Women in a Neoliberal Order

Against the Current, No. 109, March/April 2004

The Editors

FEMINISTS AND HISTORIANS of the Middle East were a bit surprised last year when Laura Bush made a radio address defending women’s rights — in Iraq. An unlikely champion of women’s causes at home (The Economist of London, not a radical magazine, rates her “low” on feminism) from reproductive freedom, affirmative action or equality in employment to social services women need, Ms. Bush found in women’s rights a convenient pretext for boosting her husband’s imperial crusade in another country.

For proponents of the benevolent U.S. empire, or of the neoliberal world economic order in general, the natural connection of American power with human progress is taken as given. Promoting free markets and privatization, and American-style models of political democracy and individual rights, automatically builds prosperity and brings improvements in the lives and conditions of women.

The only problem with this postulate is the terrifying divorce between ideology and reality. The truth is that the neoliberal world order kills, just as surely as do the helicopter gunships that enforce it – and women are foremost among the victims.

Let’s accept Ms. Bush’s invitation to look at Iraq as a case study. In part, of course, she’s playing on the ignorance of a large section of the public that doesn’t know Saddam Hussein from Osama bin Laden, Iraq from Iran or Afghanistan or anywhere else. The truth is that Iraqi women have enjoyed relatively more rights than most of their counterparts in the neighboring countries.

Certainly women’s position within Iraqi society deteriorated over the last dozen years — primarily as a consequence of sanctions that destroyed the country’s economy, medical infrastructure, hygiene and nutritional security. While Saddam Hussein’s state terror machine claimed more men than women victims, the effect of the sanctions helped even the score.

Laura Bush’s address signified a renewed effort to justify invasion in the name of “humanitarian intervention.” The argument employs the pretext of women’s rights, human rights, etc. to enlist support among those who saw through the lies about “Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.”

The fact of the matter is that war and the insecurity it fuels increases violence against women and reinforces the exploitation of women and girls. Although it is impossible to get an accurate picture of how women are coping with everyday life under the U.S.-appointed Interim Governing Council (IGC), it is clear that the possibility of rape and abduction has decreased women’s ability to leave home without male accompaniment.

At the end of December 2003 the IGC issued Resolution 137, which (pending Paul Bremer’s approval) replaces Iraq’s personal status laws — dating from 1959, immediately after the old monarchy was overthrown — with so-called Islamic law. This resolution threatens not only women’s rights in education, employment, and freedom of movement but could increase so-called “honor” killings, in which male relatives defend the family’s honor by murdering women suspected of sexual transgression. So when it comes to women’s rights the U.S. occupation may actually narrow the gap between Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the case of “honor killings” also illustrates the destruction of Iraqi society during the preceding decade. This practice had been decreasing; but in the weakened Iraq following the catastrophic 1980s Gulf War with Iran “to say nothing of the 1990-91 U.S. war and the following decade of social misery — the secular tyrant Saddam Hussein consolidated power through embracing Islamic and tribal traditions.

This led to numerous decrees that altered women’s legal status in the labor code, criminal justice system and personal status laws. For example, a presidential decree issued in March 1990 reduced the punishment for men convicted of assaulting or killing their female relatives, if their motive was to defend the “family’s honor.” Since then an estimated 4,000 girls and women have been victims of “honor” killings.

What then about Iraq’s liberation? As the U.S. occupation of Iraq reaches the one-year mark we see, along with the continued application of Saddam Hussein’s reactionary labor laws — which ban union recognition and label strikes as crimes against the state — new legislation that undermines women’s legal equality. A press release from the women’s rights advocacy organization MADRE, “U.S.-Appointed Council Abolishes Rights of Iraqi Women,” states:

“Resolution 137 could give self-appointed religious clerics the authority to inflict grave human rights violations on Iraqi women, including denial of the rights to education, employment, freedom of movement and travel, property inheritance and custody of their children. Forced early marriage, polygamy, compulsory religious dress, wife beating, female genital mutilation, execution by stoning as punishment for female adultery and public flogging of women for disobeying religious rules could all be sanctioned if the Resolution is upheld.

“The Resolution would replace Iraq’s 1959 personal status laws with religious law. These laws are the culmination of 50 years of struggle by the Iraqi women’s movement and other progressives, and are not a product of Saddam Hussein’s regime . . . . [T]he new law would be administered by un-elected clerics from each of Iraq’s multiple religious groups for members of their own communities. Tensions between Islamic groups with differing rules about personal status issues are sure to be exacerbated . . . .

“As MADRE Associate Director Yifat Susskind commented, in less than 15 minutes of discussion the IGC, none of whose members were elected by Iraqis, passed Resolution 137 effectively abolishing women’s legal rights in liberated Iraq. Under the direct authority of the Bush Administration, the IGC has privileged sectarianism over inclusiveness and violated core principles of democratic governance: transparency, accountability, the independence of the judiciary and the separation of the legislative and executive bodies.”

MADRE observes that “Resolution 137 also violates Iraq’s international legal obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (ratified by Iraq in 1986) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by Iraq in 1994).” (For the full text and information on MADRE’s campaign against Resolution 137, contact madre@madre.org)

So much, then, for Laura Bush’s husband’s rhetoric of returning Iraq to the community of nations that respect international law, and all the rest of it. Nor can the U.S. occupiers hide behind the pretext that reactionary religious law “is what the Iraqi people want.”

In fact, Washington opposes elections in Iraq today precisely because it doesn’t like what Iraqis want. Iraqis aren’t “ready” to elect a government that would sell off the nation’s oil resources to foreign investors, privatize medical care, and generally conform to the standards the United States dictates for “responsible democracy.” So Bremer has appointed reactionary clerics to the Governing Council in an attempt (so far unsuccessful) to buy off the growing demand for elections now.

Is there an alternative to clerical rule and military occupation in Iraq? Of course there is: The core of that alternative lies in the reviving Iraqi labor movement, in women’s organizations, in social struggles that can cut across religious-denominational and ethnic lines. But that is precisely the greatest threat to the occupation.

There is nothing surprising about the fact that U.S. occupation troops in December smashed up the headquarters of a fledgling Iraqi union federation in Baghdad, which engages in no armed resistance but organizes demonstrations of the unemployed. Similarly, in Resolution 137 we already see that the occupation authorities prefer to deal with clerical leaders than with these social movements, and for good reason: When Iraqi democracy arises, it will do so not as a gift bestowed by occupiers, but in the mass struggle of the movements to get rid of the occupation.

There’s liberated Iraq for you. But as an example of the kind of freedom that corporate capitalism brings, it is not unique, nor does this human destruction depend on direct military conquest and occupation.

Take the trafficking in women and children: In Asia and the Pacific region, this industry has claimed more than 30 million children — mostly teenage girls traded to work in brothels or sweatshops — in the last three decades. Today, the fastest growing market for sex trafficking is Eastern Europe — notably Albania, Romania and the poorer parts of the Russian Federation.

The growth of human trafficking is not by accident. The key components of the neoliberal world economy — so-called “free trade” and “structural adjustments” demanded by the International Monetary Fund — destroy agricultural economies and indigenous industries.

Huge sectors of the population in Asian countries and Latin America<197>and now the former Soviet bloc — become floating migrant, contingent or global reserve armies of labor. Legal or illegal, they clean the city streets, the homes of the wealthy and the Wal-Mart stores in the rich countries; their sold and smuggled organs wind up in transplant operations; and the women among them service the demands of sexual tourism from Thailand to Amsterdam to North America. (It’s estimated that 40-50,000 women have been imported into the United States to serve the domestic sex trade.)

To be sure, sexual exploitation and trafficking of women did not begin with globalization or capitalism. It is at least as old as class society. The central point here, however, is that the neoliberal order, which promised to bring liberation for women from this kind of degradation, has actually deepened and turned it into a global industry.

On the ruins of old-style local patriarchal oppression, today women’s bodies are not only objects for exploitation, but literally commodities for “free trade.” The growth of what’s called “fundamentalism” in many societies, more properly understood as religious-totalitarian fanaticism, is in part a response — a totally false one, to be sure — to this degradation of women and the poor.

Hundreds of millions of women are literally trapped between this kind of religious reaction on the one hand, and the neoliberal order that pulverizes their societies. In short, roughly speaking, the corporate global economy brings to women the same “liberation” as Washington brought them in Iraq and Afghanistan by way of military conquest and occupation.

The Alternative

The promises always sound so good: With free trade and market economies come the advantages of entrepreneurship, human dignity, personal autonomy, choice, the internet, new opportunity. As Laura Bush summed it up in her speech last May 8: “All people have the best chance to thrive in societies where fundamental freedoms, human rights and property rights are ensured.” (Needless to say, these fundamental freedoms do not include the right of gay or lesbian couples to marry, on which President. and Ms. Bush will shortly be campaigning for a Constitutional ban.)

What happens to women in the reality of global neoliberalism is not only an expression of enduring patriarchy; it also illustrates that the lofty promises of global capitalism cannot be met for the majority.

We celebrate International Women’s Day because it represents, against the neoliberal order and reactionary fanaticism, a vision of those promises being filled for everyone<197>not for a minority based on their wealth, privileged access to education, race or gender.

That vision depends on putting the extraordinary wealth produced by labor at the service of a new society, controlled from below by working people, women and men, through their own democratic mass organizations from the workplace to the community to national political power.

The struggle for women’s liberation is central to achieving that society of equality, of solidarity, of popular power and working-class democracy — which we call socialism.

ATC 109, March-April 2004