How the Iraq War Has Affected Women
As the narrative in Iraq shifts from war to establishing a stable government and social structure, new and unexpected details about the cost of war are coming to light. One issue Iraq is struggling with is marriage—or the lack thereof.
The Associated Press reported last week that the number of single Iraqi females over age 30—who face social stigmas due to their age, usually living under the protection of family—is disproportionately large for the population. A growing unmarried female population is one that could affect the total Iraqi population long-term, potentially negatively impacting the fledgling post-war economy, making it a significant peace-time issue for the vulnerable new democratic government.
Many of the unmarried women are widows. In January 2009, Mazin al-Shihan, head of Baghdad's Displacement Committee, estimated that Iraq's widow population had reached one million. In addition to the loss of eligible men through violence, intermarriage has become far less acceptable in Iraqi society than it was 10 years ago. U.S. intervention into Saddam Hussein's regime unexpectedly stirred up strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects. (The majority population of Iraq—between 60 and 65 percent—is Shiite, but Hussein was Sunni and his government was mixed.)
By 2007, mixed-sect families had become a regular target of threats and violence by insurgents. Notes would be slipped under doors warning, "You must leave your home. We give you three days. Or we will kill you." But with both sects banning together against the other, many couples had nowhere to go. Families were torn apart. Few new mixed marriages were happening under those circumstances, and they have become rare.
The Iraqi government and human rights groups have been debating solutions to this growing problem for more than a year. Last year, Al-Shihan and Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq vice president, both proposed similar government solutions to offer monetary incentives for marriage. "[W]e propose offering 10 million Iraqi dinars [about US$8,500] to men in their late 30s or 40s who can't get married due to soaring prices, if they marry a widow," he said. Al-Hashemi particularly wanted to focus on intermarriage between the sects.
But women's rights activists are concerned over the long-term dangers that a government-sponsored policy of marriage "bribery" could leave women. Jinan Mubarak has been sounding the alarm over the treatment of Iraqi women for several years, observing the reemergence of religious control over the government following the replacement of Hussein's largely secular administration. Mubarak, head of the Iraqi Centre for Training and Employing Women in Baghdad, said in 2005 that the withdrawal of U.S. troops could signal a diminishing protection of women's rights. More recently, she said that while single women are vulnerable in Iraqi society and many widows struggle even to feed their children, marriage might not solve everything. In reality, "the economic crisis is the core cause of all the women's problems in Iraq," she said.
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