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Rhetoric and Reality

The misuse of women’s rights to legitimise military intervention in Iraq

There was paradoxical gap between the rhetoric of the Bush administration and the reality on the ground in Iraq during the US intervention in the country, which undermines the notion that the United States was committed to empowering Iraqi women. The use of gender liberating narratives to justify military intervention is far from unique to this war. Laura Bush’s 2001 radio broadcast conflated the battle for women’s rights and the war on terror in Afghanistan concluding that “the fight against terrorism is about the rights and dignity of women”. The overt orientalist tones underpinning a speech which relied on reinforcing chasmic divides between the “civilised people throughout the world” and the previously Reagan-funded Taliban (Akyol) is subject matter for another article. The principle point I would like to communicate is that US rhetoric claiming to be liberating women from oppressive regimes is at odds with the freedom afforded to women in or post-bellum.

Iraqi women were forced to play a tripartite-ideological role during the US war on Iraq. For the US, they were simultaneously symbolic markers of oppression, victims of the Saddam regime who “needed to be saved” and the heroines who would give birth to the New Iraq, supposedly inevitably more liberal as a consequence of Saddam being deposed. Yet, for many Iraqis, women were the key means of differentiating “Iraqi society from the foreign culture” (Ali & Pratt) that was infiltrating their country. This confused identity resulted in a campaign of “sexual terrorism” (Rosen) and a limitation of women’s rights that far outweighed the pre-war climate. I shall demonstrate how these three labels, thrust upon Iraqi women, directly contributed to the lessening of their political rights and freedoms.

Economic hardship coupled with the astronomical casualties in the Iraqi military meant that more than 2 million widows and war orphaned girls turned themselves into sex commodities in order to secure a source of income. (Muhammed) The Organisation for Women Freedom estimates that 15% of Iraqi widows were “left searching for temporary marriages or working in prostitution” (Morris) and more than 50% of these women have been trafficked to neighbouring countries such as Kuwait, Lebanon or Syria. The risk of sexual violence to women during wartime is not unique to the Iraqi context, however the Bush administration, in casting Iraqi women as victims of Saddam’s regime, ensured their vulnerability. American rhetoric, essentially: “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Ismael & Ismael) established a power dynamic between the US male soldier as “saviour” and the Iraqi women as “fatale and victim.” Ismael and Ismael explain that war masculinity is constructed to include attributes of “virility, aggressiveness and bravery”, femininity is defined in counterpoint thus resulting in the objectification and victimisation of female bodies. This assertion is realised in a report by Iraqi attorney Amal Kadham Swadi stating that “sexualized violence and abuse committed by US troops goes far beyond a few isolated cases” (Harding) implying a consistent and routinized violation of female bodies during the war on Iraq. Hence, the US narrative that Iraqi women “needed saving” ensured their vulnerability.

Iraqis took advantage of this climate to restrict female autonomy in the name of enforcing a gender ideology opposed to the West. Ali and Pratt write that “policing of women’s behaviour became integral to constructions of new notions about women” (Ali & Pratt) which is exemplified in a statement by Baghdadi Imam Sheikh Salah Muzidin: “this abuse proved what we have been saying for so long. That it is the Islamic duty of women to stay in their homes” (Ali & Pratt). The lack of investment in the security and welfare of Iraqi women created the conditions for the “reconstruction of hyperpatriarchy” (Ali & Pratt) entailing a shift towards Islamists for protection and a rise in the socially conservative attitudes promulgated by these parties. The US insincerity rendered their concern for equality superficial, forcing Iraqi citizens away from the notion of democracy into the realm of social conservatism. This failure of the Bush administration to install genuine freedom and autonomy is mirrored in their intervention into the Iraqi political system (attach my last article).

For those in search of a more in depth analysis, Nancy Jabbra explores how the US represented gender liberating narratives in the media, analysing the consequences of deploying such tropes; and for any readers who are keen to explore the Orientalist undertones of the rhetoric, Lila Abu-Lughod provides a thorough and nuanced argument regarding the dangerous tendencies of “plastering neat cultural icons like Muslim women over messy historical and political dynamics”.

What can we learn from the way Bush incorporated feminism into their rhetoric in order to pursue an imperialist agenda? US intervention did not improve the situation of women in Iraq, despite all claims to the contrary. In order to prevent women’s liberation being used to mask ulterior motives Feminism needs to separate itself completely from the practices that have their roots in imperialism and colonialism.


Akyol, Naz. 2014. Liberation Through War: The Paradox Facing Middle Eastern Women. Brown Political Review.

Ali, N. and Pratt, N (2009) What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press

Rosen, R (2006) Sexual Terrorism and Iraq Women. TomDispatch Online

Muhammed, R (2016) Women Sex Trafficking in Iraq. The Kurdistan Tribune Online

Morris, R (2010) Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea. Columbia University Press

Ismael, J & Ismael, S. (2007) Iraqi women under occupation: from tribalism to neo-feudalism. International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies. 1 (2)

Harding, L (2004) The Other Prisoners. The Guardian (Online)

Jabbra, N (2006) Women, Words and War: Explaining 9/11 and Justifying US Military Action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Journal of International Women’s Studies 8 (1)

Abu-Lughod, L (2002) Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? American Anthropologist. Wiley

Kristy Richards is graduate from the University of Oxford, currently studying for her Masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies with Intensive Arabic at SOAS. Her main areas of interest are migration and diaspora studies, inter-sectional politics and human rights discourse.