in a discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict; we are to immediately change the subject and diffuse the argument by simply asserting that the U.S. is concerned for Iraq and its people.

That’s exactly the right thing to do. We need that guidance. We don't need 19 year olds setting the tone of public discourse in a powderkeg on their own.

But one of the talking points deals with the rights of women: If the status of women in Iraqi society should come up, and Iraqis accuse us of wanting to change the status of women, American soldiers are simply instructed to insist that “Iraqis must decide their own cultural norms for themselves.”

Ambassador Paul Bremer must very shortly make a difficult decision: he must either allow the council’s decision to abridge the rights of women to stand, and set human rights for Iraqi women back to the 1950s, or he must intervene in an Islamic cultural matter in such a way as to be sure to alienate the powerful religious clerics whose acquiescence we desperately need to cobble together an ambitious power-sharing arrangement which makes the Great Compromise look like a Holly Hobby cake in comparison.

Speaking only for myself, I would be very disappointed if Bremer were to sell the women of Iraq down the Euphrates River.

I'm not saying I think we ought to be holding out for a purely secular, western-style democracy in Iraq. That's a fool's errand. Even the UK still has an official church. We should accept that there will be a distinct Islamic imprimature on any Iraqi government that has any hope of legitimacy.

Further, I think the U.S. has legitimate long term interests in nudging Iraq as close as possible to universal suffrage. First of all, your claims to being a force for democracy and freedom mean a lot more when you don't, you know, pose a priori exclusions on the political expression of half the population.

Second, Arab machismo is a volatile and dangerous thing. I think everyone can benefit from diluting the machismo vote as much as possible.

MacArthur did precisely that in post-war Japan, and although the status of women in Japanese society still has a ways to go, a replay of the Rape of Nanking isn't very likely these days.

Third, Iraq's economy needs to grow and prosper. If it doesn't, it's a blow to the Iraqi people and to U.S. prestige and credibility alike. Iraq desperately needs the benefit of the economic contributions of its women.

All these things matter.

It also matters that Iraqis be seen to be deciding more and more affairs for themselves.

I hope Bremer will be pressing the argument that the question of the status of women under Iraqi law has already been decided, and was decided decades ago, by Iraqis themselves.

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