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Congresswomen Share Their Experience in Iraq

On November 20, the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia held a hearing to examine human rights abuses in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Reps. Deborah Pryce (R-OH) and Darlene Hooley (D-OR) testified before the subcommittee on their trip to Iraq earlier this year.

Rep. Pryce, Chair of the House Republican Conference, led the first all-female congressional delegation to Iraq, which focused on the post-war conditions of Iraqi women. She stated, “While women in post-war Iraq make significant and inspiring headway on a daily basis, they remain stunned in a post-traumatic state, suffering from the lasting ramifications of severe psychological and physical torture inflicted by a regime that brutally beat, butchered and abused women.” Rep. Pryce cited human rights reports that estimate 300,000 Iraqis, mostly men, disappeared since Saddam Hussein took power in 1979. “While the wives of the missing Iraqi men struggled to put food on the table, Saddam further complicated a woman’s ability to provide for her fatherless family. He erected numerous barriers that made it nearly impossible for a woman to work outside the home and he forbade women to remarry,” she stated.

Rep. Pryce said that Saddam Hussein also decreed prostitution a crime punishable by death and beheaded hundreds of alleged prostitutes. “The beheadings, reported to have been carried out by Saddam’s eldest son Uday and units of the ‘Fidayi Saddam’ Saddam’s personal militia took place in front of the victim’s neighbors and family, including her children. Left behind with the intention of further dishonoring the family, Saddam required that the woman’s head be displayed publicly outside the victim’s home for several days,” she lamented. In addition, Saddam Hussein allowed honor killings, which were responsible for the murders of more than 4,000 women, according to the United Nations Special Report on Violence Against Women.

Noting that “a 2003 United Nations report stated that maternal mortality rates rose to 370 deaths per every 100,000 births in the late 1980’s,” Rep. Pryce said that “inadequate diets, high rates of anemia among birth mothers, chronic diarrhea and acute respiratory infections in new babies contributed to plummeting maternal and infant mortality rates.” She also pointed out that 76 percent of Iraqi women over the age of 15 cannot read or write. Saddam Hussein “forced teachers to work without pay, provided textbooks to only one in six children, and left schools to crumble into extreme disrepair,” Rep. Pryce stated.

While in Iraq, Rep. Pryce “witnessed women slowly emerging to claim their rightful place as vocal, educated and…eventually…equal contributors to Iraqi society.” She said that two women now serve on the Iraq Governing Council, one woman has been named a cabinet minister, and six women serve on the 35-member Baghdad City Council.

Rep. Hooley stated, “Equality for women can only be achieved when Iraqi women can walk the streets without fear of assault, realize their potential in whatever fields they choose to pursue, and are able to feel the sense of worth to which they are entitled as human beings and equal and valued members of Iraqi society. Part of this process is to ensure that the new Iraqi Constitution, which is still being drafted, must specifically protect the human rights of all individuals, including women.”

Rep. Hooley told of the delegation’s visit to a training academy for the Iraqi police force and meeting a class of female recruits. “Though we might not consider this a glamorous position, or one that women have been able to pursue in a patriarchal society, it is undoubtedly an important step for the women of Iraq in their pursuit of equality,” she stated. During the visit, the delegation was informed that, because of budget constraints, the women recruits would not be activated as police officers. Rep. Hooley said that after some “gentle” application of pressure to officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council, “we were able to show the authorities the error of their ways, and ensure that these women would achieve their goal of graduating and becoming law enforcement officers.”

Rep. Hooley also told of the delegation’s visit Mosul where they met with women concerned about their lack of representation on the governing council in the region. She said that their ultimate goal was to get a woman on the committee who would guarantee women’s rights in the new Iraq Constitution. “In America, suffragettes fought for the right to vote in the streets in a more free and open society, and we were finally victorious. These women face a much tougher and more clearly threatening battle,” she lamented.

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