Dahlia Wasfi and the Tragedy of Iraq, Part 4: Survival, Women’s Rights and Death Squads
I ended Part 3 of my series on Dr. Dahlia Wasfi with glimpses into her powers of observation and analysis of the strategies underlying the American-led Coalition’s attempted pacification of Iraq, which to this day is still suffering from brutal internecine warfare. In this piece we will explore this and the effects of the war on Iraqi society more throughly, but first we must recount Dahlia’s reflections on her second trip to war-torn Iraq.
Second Trip to Iraq
Dahlia’s first trip to Basra to see her extended family in Iraq had lasted 19 days, with only six actually spent in Basra, but she had promised to return, and then, some 22 months later, she did. Returning to my interview with her, I asked:
Mac: Let’s talk about your second trip to Iraq. Give me a little chronology of when you went and what really stood out on this trip.
Dahlia: I finally arrived there on Christmas day, 2005. I got to Basra and stayed there until March 27th, 2006. So it’s been five years now.
I would say certainly on a day-to-day basis that there were certain experiences that stand out, but overall – my overall sense (and I have, obviously, the view of someone who knew she was leaving so that as bad as things got, it was like just wait another couple of months, just wait another couple of weeks and I’ll get to go back home) was: I don’t know how people with no way out, I don’t know how they survive. My family, I don’t know how they do it.
On a daily basis, just the struggle for survival, with the lack of electricity, the lack of portable water, now the destruction of the health care system, the destruction of the education system; there’s no jobs, rising unemployment; HIV has now come to Iraq, and while prostitution emerged during the sanctions period, it increased significantly with the presence of the US military, as it does everywhere else around the world, and drug abuse – now I wasn’t witnessing all that, that I would say would be my reading about it – but just my own experience, just trying to make it through each day, trying to get meals cooked, you have to make a choice. Are you going to do laundry today or does somebody get to take a shower? And this is coming from a society that was First World status.
That it’s now Third World, that’s it’s meeting Third World parameters is purely because of American foreign policy. So that’s what struck me. So it’s much different from, say, a country in sub-Saharan Africa which was not ever at a First World level. It’s a different survival approach, so – and call me paranoid, which I am – it seemed to me a purposeful disruption of daily living because people cannot regroup and move forward. They cannot recover from the destruction to put their lives back together and to basically put their country back together the way they want it, and certainly we [the Us Govt - Mac] don’t want it the way they want it, so it keeps people weak, and I found it extraordinarily difficult as an American used to 24 hours of electricity with your occasional once or twice a year thunderstorm that takes it out.
But I have never – I got sick while I was there – been so sick in my entire life, and I literally told my [Iraqi] family, and this will be in the book [Dahlia is writing a book on her experiences - Mac], since I thought I was going to die, please tell my parents a good story. Tell them I attacked the British. Tell them I was a martyr, but please don’t tell them I died from diarrhea, please that would be the worst thing. And all I could think about at the time were the stories I read from after the first Gulf War when cholera became endemic in Iraq, and I read an account of somebody saying there’s nothing worse than dehydrating to death and the only water you have to drink is the same dirty water that made you sick, and I felt so lucky when I was there – I had access to bottled water; I had access to antibiotics, but oh my God, I’ve never been so sick! Everyone in the Administration should have to have a bout of some GI pathogen like that to see what they’re doing to people. That was hard for me to come to terms with. So it was basically my personal experiences, basically my version of Survivor.
But for my family, there was no way out. This is what they had to live with everyday…and I tell you…the two times that I have gone have been in the wintertime. I tell my family that I will never visit you in the summer because I will lay down on the floor and die. In Basra especially, because they have the humidity from the….river, the waterway, it gets to be over a 115 degrees Fahrenheit plus humidity. And they don’t have the electricity to run a ceiling fan, let alone air-conditioning .
Mac: Wow, 115!
Dahlia: On a good day, on a good day. You know, for someone like me, this is going to make me livid. If I had the energy for any emotion, it would make me furious and angry, but for old people, people with heart conditions, asthmatics, diabetics, for the little babies who are prone to the diarrheal diseases, this is deadly. This is deadly. And this is another reason why the death toll is so high, because when they do the calculations for say the Lancet Studies, it’s overall what is the increased number of deaths, not just from military assault…..
Mac: Is cholera epidemic now, or just endemic?
Dahlia: It’s considered endemic now. They still have epidemic episodes. The last one I know of was 2007. That’s the last one I’ve documented, that I found the research on.
Mac: What about women’s rights in Iraq right now?
Dahlia: We have set them back for decades if not centuries. And this is under the auspices of the new government, which is CIA-coordinated, but basically, prior to American involvement, Iraq was one of the most progressive countries in that part of the world in terms of women’s rights, marital rights, property rights, educated women. Part of that can be attributed to [secular government], and I again have to make the qualifier that there’s no question of the brutality of the dictatorship – if you became political you took your life and your family’s life into your hands; you didn’t know if you would be jailed, tortured….but first of all, there was free eduction, and everybody had access to it, and it was also a secular government, and it tends to be – when religion is involved in government – there tends to be a decline in women’s rights, with more conservative leadership, but with a more secular government, that kind of restriction on women’s rights did not happen, but also during the 1980s there was the Iran-Iraq War, and instead of bringing in foreign workers to replace the men who had left for war, they trained women, so that strenghtened the country itself. It’s like what happened here in World War II when the women started to take the jobs in the factories. So women were in every aspect of society. Once we invaded, a big factor in the loss of women’s rights was the influx of religious militias, religious groups and militias, from Iran [many of them having gone into exile under Saddam Hussein - Mac]……..
There are numerous militias, numerous parties that have moved in, based in Iran, and with the militias have come the loss of women’s rights – restrictions on women’s dress, restrictions on covering your hair, restrictions on wearing makeup. Now I don’t mean to be critical, and I have to qualify this because I personally don’t cover my hair….it’s not my choice – but ever woman should have her choice, and in Iraq now since the invasion, they don’t have a choice anymore.
My cousins told me a story because my cousins in the south, they tell me stories of women getting harassed for not covering their hair, of women getting harassed for wearing makeup, and now it’s become more and more difficult for women to attend university. Everything was co-ed. Now they’re trying to separate out the sexes, so this influence came in since the invasion, and then with the new constitution, that opened the door for the use of Sharia Law, which again, depending on interpretation – and I’m not trying to be critical of Islam, but it’s men who wrote it down and it’s mostly men who are doing the interpretation – it opens the door for the loss of property rights and marital rights. And now there are between one and two million widows in Iraq, and with that, when you count as an orphan someone who has lost one or both parents, four to five million orphans [estimated], so we have devastated Iraq for the next generation at least. So this is the bottom line. This is the tragedy.