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Iraqi Women Quietly Endure Horrors of War

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March 8 marks the 99th celebration of International Women's Day, a day to commemorate the political, social, and economic struggles and achievements of women globally.

This year we should use the holiday to observe and reflect on the suffering of Iraqi women, who have become invisible "collateral damage" in our country's war in this now defenseless Middle Eastern nation. A good place to start would be by picking up and reading Haifa Zangana's book, "City of Windows: An Iraqi Woman's Account of War and Resistance." Zangana is an Iraqi woman, journalist and activist, who was also a former prisoner of Saddam Hussein's regime. She dedicated her book to A'beer Quassim Hamza al-Janaby.

Who is al-Janaby?

She was a 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was gang raped and set on fire by five U.S. soldiers in March 2006 (while her family was murdered as well). This is just one extreme case. But while this horrifying crime received some attention in the media, though not nearly enough (think JonBenet Ramsey), there have been countless others which have gone uncovered. Zangana points out in her book there have been 1,053 cases of documented rape between 2003 and 2007.

Zangana also puts into perspective what the number of civilian deaths means in Iraq, which some estimates suggest eclipsed 1 million people. She cites a 2006 report that stated more than 90 women become widows each day.

"Since men are the main target of US led troops, militias and death squads…It is women who have come to bury the dead. Baghdad has become a city of bereaved women," writes Zangana.

Women are also bearing the brunt of the ongoing refugee crisis. According to an Iraqi Red Crescent report titled "The Internally Displaced People in Iraq" released Jan. 27, there are more than 2 million internally displaced peoples (refugees), while women and children under the age of 12 compose roughly 82 percent of this staggering number.

But I would be doing Iraqi women and Zangana's "City of Windows" a disservice by solely focusing on suffering and their role as victims. Because despite the web of destruction, violence and repression Iraqi women face on a daily basis, we must not forget their acts of courage and empowerment despite the hardships they are facing.

Iraq has a strong history of women's activism through arts, literature, politics and revolution. This can help explain why Iraq, while under the tyrannical rule of Sadaam Hussein, was still one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East regarding women's rights. In fact, UNICEF reported in 1993, "Rarely do women in the Arab world enjoy as much power and support as they do in Iraq."

But sadly Zangara points out that things have gotten worse, not better, after the "liberation" and during the current occupation—despite claims by the Bush Administration that the emancipation of Iraqi women was yet another reason to justify this war.

"In reality, Iraq now has US-sponsored medieval sectarian militias who have barbaric ideas about women's role in society," writes Zangana.

But Iraqi women continue to persevere.

Hana Ibrahim is a shining example that Zangana uses. She is an “independent left wing activist” dating back to the 1970's, and former editor of the weekly newsletter Gender, which covered problems Iraqi women faced at home and in the workplace. In 2002 Ibrahim founded the organization Iraqi Women's Will (IWW). IWW initially started as a women's cultural center in Baghdad, which hosted events such as art exhibits and poetry readings. But after the invasion in 2003 IWW was kicked out of its space by gunmen (allegedly with ties to Ahmed Chalabi), before the government at the time led by Paul Bremer reclaimed the space only to give it to the US funded NGO Women for Women International.

But Ibrahim would not be deterred. The organization continues to run, though its focus has shifted to ending the occupation and working to improve the political, social and economic rights of women in the country.

But any Iraqi woman could be used an example. Just getting out of bed, taking care of self and family, and living in a country with a wrecked medical system, where electricity is available for only a few hours a day, where clean water is inaccessible for over 70 percent of the population, and where armed militias and mercenaries run rampant—is a heroic act.

By pointing out the hardships Iraqi women face is not an indictment of this war in Iraq—it is an indictment of war period. Each of us needs to ask ourselves, what is the responsibility we bear as citizens of the country which has executed this war?

Ignorance is not an excuse, and apathy is acquiescence.

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Cyril Mychalejko is a writer, teacher, and mountain lover.

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