While almost everyone agrees that Saddam Hussein was a “bad man”, one of the ironies of the Iraq war is that the situation for women is now, in some ways, worse than when he was in power.
Iraq, for all its horrible problems, was a secular state under Saddam Hussein. As such, women were permitted (even encouraged) to attend colleges and to pursue careers. Now, Iraq is more of a collection of fiefdoms than an actual state and the conditions for women vary greatly among the various areas.
In some places, women are still permitted to attend college and to work. In other places, women have been pressured or forced to quit their jobs. In many places, women are encouraged to wear the traditional veil. The law also reflects a gender bias. If a man kills his wife for having an affair or murders his daughter for having sex before marriage, the maximum penalty is three years in jail. If a woman murders her husband for adultery, the she will be charged with murder.
While the United States has expressed the desire to bring democracy and equality to the region, our main goal now is far more modest-to try to establish order and curtail violence. To achieve that end, the United States has started cooperating with the local sheiks and religious leaders. Roughly put, in return for their assistance in maintaining order, the United States is willing to allow them to impose their values.
On one hand, this approach seems to be acceptable. First, it can be justified on utilitarian grounds. If the price of curtailing violence and enhancing order means accepting gender inequality, then it can be argued that this price is worth paying. After all, without such cooperation there would still not be gender equality but there would be more violence. Second, it can also be justified in terms of autonomy-people should be able to decide the nature of their culture and live in accord with that culture. To impose our values upon them would, it might be argued, be a form of cultural imperialism.
On the other hand, this approach seems problematic. First, while it is currently helping with the violence, it must be determined whether the price that will be paid later will be worth the gain acquired now. After all, the West once helped Saddam Hussein in order to achieve the goals of that time. Now the price is being paid for that decision. While our leadership clearly did not give the future if Iraq much thought, this is something that should be carefully considered. We must ask what today’s allies of convenience will be tomorrow. Second, while cultural autonomy is a good thing in general, it (obviously) rests on the principle that autonomy and freedom of choice are good. Hence, there is a fundamental inconsistency in arguing for the right of a people to have a culture that violates the very principles of autonomy and choice.
While Iraq is not nearly as bad as Afghanistan was (and is), this matter is of serious concern. One of the dangers of radical Islam is that it is a clear enemy of equality and women’s rights. As such, it is a clear enemy of the basic principles the West espouses. In any case, there is a terrible irony that the United States has played a significant role in transforming Iraq from a secular state to one that is gazing at theocracy.