17 January 2004  
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V is for victory — and for vagina
Ross Clark wonders whether Iraqis would prefer clean water and electricity or Britain’s taxpayer-funded ‘gender advisers’

Following the successful liberation of their country from the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein, ordinary Iraqis are once more beginning to experience some of those things which we in the West take for granted: electricity, telephones, fresh running water and the likes of Deirdre Spart from the Haringey Women’s Collective. If there is still a lot of work to be done in establishing security in the country, one thing which isn’t being ignored is the agenda of Western feminists. Never mind that many women’s pressure groups were vociferous in their opposition to war in Iraq, and by implication would presumably prefer it were Saddam still in power, it hasn’t stopped them flying in to demand a place in the new Iraq.

In October, when Saddam had yet to be captured and attacks on American troops were growing by the day, the Department for International Development (DFID) spent £152,000 on two ‘gender advisers’ to go to Iraq on a six-month contract ‘to promote gender equality and diversity’. The department has withheld the identity of one of them ‘for security reasons’. The other is Mandana Hendessi, an Iranian-born women’s rights campaigner who cut her feminist teeth as a member of the Southall Black Sisters in the early 1980s. One of her proudest achievements was in joining the organisation’s efforts to disrupt a beauty pageant, an event in which a smokebomb was thrown. ‘This is one of the most important ways women are oppressed,’ she later wrote. ‘It is like having a cattle show and it must be stopped now.’

To be fair to Ms Hendessi, she has moderated her views since her youthful exploits. When I managed to make contact with her at her desk at the fledgling ministry of labour and social affairs in Baghdad, she was happy to explain how the money is being spent. A large part of her work, she says, is in establishing homes for women in danger of being killed by their families, to which end she recently advertised in Baghdad for ‘an apartment building or large house that can house 15 households’. ‘There has been a huge rise in honour killings since it became so easy to purchase arms,’ she says. ‘In the Kurdish region honour crimes were made illegal in 2000 but in the rest of Iraq that didn’t happen.’

One wouldn’t argue with this aspect of Ms Hendessi’s work. Clearly, however, from the DFID’s job description there is another side to her brief: promoting gender equality. One of the reasons the government has sent gender advisers to Iraq is to right what Western feminists — and a number of their sisters within Iraq — perceive to be a very grave wrong: that when Iraq’s interim governing council was appointed last July, only three of its 25 members were women. ‘It was a huge disappointment,’ says Ms Hendessi. ‘Iraqi women are demanding 40 per cent representation in government. In the heyday of the Baathist regime, when the economy was doing well, women had 15 per cent representation. We certainly don’t want to go below that.’

Ms Hendessi adds: ‘Iraqis will have to decide whether they want to change and I don’t think it is up to us to impose our views upon them. My role isn’t to tell them what to do but to engage Iraqi women in discussions.’ Others, though, appear to see Iraq as a blank canvas on which to create their image of the perfect ‘genderless’ society, however at odds that might sit with the values of the country’s predominantly Muslim population. Besides the £152,000 it spent on gender advisers, the DFID has also donated £500,000 to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) in order that it might ‘develop and implement a strategy for promoting women’s rights in post-conflict Iraq’. Unifem has an uncompromising agenda. It stands for the implementation of the ‘Beijing platform for action’, which dates from the UN’s fourth conference on women in 1995 and which demands that women make up at least 30 per cent of the representation in national governments. The DFID itself sets a slightly lower target; it issued a statement to me saying: ‘The UK has supported proposals by key Iraqi women’s groups for a 25 per cent quota in the Transitional Assembly, which will be elected in the next few months.’

The cheek of this proposal beggars belief. Out of the 22 members of Tony Blair’s cabinet, only five are women; out of the 114 members of the government, just 33 are women. If Labour with its women-only shortlist — to create which it had to pass a law exempting political parties from its own sex discrimination act — struggles to find enough women to make up a quarter of its government, how on earth does it think it appropriate to impose such a quota on an Islamic country emerging from dictatorship?

I tried to put this question to Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development, but was told he was in Pakistan. One who did ask the government about the need for gender advisers was former Conservative minister John Selwyn Gummer, who says: ‘Mr Benn kindly assured me that a large percentage of the poor in developing countries are women.’ Indeed they are, but does that necessarily mean they have to have seats reserved for them in parliament, an exercise which has proved fruitless when attempted in the West?

It isn’t just our own government that is attempting to impose an aggressively feminist agenda on the developing world. The European Union is quietly devising new rules which would tie aid for African countries to conditions that they introduce more women into their parliaments. In spite of having opposed the war against Saddam Hussein, the EU seems to assume a right to impose a feminist agenda on the country’s reconstruction. Last October, the European Parliament indulged Iraqi feminists with a public hearing. Far from being grateful to the American military authorities for freeing them from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Shatha Besarani, chairwoman of a British-based organisation called Iraqi Women for Peace and Democracy, took the opportunity to berate them for failing to create enough jobs for the girls in the new Iraq. ‘In the aftermath of the war, there were numerous requests from women’s groups in Iraq, and those in exile, for representation in the new government,’ she said. ‘From the outset the occupying forces made little attempt to include women in strategic conferences and decision-making....This omission is nothing short of scandalous when able women are available.’

This is a disgraceful attack, considering the number of meetings and conferences that the Coalition Provisional Authority has held with women’s groups since the end of the war. The reason that only three out of 25 members of the interim governing council appointed in July were women was that the political parties invited to put forward names for the council chose many more men than they did women — just as our own political parties tend also to do in parliamentary elections, in spite of immense efforts to attract women into politics. On Woman’s Hour last July the Minister for Women Patricia Hewitt moaned that, for example, Kurdish parties put forward only men for the governing council. Might she not just allow that the Kurds have more pressing issues to address than gender equality?

Shocking propaganda is used to promote the interests of feminists in Iraq. On the eve of the war last March, Unifem made the extraordinary claim that ‘women account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict, including as refugees and as internally displaced persons’. Really? One of the arguments frequently advanced by feminist groups for the need for more representation of women is that the population of Iraq is currently 56 per cent female. The reason for the imbalance is the very opposite of Unifem’s claim: many more men than women have been killed or sent into exile during Iraq’s long years of conflict with Iran and with the West.

Unifem, in fact, had misquoted the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 which states ‘civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict’. But even when quoted properly, resolution 1325 is a fatuous document that has been used by feminist groups the world over to force their own agenda and get themselves well-paid jobs. The resolution, for example, demands that mine clearance and mine awareness ‘take into account the special needs of women and girls’. Surely, if there is one problem in the world that is everybody’s problem, it is mine clearance. The resolution also ‘urges the Secretary-General to appoint women as special representatives and envoys to pursue good offices on his behalf, and in this regard calls on Member States to provide candidates to the Secretary-General, for inclusion in a regularly updated centralised roster’. In other words, ‘gissa job and giss it now’. This from an organisation which failed to pass a resolution approving war against the mass-murderer Saddam. If the United Nations put only half the resolve into defeating dictators that it does into eliminating gender inequality, the world would be a very happy place.

Iraqis can be grateful for one thing. They have yet to contend with a visit by Eve Ensler, author of the feminist play The Vagina Monologues and the founder of a fashionable feminist pressure group V-day (the V stands for victory, valentine and vagina). Along with her ‘Vagina Warriors’, Ms Ensler has already visited Kabul several times over the past two years to spread her message of sisterhood. Thankfully, after some consideration, Ms Ensler decided against staging The Vagina Monologues in Kabul. ‘Going in and saying “so, let’s talk about your vagina” — it seemed so glib.’

In association with the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and with the help of celebrities including Jane Fonda, V-day has been raising money in the past few months for a series of women’s shelters in Iraq. If they are simply shelters, they will be welcome. But Ms Ensler also calls them ‘power zones’, ‘through which women will be able to organise themselves and defend their rights and freedom’. As to what this means, Ms Ensler demonstrated her understanding of Islam when she was asked what she thought of the veil. ‘If someone is wearing the veil because it makes them feel sexy, exotic, erotic, fabulous, empowered, delicious, protected, power to them,’ she replied. ‘If one is wearing it to shut oneself off, to not exist, to not be present, to not have a voice, to turn over all their rights, to not be sexual, to not be alive, I have issues with it.’ Women who venture into Ms Ensler’s power zones will be treated, too, no doubt, to the thoughts of one vagina warrior called White Feather of Fredericton, New Brunswick, who writes of her ambitions to take her message to the world: ‘I want to make a banner and hang it from a bridge, one that says “women rock”. I want to set off fireworks and parade thru the streets on large vagina floats.’

It is hard to imagine anything more calculated to send oppressed women in the Arab world diving back inside their burkas. Never mind the joys of liberal democracy; if Iraqi women were given a straight choice between Saddam and a ruling class of sisters-with-attitude parading through the streets on inflatable vaginas, I’m not entirely sure that they wouldn’t choose the former.

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