Some radical feminists and anti-war liberals have very short memories. It’s just three years after Saddam Hussein’s ouster and some would have us believe the tyrant was in fact a protector of women’s rights in Iraq. That Iraq under Saddam actually had progressive, pro-women policies that are now being “rolled back” thanks to the Bush administration.

A recent report by “Global Exchange” and “Code Pink” entitled “Iraqi Women Under Siege” concluded that “the occupation of Iraq has not resulted in greater equality and freedom for women” than they had under Saddam Hussein. Published by two radical feminist anti-war groups whose primary activities include protesting military recruiting stations, organizing anti-WTO protests and sympathizing with the regimes in North Korea and Cuba, this report echoes a long line of blatant pronouncements. Hillary Clinton who once said that after liberation there were “pullbacks in the rights that [women] were given under Saddam Hussein” and Howard Dean’s infamous remark that “Iraqi women were better off under Saddam Hussein.”

Anti-war revisionist liberals and radical feminists alike are trying their best to come up with comparisons of the Saddamist and post-Saddamist eras in Iraq with the aim of discrediting the historic liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein in 2003. With Iraqi women they think they have found a seemingly incontrovertible argument since Saddam, according to his apologists, was a “secular” ruler who gave liberal rights to women.
In a complex society like Iraq’s, with its labyrinthine political and social development over the past 40 years, it is foolhardy to make simplistic comparisons based on a mere three years of post-Saddam liberation. Still, it is worth setting the record straight on how women really fared under the rule of this allegedly “benign” dictatorship. Revisionist history-writing must not prevail.

Much of the anti-war propagandists’ defense of Saddam as a champion of women’s rights rests on his willingness to allow women to vote (for him), drive cars, own property, get an education and work. What they choose to ignore, however, is the systematic rapes, torture, beheadings, honor killings, forced fertility programs, and declining literacy rates that also characterized Saddam’s regime. A few examples can only begin to illustrate the cruelty and suffering endured by thousands of Iraqi women.

One torture technique favored by Saddam’s henchman and his sons involved raping a detainee’s mother or sister in front of him until he talked. In Saddam’s torture chambers women, when not tortured and raped, spent years in dark jails. If lucky, their suckling children were allowed to be with them. In most cases, however, these children were considered a nuisance to be disposed of; mass graves currently being uncovered contain many corpses of children buried alive with their mothers.

During Saddam’s war with Iran, nearly an entire generation of Iraqi men were killed, injured or captured, leaving a dearth of men of military age in Iraqi society. As a result, Saddam launched “fertility campaigns” that forcibly administered fertility drugs to school girls as young as 10 in an effort to drive up the population rate.

After the Gulf War–particularly after crushing the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings of 1991–Saddam reverted to tribal and “Islamic” traditions as a means to consolidate power. Iraqi women paid the heaviest price for his new-found piety. Many women were removed from government jobs and were not allowed to travel without the permission of a male relative. Men were exempted from punishment for “honor” killings–killings carried out on female relatives who had supposedly “shamed” their family. An estimated 4,000 women died from honor killings in the ensuing years. By 2000, Iraqi women, once considered the most highly educated in the Middle East, had literacy levels of only 23%.

Under the pretext of fighting prostitution in 2000, Saddam’s Fedayeen forces beheaded 200 women “dissidents” and dumped their head on their families doorsteps for public display. These women obviously lost whatever “rights” granted to them once they got in Saddam’s way.

Saddam Hussein was an equal opportunity killer who tortured, raped and gassed men, women and children alike. From Dujail in the South (the murder of hundreds of villagers for which he is on trial now) to the chemical obliteration of Halabja in the North, all Iraqis bore the brunt of the tyrant’s wrath.

The revisionist history offered by those opposed to the Bush administration–whether it comes from bad judgment, a lack of information or a desire for political advantage–has grave consequences. A brutal dictator who tortures his own people cannot be a champion of women’s rights. To pretend otherwise is to dishonor the memory of the thousands of innocent Iraqi women who died in a senseless brutal reign of terror. It also does a grave disservice to the men and women of this country who died or were injured to liberate Iraq.

The political participation of Iraqi women is a critical component in building a stable democracy in Iraq that respects human rights. So here, at the Independent Women’s Forum, we’ve launched the Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative which trained over 150 pro-democracy women from every region, ethnicity and religion in Iraq in areas such as good governance, rule of law, civil society and the pillars of democracy. We had the privilege of working with many extraordinary women who went on to become members of parliament, ministers, local officials and key leaders in civil society organizations. We’re also building the capacity of women-led non-governmental organizations in South Central and Southern Iraq through a small grant program, technical assistance and skills training. Hopefully, the brave Iraqi women who once suffered under Saddam can now freely promote change within their own society.

When we think about the women who lived under Saddam Hussein, we should recall the nameless young mother cradling her baby’s lifeless body in the killing fields of Halabja. Iraqi women will never forget what life under Saddam was like. And the American forces who ousted Saddam deserve to be remembered for their heroic efforts and to go down in history as liberators.