Zeinab Salbi, founder, Women for Women International

| Thu Oct. 18, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Mother Jones: Have you done any recent studies or surveys about the situation of women in Iraq?

Zeinab Salbi: We are in the process of accumulating the results of a new survey that we are doing. At this point, we are waiting for our field office to basically give their results so we can analyze them and study them.

MJ: What you have heard from people in your organization? Do you have a sense of how things are right now?

ZS: Bad. Every time I call our office in Baghdad it is just more and more horrible.

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MJ: In terms of specifics, I know that with the new constitution Sharia became the law. In your opinion, was that a step forward, a step backward, or mixed in terms of women's rights?

ZS: Absolutely backward. The decentralization of family law is based on the region and based on the courts. I'm very much against it because then there is no national protection of women's rights or family. Decentralization, what it has done is give each region or province an ability to translate, to interpret the law as they want. It is a horrible thing because you make women very vulnerable to whoever is the judge in that particular case, in that particular region or province.

MJ: I know there were some pretty good things about the laws under Saddam. I heard, for example, that the divorce laws and child custody laws were actually pretty good.

ZS: He did improve some of laws vis-à-vis women. The law was decent. It wasn't good necessarily, but it was decent. He gave the law a lot of improvement but he also kept a lot of decisions in his hands. And so someone would have to go to him or his brothers or a minister in order to get some things that she should have gotten based on the law. You know, as in the case of inheritance or domestic violence or things like that.

Now Saddam's law was also called Sharia because the whole concept of Sharia is such a fungible concept. It is just a framework. Tunisia has one of the most liberal laws toward women in their family laws and they call it Sharia. Sharia is just an interpretation, interpretations of different laws, and people usually pick and choose which law they want.

During Saddam's time, there was a law that if you have one child and that child is a daughter and you die, that daughter may inherit you fully, period. It's different in Sunni laws because there is no such thing as one Sunni. There are four schools of thought in Sunni. There are four interpretations of the law. So now, if you have one child and that child is a daughter, she may not inherit you when you die. Your brothers will inherit you.

MJ: Have there been more honor killings in the past few years than before? And in which regions is the problem the worst?

ZS: I argue that women are the bellwether for the direction of a society. A lot of things start with women. Honor killing is only one of the scenarios that have happened, so I don't look at it in a vacuum. The first kidnapping that happened in Iraq right after the invasion was against women. Within a month of the invasion, women were starting to get kidnapped in large numbers, and the trafficking of women started happening immediately. Everyone said, "Oh, this is just women." It wasn't even in the news. I mean, we were just screaming in Iraq and saying, "Women are getting kidnapped right and left; somebody needs to do something." And it didn't get picked up until men got kidnapped, or when foreigners in particular got kidnapped.

So, whether it's the kidnapping of women that is constantly happening or the assassination of women that is constantly happening, especially professional women, I have stopped counting really. The last one was my friend, and I stopped counting after that.

It has such a political message, which is, "Women go home; we do not want to see you." With the bombing of hair salons right now, it's a security risk for a woman in Iraq to go and have her hair done, in Baghdad particularly. And then you have honor killings, within a context of war and fighting. Always what happens to women is ten times worse than what we see in the larger context, because women are the most vulnerable sector of a society. It's all part of a pattern.

MJ: If the American troops withdraw, what might that lead to?

ZS: It'll be much worse, but that doesn't mean that we should stay. Is there horrible violence at the moment in Iraq? Absolutely yes. It is so horrible. Just to give you an example, my cousin lives by the Tigris River and right now, on a daily basis, between 6 and 10 bodies float by his house. Some of them are women. There are women seen thrown in the garbage, and it is just assumed that this is due to honor killings. They are mutilated in different ways and so are the men mutilated in different ways. This has happened since the invasion and the troops did not necessarily change it. One can argue that they may have even exacerbated the violence. Would there be mayhem more than there is right now if the U.S. troops pulled out? Yes. Would it at least open a window for the possibility of Iraqis stopping that violence? Also yes.

Right now there is no window. Everyone is fighting each other and we're stuck in a vicious cycle. If this is a civil war, some historians talk about how civil wars are never solved by a third party. They are solved when one or the other party wins or the two parties have a truce.