Shall we settle?

Iraq’s long-delayed new constitution is making the news this month. Some conservatives are nettled at liberal challenges over the weak case for women’s rights in the new program. Remember that under Saddam Hussein, terror and brutality may have ruled the day but women had equal standing. Not so in what’s emerged from the latest rounds of negotiations. Letting Islamic tradition trump democratic principles is the best we can hope for, some argue. But Salon’s Nancy Soderbergh explains Why women matter.

Women’s rights are in fact key to the evolution of democracy, as well as to long-term peace and stability. Although a direct correlation between increased rights for women and decreased conflict is hard to establish because so many other factors are involved, the trend is clear. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (passed in October 2000) recognizes the important role women play in preventing conflict, encouraging reconciliation and helping to rebuild conflict-ridden societies. Countries that early on gave women the right to vote — such as New Zealand (1893), Finland (1906) and Norway (1913) — have been among the most stable democracies. What’s more, the U.N. Development Program’s groundbreaking Arab Human Development Report found that “society as a whole suffers when a huge proportion of its productive potential is stifled.”

A democracy consists not only of the checks and balances against tyranny instituted by our Founding Fathers (but not Founding Mothers) but of the right of all citizens to decide the rules by which they intend to live. But women’s equal rights alone do not ensure a democracy. For instance, in many former Soviet bloc countries, women had equal rights, but the population as a whole was denied access to decision-making processes. And while in most Arab countries (except Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates) women have the right to vote, in none of them do women enjoy equal rights or opportunities with men. As the UNDP report noted, the “utilization of Arab women’s capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms, as evidenced by the very low share of women in parliaments, cabinets, and the work force, and in the trend toward the feminization of the unemployed.” Thus, for democracy to succeed in Iraq, there must be both strong democratic institutions and full protection of the rights of women. In Iraq, both are now at risk.

I’m concluding this post with a repost of something I’d written March 8, 2004, about women’s rights in Afghanistan and the early steps towards drafting this Iraqi constitution. It’s sad that it seems as relevant today as it did then. . . .

Victorian Anti-Suffrage Cartoon from Museum of LondonVotes for Women, Votes for Donkeys, Votes for Dogs. That was the summary of a set of Victorian documents against extending the franchise to British women. As I read about Afghan President Hamid Kharzai’s International Women’s Day speech, wherein he urged Afghani men to accept their wives’ right to vote with the consoling knowledge that they could tell them how to vote, I’m minded of those Victorian screeds against women voters, horribly scary, dangerous and irrational things that they were seen to be.

Bah! Should I take heart from the knowledge that women’s suffrage is pretty widely accepted today in the West, so that maybe we can hope that a few generations of perspective will do the same for Afghanistan, Iraq and other nascent democracies?

Speaking of Iraq, I find it ironic that the interim constitution includes this clause: “All Iraqis are equal in their rights and without regard to gender, nationality, religion, or ethnic origin and they are equal before the law.” The language and ideals are eerily familiar to this historian. Given the torturous road to this current constitutional signing and the prospect of more wrangling before a final constitution is prepared, I look upon the current situation in Iraq as something akin to Revolutionary France circa 1791 as the nation teetered between peaceful change and collapse.

It’s a staple question on Western civ exams “Was the Terror the inevitable result of the French Revolution?” wherein we hope to provoke students to think about the consequences of radical change in a political system. The ideals of Enlightenment philosophes were framed into an impossible new system which was shoehorned into the fractured nation’s government with predictable results. With outside antagonism and internal dispute, is it such a surprise that violent ideologues such as Robespierre took over? I only hope that the situation of Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority doesn’t become another such staple of history exams for a future generation.

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