Shortly after the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I had the privilege of escorting a delegation of Iraqi women to Capitol Hill to meet with a few members of Congress. Risking their lives, they came from all over Iraq to discuss the role of the United States in the war and the Iraqi women’s rights movement at that time, as well as governance and the principles and practice of liberal democracy.
As always, another election was upon us; all eyes were on who voted for or against the 2002 Iraq War Resolution. As a consequence, or maybe out of sheer curiosity, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in attendance asked the delegation what members of Congress should tell American voters about the Iraq War.
The expression and response of one of the women said it all.
On her face, and on the faces of the other Iraqi women present, was a look of incredulity. Tall and slender, her eyes were filled with the pain of someone who had seen meaningless death and destruction. Unlike most of the women there, she wore an abyaya and niqab,a robe-like dress and veil that covers the entire body and face, leaving only the eyes visible. As she stood to respond, her abaya followed her like a ghost. She looked directly at the congressional inquisitor as if he had asked an utterly foolish question and remarked, “Ask them what took you so long.”
The room was largely silent as one Iraqi woman after another told horrific stories about what Saddam Hussein’s reign had done to Iraqi women and their families. Stories were told not only about the husbands and sons they had lost, but they also spoke about the use of rape and violence against women as a tool of war.
In all of the talk about the Iraq War — weapons of mass destruction or the lack thereof and the presence or absence of al-Qaeda in Iraq — there was little, if any, congressional debate about the plight of Iraqi women and the impossibility of democratic rule when the rights of women are systematically quashed.
From the conflicts in Afghanistan to Bosnia, to Iraq, to Rwanda, to Sudan, when Congress has considered U.S. military action abroad, it has given short shrift to the suffering of women in war-torn countries. Moreover, there is rarely any debate about whether the oppression of women in such conflicts is not only a humanitarian issue, but also a national security issue at home and abroad.
Today, Congressional leaders must consider the plight of Syrian women whose lives are being ravaged by the conflict taking place there as lawmakers ponder whether to grant President Obama limited authority to launch a military strike in response to reports that the government of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against its citizens. No country can successfully develop democratic political and civil society institutions when its women are oppressed.
Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, wrote about violence against women in Syria earlier this year for The Atlantic: “Although most coverage of the Syrian civil war tends to focus on the fighting between the two sides, this war, like most, has a more insidious dimension: rape has been reportedly used widely as a tool of control, intimidation, and humiliation throughout the conflict. And its effects, while not always fatal, are creating a nation of traumatized survivors — everyone from the direct victims of the attacks to their children, who may have witnessed or been otherwise affected by what has been perpetrated on their relatives.”
Despite the horrors that too many Syrian women face, they are fighting back by surviving and preparing to rebuild their nation. According to the Women’s Democracy Network (WDN), an initiative of the International Republican Institute, which seeks “to increase women’s political participation, leadership and representation in elected office,” the Syrian Women’s Network is a “national network committed to advocating for women’s equal participation in all aspects of peace, security and future governance.” The preamble to its reported charter demonstrates that Syrian women are demanding a role in their country’s transition and reconciliation. According to WDN, it reads: “We, a diverse group of Syrian women, gathered to discuss the role of women in Syria’s transition to a peaceful democracy bound by the rule of law … will seek to establish an independent and inclusive women’s network.”
Additionally, according to WDN, in its charter, the Syrian Women’s Network “calls for equal rights and representation for all Syrians, demanding equal participation of women at all international meetings, negotiations, constitution drafting and reconciliation committees and in elected governing bodies. The charter also covers topics including prevention of and prosecution for acts of violence against women, access to education and the overall need for women’s participation in ongoing conflict resolution while ensuring women’s future participation in the rebuilding of Syria.”
No nation can build a strong, functional democracy with fully democratic political or civil society institutions when its female citizens are oppressed and lack basic human rights. As former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice once said, “Whether it is assistance to women in Darfur or the fight against human trafficking, the United States champions respect for women because it is morally right. But we also recognize that respect for women is a prerequisite for success of countries in the modern world. In the dynamic 21st century no society can expect to flourish with half its people sitting on the sidelines, with no opportunity to develop their talents, to contribute to their economy or to play an equal part in the lives of their nations.”
As a nation, we have a moral obligation to consider the women of Syria and the role we know women play in building strong democratic institutions. Syrian women must be included equally in all aspects of peace and the future governance of the country and Congress, along with President Obama, must stand by them as they seek to rebuild their country. Their rights must not be ignored.