Iraqi author and activist visits Monterey.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
The Ba’ath regime jailed and tortured Haifa Zangana while she was a pharmacy student at Baghdad University in 1972. She and three friends, all Iraqi Communist Party members and in armed struggle against the Ba’ath Party, were imprisoned; her friends were killed, Zangana was held for six months and then let go.
Shortly after, Zangana escaped to Britain, continued her activism and became a journalist, political commentator and novelist. She’s also an outspoken critic of the Iraq invasion. “The war has been,” she writes in her newest book, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance, “a war on Iraqi women.”
On Friday, April 4, Zangana joins a panel discussion hosted by The Women’s International Perspective, a Monterey-based news website, on violence against women. Zangana will be the featured speaker. Three other women also will be on the panel: Riane Eisler, best-selling author of The Chalice and the Blade; Eva Sohlman, a Swedish journalist and author of Arabia Felix in the Time of Terror – Journeys in Yemen; and Monterey Institute of International Studies student Joyce Laker of Uganda, a survivor of Northern Uganda conflict and an activist on sexual violence in her country, who now is a Fulbright Scholar living in Monterey.
“It’s a very interesting group of women, each with radically different backgrounds, and none have met each other before,” says Patricia Vasquez, The WIP’s managing editor. “All are exceptionally intelligent, exceptionally tuned into their environments and personally committed, whatever the cost to themselves, to promoting peace and human rights in the world.”
Earlier this week, the Weekly spoke with Zangana by phone, from her hotel in New York.
Tell me about A’beer Qassim Hamza al-Janaby, the 14-year-old girl to whom you dedicated the book. Why did you chose to dedicate City of Widows to her?
A’beer Qassim Hamza al-Janaby was a 14-year-old girl, who used to live in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, with her family, her parents and her little sister, 4 years old. It happens that their house was near a checkpoint, manned by U.S. soldiers. The parents said the soldiers were eyeing the girl for some time, watching her. One afternoon, around 2 o’clock, they decided, and I’m quoting one of the soldiers, who said this in court, “They decided to have a taste of an Iraqi girl.” So they went in to the house, the parents were there and they were shot immediately. They killed the little girl, and they raped A’beer, and set her body on fire to hide the crime. They issued a statement blaming the crime on Sunni insurgents. [In 2007, two of the soldiers were sentenced to life imprisonment after admitting taking part in the gang rape of A’Beer.] The least I can do is dedicate this book to her memory. Second, we know for sure she is one of many faces. The rape of women is widespread in Iraq, either by the occupying forces of the Iraqi forces, which have been trained by the U.S. and the British forces.
The statistics in the boom about violence against women shocked me: 1,503 documented rape cases by troops and Iraqi forces from 2003 to early 2007.
There is a report that was issued [recently] by the WHO [World Health Organization] indicating that 21 percent of Iraqi women have been abused, subjected to violence or rape. This is very shocking.
Assaulted by occupying forces or Iraqi forces?
It is all women. We don’t know by whom. But we know from documented cases many of them have been raped in the detention centers. You see women are arrested for various reasons, either accused of being terrorists, or facilitators of terrorism, or they are arrested as hostages. When there is a raid on the house, the U.S. forces find the male relatives and they take the women as hostages in order to force the male relatives to surrender and admit to crimes they haven’t committed. In Iraq society, in many societies, women are looked upon as the honor of the family. So there is always this threat that we will dishonor your women. Violence against women is used as a tool against the population.
As a journalist, the silencing of journalists who report rape, murder and other human- rights violations must be especially troubling for you.
We’ve seen groups of people kidnapped, assassinated. It started with the scientists, Iraqi scientists were targeted, and then it moved on to journalists. I think the reason to silence independent voices is also to stop independent reporting from inside Iraq to the outside world. What we see nowadays is hundreds of Iraqi journalists, media workers, being assassinated, kidnapped. Over 52 Iraqi journalists have been kidnapped – we don’t know what has happened to them. The claims about what’s called the liberation of Iraq are very misleading. Many of the TV stations, al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and al-Sharqiya, for example, have been closed and denied access. A prize-winning photojournalist, Bilal Hassan, he worked for Reuters, was arrested by the Americans last year on their claim that he is working with the terrorists and that is why he is getting good photos. They don’t want people to report what is happening. So many of our journalists are saying they are going through this.
Also, there is this climate of fear. You cannot write what you think. If you upset one militia or one political party, you are endangering your life. In this way, there is almost complete silence regarding what is happening.
Talk about how Iraqi women’s lives have changed since the invasion.
The deterioration is horrendous. I’m quoting one Iraqi, she said, “Today is worse than yesterday and yesterday was worse than the day before.” Women are fighting for the basics, for survival. They want to protect their own families, their children. They want to take their kids to school and they cannot do that. Even if they manage to get them to the school, there is a lack of teachers, the academics are being assassinated. There’s also a huge shortage or lack of health services. If you get to the hospital there is no medication. The percentage of children dying because of treatable diseases, like diarrhea, is very high. According to the U.N. there are over 8 million Iraqis in urgent need to help. We’re talking about 4.5 million who were displaced, 2 million inside the county, 2.5 million outside the country, and two-thirds of the displaced are women and children.
Unemployment is very high. It’s 60 percent to 70 percent among men. Among women, it’s 90 percent . Absolutely, women are not working while they used to be equally employed before the occupation. In Iraq today, we have 1 million widows. If you look at the average Iraqi family of five, there are 5 million orphans.
If we put aside the basics, we are also losing on education. Only 23 percent of our kids managed to reach school last year, so we are losing a whole generation regarding education. And girls are more affected than boys. Even with the low percentage of attendance, they are still the main losers. Families don’t want them to be kidnapped, they don’t want them to be killed, and there is literally shooting in the streets, so they think it’s safer to keep them at home. There are various levels of loss. The loss of achievement, which Iraqi women struggled to reach the last 100 years, they are absolutely losing it now on a daily basis in Iraq.
In City of Widows, you quote an Iraqi woman answering the question, how women were resisting the occupation. She says, “Just to survive in Iraq now is resistance.”
Recently President Bush was hailing the success in Iraq. This is complete misinformation. There is no success in Iraq, especially after the increase of the American soldiers with the surge. What’s happening in Baghdad in particular, they are building high walls surrounding small parts of the city. Each one is manned by checkpoints, whether U.S. soldiers or Iraqi soldiers, and people are only allowed in and out by two points. Survival is still Number One. The whole situation is highly volatile now and it’s getting worse. U.S. troops, in order to protect themselves, are resorting to a kind of collective punishment against the Iraqi people under the surge. The air strikes are razing whole families in some areas. In one area, the Americans dropped 40,000 pounds of bombs. You can imagine why women feel that just surviving is resisting the occupation.
How does the situation for women compare to under Saddam Hussein’s regime?
We have to bear in mind: Iraqi people did not fight the Ba’ath regime in order to replace it with occupation. We were fighting to establish democracy. This is totally different. Many Iraqis think it used to be better. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime we were fighting systematic brutality. Now we have, first, the U.S. army, second, the mercenaries and security companies like Blackwater. They can shoot, they can kill with impunity. Three, there are the militias. Now it is a chaotic situation: the killing, the roadside bombs, the air strikes.
We thought we were going to have different times in Iraq. We thought we were going to establish democracy. The promise of the U.S. and the U.K. of establishing human rights is a sad joke. In fact, some people in Iraq today tell jokes about democracy.
Mothers will tell their children if they are acting out, “Keep quiet or I will call democracy.”
You and three fellow students were imprisoned and tortured under the Ba’ath regime. What happened?
We were arrested together. Three of them were executed. I was sent to Abu Ghraib prison. Because I have a relative who was a bodyguard of Saddam Hussein, I was released later.
What of your family in Iraq? What stories do they tell?
My family and my husband’s family are in Iraq. They say it’s very hard, it’s very difficult. The basic services are not available. Electricity is still only on one to two hours a day, if they get it at all. They keep asking, “Americans, with all this power, and they could not repair the electricity grid in over five years now?” They can’t believe it.
In Baghdad, they don’t have clean water – it’s mixed with sewage because of the deterioration of the pipes. The killing is not just the direct killing of people, but the lack of food, the malnutrition among kids, the pollution, environmental pollution, the shortage of medical care.
Will you tell the story of your niece who chose to have cesarean sections a month before her due date on the eve of the invasion?
The little boy you hear in the background? That’s him. He’s 5. We celebrated his birthday on the anniversary of the occupation.
Women were queuing in order to have cesareans because they didn’t know what would happen, whether there would be hospitals or not, so many chose to go through with this. It’s bad enough for women to giving birth, they worried about it, and to have the cesarean and think, “What’s going to happen to me? Will we survive the war? The bombing? What will happen to the baby?”
You write: “In the long view, there is a hopeful perspective.” How so?
I keep hope because Iraqis did not just sit down, and be victims to the occupation. They are resisting, they are fighting back. They are trying their best. These are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances trying to carry on. Mothers try to teach their kids to read and write at home. The mosque is helping, in a sense, to establish classes to teach kids how to read. Women are also taking part in the resistance, in all levels of the resistance, in the armed resistance – which is allowed under international law – in political resistance – women are taking part in political movements, which is getting very difficult now because they are being targeted. There is the culture of resistance in poetry and acting, in theater, in writing, in song, in music, in painting. And the students, the communities are trying to help each other in order to survive, in order to keep living in the face of this occupation, which we all know now is based on a lie, weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaida. If there is any outcome of this occupation, it is that we now have al-Qaida in Iraq, thanks to the occupation. What started as the war on terror in fact created terror.
What is your hope for the panel discussion on April 4?
Maybe I will learn from it as well as it will be an exchange of ideas. The women who will be there on the panel, each one has excellent experience in working with women in various aspects, in different countries, so by exchanging ideas though dialogue, we hope we can raise awareness regarding violence against women. As much as I am there to talk about Iraq women, I am also there to listen and to learn. We all hope for a better future, for establishing peace.