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Women in Iraq: Background and Issues for U.S. Policy

The issue of women’s rights in Iraq has taken on new relevance, following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the formation of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and the subsequent U.S.-led efforts to reconstruct Iraq. One of the major questions facing the United States regarding the reconstruction process is the extent to which the United States can help Iraqi women reintegrate into the political, educational, and economic spheres after a long period of decline, exacerbated by three major wars and more than a decade of economic sanctions. Advancing the position of women and committing adequate resources to girls’ education have both been linked, on a global level, to the achievement of efficient and stable development, particularly in post-conflict regions. This report will examine the status of women under Baathist rule. It will also discuss the current status of women in Iraq as it relates to long-term developments, including the writing of a new constitution, the incorporation of women in local and national governance, the effect of religious versus secular forces, the growth of the Iraqi economy, the curbing of security concerns, and the role of U.S. and international assistance.

Women under Baathist Rule (1968-2003)

Under the relatively secular Baathist regime, which espoused Arab socialism, women enjoyed certain legal privileges and opportunities that were deemed, bymany observers, to be more progressive than other countries in the Middle East. In practice, however, many Iraqi women faced various forms of discrimination and mistreatment. The following is a discussion of women’s position in Baathist Iraq.

Education and Labor

In the 1970s and 1980s, Iraqi oil wealth financed a massive social sector expansion, helping build the public services, health, and educational sectors. As part of its program to improve economic development in the country, the secular Baathist government made education compulsory for boys and girls, until the age of 16. The Compulsory Education Law, passed in 1976, allowed for primary school attendance to become nearly universal by the beginning of the 1990s, when it reached 93%. Some scholars argue that in addition to economic motivations, the Baathist regime supported girls’ education as part of a deliberate policy to weaken tribal influence. The move challenged the existing kinship structure inherent in Iraqi society, a structure which looked unfavorably on any public role or political participation by 1

1 “Situation Analysis of Children and Women in Iraq,” United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF/IRAQ), April 30, 1998.

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