Calculating The Cost Of A Vanity War, Women And Children First

I still remember her face.  Cute, heavy white make up, dark eyes, a Mona Lisa smile that was plastered on virtually every news site for several news cycles.  She looked like the kind of teenage girl you might expect to see hanging out at the mall with her friends, or lugging around a book bag as she went from class to class at the local high school.

And I remember the after.  The still frames.  A red top, dark skirt, limbs spread akimbo as her mane of dark hair was splayed about in a wild and tangled mess, her body lying crumpled and broken within a circle of anonymous legs.  I don’t think I can ever drive myself to forget the story of young Du’a Khalil Aswad, a seventeen year old girl who fell victim to an “honor killing” simply for falling in love.

I remember my first foray into the Middle East; one can hardly forget something like that.  Our cultures are so vastly different, the first time going over you feel almost like you’re on an away team in a cheesy science fiction television show.  People dress funny, and the lettering doesn’t even look remotely like anything you’ve seen before.

On top of this, you are fed every bit of anecdotal wisdom from everyone who’s been there before, nevermind the actual veracity of the claims.  Someone can tell you you’re supposed to show your stomach to someone as a means of greeting them when you travel to foreign lands, and you’re likely to do it at least once out of sheer ignorance.

Even more astounding then the differences, though, are the similarities, and back in 1998 when I first arrived at Bahrain, it was these similarities that really caught me off guard.  I expected the people dressed in gowns, and the unfamiliar language, and even the funny looking money.

I didn’t, however, expect a Hard Rock Cafe.

I went there with two of my traveling companions, just a small group of junior sailors trying to find a foothold in this strange new world, and in so doing, we found ourselves seated at a booth, surrounded by black and white portraits of The Beatles, and Elvis, and The Rolling Stones.

Good old Western Rock and Roll blared through the restraunt, and on the surface you would think we were still in America.  Only small details leapt out at you, like the “famous” pork sandwich turned out to be made of lamb here, a respectful omission in deference to Muslim culture.

One of our group, a tall blond kid with a chiseled face and an easy smile, spotted a trio of Arabic girls seated not far off from us.  Their hair was teased, and they wore stylish pants and fashionable leather jackets.  They were, actually, very attractive, and my companion couldn’t help himself but to smile.

One girl in particular, with a heart shaped face, doe like eyes, and lips colored in a dark wine red batted her eyes at him and offered an extremely alluring smile.  Despite my protests (I was married at the time, and didn’t even want to toy with thoughts of temptation), my companion somehow managed to convince them, without a word, to come over and join us.

Again, I was stricken with how similar, how familiar their presence was.  They didn’t wear the black burkas I was expecting, and when they spoke, their English was nearly flawless with only the trace of an accent.

We had a fine lunch together, making small talk, and me wondering where the hell all of this was going to lead.  What if the other two guys “got lucky”?  What the hell was I supposed to do?  But even these worries dissipated as I found myself merely intrigued to learn of these people who turned out to be not so different from those whom I’ve known all my life.

They had all studied abroad and had returned home to find work.  One, the seductively pretty girl with the doe eyes, had gotten a degree in computer sciences but was contemplating a career as a model.

The conversation that passed between us so easily that we hardly realized we had paid our bill and already on the street.  Occassionally one of the girls would cast a somewhat worried looking glance at a passerby, but for the most part, we seemed to be making fast friends our two little groups.  But to the surprise and chagrin of my bachelor companions, out of nowhere the doe-eyed girl stopped.

“We have to go.”

My blonde haired friend, who had become quite taken with the girl seemed a little disappointed.  “Okay, you have a phone number or something we can get in touch with you again?  We’re in town for a couple of weeks?”

“No, I don’t think so,” she said, and by now it was apparent the worried look in her eyes.  She had the distinct appearance of someone who wanted to get away as fast as possible.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

Her friend, a little shorter, a little stockier, leaned in, “We can’t be seen with you anymore.”

“Huh?”

They spoke amongst themselves briefly in rapid fire Arabic before the stocky girl finally explained, “The men are saying things like… uh… they are calling us… prostitutes?  And bitches.  We’re very sorry, you’re all very nice… but we can’t.”

**

We can hardly find ourselves in a place to criticize.  Not in a nation where parents so vehemently oppose comprehensive sex education on the basis that teenagers shouldn’t be having sex.  Definitely not in a nation when our political figures’ sex lives can have more bearing on their career than their ability to govern competently.  Our house is definitely made of glass in this case.

But it is important to note that according to the cultures of much of the Middle East, promiscuity among women is considered a dire shame, one that can ravage the reputation of a family, and result in such grotesque practices as honor killings.

And yet, as I pointed out yesterday, conditions in Baghdad have thrown Iraqi women into a paradoxical state, living with the soul torturing shame of going against their deeply held cultural beliefs in order to merely survive.

But as Matt Bastard pointed out in the comments of that post, the problem is significantly worse than the surface tells.

In truth, the problems were there before we got there, but were of a different nature.  One could reasonably assume that the beginning was when economic sanctions were placed on Iraq.  The final result was that what money was left in the nation became concentrated in the hands of the few and the powerful while the rest of the population was driven into abject poverty.

One of the results; prostitution.  It is true that in times of any hardship forced on any mass of people, one should rightly expect prostitution to go on the rise.  From a purely economical standpoint this makes sense as prostitution stems from a continuous resource in essence, and requires little to no start up fees.  All you need to have is the ability to fulfill a sexual desire, and you can go to work selling your body.  The only thing that you are exhausting is your health and your soul.

As an iron fisted dictator, though, one thing that Saddam did provide was a semblance of order.  Let me be clear though, this order was by no means ideal, nor fair, or even humane, as one prostitute explains.

Under Saddam, women were beheaded for engaging in prostitution in the streets

But at issue here is the road traveled, the spectrum crossed.  We went from an all encompassing authoritative dictatorial state to near pure anarchy; from too many laws enforced unjustly to not enough laws enforced at all.

In this context one is forced to recall the words of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he, in answer to the widespread looting that occurred in the streets of Baghdad, said, “Freedom is messy, and free people are free to do bad things.”

Infringements upon our freedoms by the Bush administration aside, I like to think that we are free, but such justifications do not afford me the right and freedom to loot or kidnap or murder.  In fact one can make an easy case that our rights and regulations debated and agreed upon between the governing and the governed is what protects and ensures our freedoms.

Without this, even so called “free” people find themselve subservient to the tyranny of anarchy.

Under this tyranny, mere survival becomes the oppressor and the oppressed, and under such tyranny, it is the weak who are trodden underheel and victimized.

“We’ve studied reports from local NGOs on women’s rights in the past three years, including violence, kidnappings, forced prostitution and honor killings,” WFO President Senar Mohammad told Reuters. “And the extent to which women have lost their rights in Iraq is shocking.”According to the WFO study, the most worrying trend was the kidnappings of women, many of whom reported being sexually abused or tortured. “Kidnapping and raping women has become so widespread that every woman worries that she may become the next victim. Very few women are seen on the streets. It was not like that before the war, no! Many are frightened to step out of their home,” an unidentified Iraqi woman said.More than 2,000 Iraqi women have been kidnapped since April 2003, the report said, adding that such incidents were largely unknown during Saddam Hussein’s regime. “Money has become more important than lives, and kidnapping women – easy targets because of their weakness – is a quicker way to get a good ransom,” said Mohammad.Moreover, the study says that several Iraqi women were being sold as sex workers abroad, mainly to the illegal markets in Yemen, Syria, Jordan and the Gulf States. Victims usually discover their fate only after they have been lured outside Iraq by false promises.“They told my family that I was very beautiful and they were sure I could be a famous model outside Iraq,” said one woman who was deceived by traffickers into going to Kuwait. “Because my brothers and father died in 2003, and we needed money desperately, my mother agreed that I should go.”“But I discovered that everything was a lie, and I was forced to have sexual relations with men,” she said painfully. “I lost my virginity to a 65-year-old man who bought me at a very high price and who slept with me everyday until I ran away and arranged my return to Iraq.”

This is a beast that we helped to create.  Through the failures of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the Bush Administration, anything resembling order has become absent in Iraq.

De-Ba’athification, and disassembling the Iraqi Army put significant portions of the Iraqi population out of work.  The rampant violence in the country helped to force a vast number of other Iraqi’s out of work as either their place of business was demolished in fighting, or it was simply deemed unsafe to go out and earn money through legal and honorable means.

When conventional means of survival are no longer adequate, unconventional, extralegal, and often demeaning ways of survival must necessarily take over.  Even the kidnappings themselves are as much a construct as a contribution to the lawlessness that occurs in Iraq.  As heinous as it sounds, kidnapping a woman for ransom is a way to make money.

And still the problem reaches deeper.  As reported in Salon, this is not just women and mothers taking to the streets to feed their children.  Sometimes its the children leaving Iraq to sell their bodies to feed their families.

As we empty our bottle of champagne, Farah tells us her story. Like most of the girls at the Manara disco, she is an Iraqi, a Sunni from Fallujah, one of Iraq’s most war-torn areas. She got married in the United Arab Emirates, divorced four months afterward, and found work at the disco through a cousin. She says she’s working “just to make some money for my family,” who also now live in Syria. Farah says she’s the family’s breadwinner.The story of a Sunni girl from Fallujah selling herself in a Damascus nightclub represents startling new fallout from the Iraq war, one human rights organizations and experts are only beginning to address. An increasing number of young Iraqi women and girls who fled Iraq during the turmoil are turning to prostitution in Syria, although there are no reliable statistics on how many girls are involved. That might partly explain why so little reporting has been done on the topic. For journalists and human rights workers, securing contact with Iraqi sex workers in Syria is difficult and dangerous because the topic is taboo.“It’s a serious problem because there are young girls doing this — 11, 12, 13 years old,” says Abdelhamid El Ouali, the representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who’s based in Damascus. “It’s amazing at first. But when you fight for your life, what are you going to do?”

Later in the article:

One outreach organization for refugee children is the Good Shepherd Nunnery in Damascus’ crumbling Old City. The nuns’ observations of Syrian prostitution mirror Mulhem’s, but they have also met a few Iraqi women in local prisons who’ve been sold into bondage by their husbands. Mostly, says Sister Mary Claude Naoldaf, “the girls tell me they don’t like it but have to do it to support their families.”

She adds that in the past year, many of the children that attended nunnery’s learning center have “suddenly disappeared” — most likely taken out of school, she believes, to earn for their families. Her colleague, Sister Therese Mosalam, explains that “to help prevent girls from turning to prostitution, the center offers them computer training courses and helps find them jobs in sewing and gold-manufacturing factories.” But pay is usually about $50 a month –$100 in the best case — compared with the $40 to $60 sex workers can make per night. “And the job opportunities are very rare,” she adds. “I had one girl who waited for three years for the factory job.”

The sisters’ voices drop as they quietly recall visits to refugee families’ homes. Empty refrigerators are common. Some kids have yellowish skin and many look gaunt. Malnutrition, they say, is starting to take hold.

It’s safe to say that this kind of thing hits me hard.  My oldest daughter is three and already she’s a “Princess” and wears toy jewelry and “pretty dresses”.  I know I’ll blink and she’ll be eleven or twelve, and the thought that girls that young are selling their bodies just so that their families from war ravaged portions of the country we broke can eat makes me sick to my stomach.

And yet this is the horror that families from Iraq are living with today.  The shame of their female family members engaging in prostitution crippling, and at the same time, it is necessary for sheer survival.  They keep it quiet, women hide their secret businesses from their husbands, while aunts and mothers pimp their nieces and daughters.

Their culture teaches that they are an abomination, and yet they have seemingly no other recourse.  It’s not America, there are no bootstraps to pull themselves up by.

But while this is not America, it would seem almost as though we provided a direct export to Iraq of our inner city culture of dysfunction.  Rampant violence and lawlessness coupled with an ineffective, ambivalent, or outright hostile authorities has had the same effect over there as it has here; drug use and gang membership among the young.

“Many street children join criminal gangs to get money for their [drug] habits because the money they get from begging is not enough for them to eat and consume their drugs,” Mussawi said.

Mussawi added that some criminal gangs offer these children drugs in exchange for sexual favours.

“[Street] boys and girls are in a desperate situation. The Ministry of Interior cannot control such groups and the losers are the children who cannot escape,” he said. “It is a torture. These children are starving to death and the gangs use their desperate situation to force them into a drugs and sex world.”

Officials at the Ministry of Interior said they were on the look out for such gangs and have been punishing the ones already arrested but they did not want to give more detailed information.

Sami Rubaie, 12, lives on the streets of Baghdad. He said he ran away from home because he could not stand the beatings he got from his father for not bringing home enough money from begging all day. He soon turned to glue sniffing. To support his habit, he recently joined a gang and now men have sex with him in exchange for glue and money.

“I cry every time a man has sex with me and they usually hit me because I am crying. After I do it, my boss gives me a good quantity of glue and around US $3 dollars for food. I know what I’m doing is wrong but it’s better than living with daily beatings from my father for not bringing him enough money,” Sami said.

This isn’t the stuff of isolated incidents, it’s epidemic.  This isn’t the cultural failings of a people, indeed their culture is incredibly strict in the conduct of honor and decency, and instead it is the situation they have been thrust into that has forced them out of necessity to go against these teachings.

This isn’t people being “free to do bad things.”  They were oppressed under Saddam by his radical Ba’athist party.  We removed that but we failed to do the one thing that was most necessary, and replace that treacherous regime with a system that works, with the ability to survive and still hold true to their cultural teachings.

We removed the oppression of a dictator, and replaced it with the oppression of anarchy, and in so doing, the least among them, their women, their children, have been left shattered and broken.

Do not flinch, do not blink, look.  Look at the cost of the war our administration created, and look who is paying that cost with their bodies and souls.  Look lest we ever forget the depths of this grevious mistake.

(note: again, much thanks to Matt Bastard for the sourcing)

One Response to “Calculating The Cost Of A Vanity War, Women And Children First”

  1. matttbastard says:

    Thanks for putting this together, Kyle. It’s an extremely important story that (much like any story primarily involving women of the brown persuasion) gets lost in the margins, overshadowed by suicide bombings and the (information) ‘surge’. The West (in unwitting concert with Saddam) set Iraq on the path to cultural implosion with sanctions and expertly finished the job with the ill-begotten invasion and (horribly bungled) occupation.

    Now, thanks to 15 years of willful indifference and reckless endangerment, Iraq is a failed state, full stop. Heck’uva job, Mission Accomplished, etc.

    ‘Vanity’ war, indeed. I’m not religious at all, but after reading this post, I’m reminded of this passage from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:11:
    There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

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