A new kind of dictatorship

The editor-in-chief of the opposition <em>al-Mada</em> newspaper recalls the years of exile and how disillusionment set in after the 2003 invasion, and expresses his fears for freedom of the press.

After 30 years or so of roaming in exile, moving from Lebanon to Cyprus, then Damascus, Syria, and landing at last in London, I returned to Iraq just two years ago. A decade earlier, it had seemed as if it would never be possible for a dissident like myself to make such a return to Baghdad. I just wanted to resettle in Baghdad, the city where I had the best years of my young life, four at the university and eight working in the non-state media for Tariq al-Shaab, a leftist daily newspaper that was shut down by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1979.

I still recall the day in July 1980 when I had to flee Baghdad in a coach travelling to Syria. From that moment, Baghdad became merely an image and memory. My second encounter with the city occurred a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Seeing my home again should have been a source of joy. In reality, it was a shock.

Baghdad was in ruins after three wars and 25 years of a brutal dictatorship. When I got back to London after that saddening visit, friends asked how I had found Baghdad. I answered: “The Baghdad I left was a glamorous woman in the heyday of her youth; now she is an aged creature on her deathbed.”

I imagined that Baghdad would rejuvenate itself within a few years. Like many fellow exiles, I thought the presence of international forces led by the US would help restore normal conditions in Iraq. Now, ten years on, it seems that Iraq will require another ten years to recover, given the carnage it has witnessed over the past decade.

The sectarian civil war that erupted in 2006 stretched well into 2008 and continues today by other means, in the form of a sharp struggle between the various political factions. Demonstrations against the government in the western, mostly Sunni Arab parts of the country are ongoing. After the invasion, the United States and its allies, notably the UK, initiated a flawed political process that was never going to suit Iraq.

In the post-Saddam restructuring, power was to be distributed along communal lines, reducing Iraq to three blocs – Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – with each bloc represented according to its relative demographic weight. The Sunnis did not accept this and boycotted the US- and UK-led political process.

For years, the occupying forces could not find anyone with any weight to represent the Sunnis and the Sunni boycott led to marginalisation. Some opted for insurgency, at a very high price. As the Sunni politicians who agreed to take part in the political process had little influence among their constituents, the Shias and Kurds, backed by the US/UK alliance, sought to tighten their grip on the reins of power.

A precarious situation ensued. Leaders of the Shia Islamic parties, who were now in command of a large parliamentary bloc, began to monopolise power and marginalised the rest, including the Kurds. Shia leaders and communities continue to view Sunni representatives in the political process with suspicion, depicting them as Ba’athists, on the grounds that either they were members of the deposed ruling Ba’ath Party or they did business/had interests in common with it. The ruling Shia political leaders act as if Iraq is their private property and deal with the Sunnis and Kurds as minorities to be subsumed under majority rule. It is the same old ethos of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party. The incumbent Shia leaders do not seem to realise that Iraq is not a unitary state, but rather a federal and decentralised polity. Nor do they seem to realise that not only does democracy ensure majority rule, it also guarantees the rights of minorities.

After the United States occupied Iraq, it started to dismantle state institutions under the pretext of de-Ba’athification. The resulting vacuum led to chaos and rendered the reconstruction of state institutions even more difficult. The Iraqis needed a chance to establish a new and stable state but the US played a damaging role. For instance, it was American diplomats who oversaw the writing of the country’s new constitution, a process that should have been handed over to constitutional jurists. The Sunni representatives refused to participate in the drafting of the legislation or in the referendum to approve it. The Americans applied pressure to speed up the process.

To silence the criticism, the US included a clause in the text of the basic law allowing amendments within six months. A parliamentary committee prepared the required changes but these have never been submitted to the Iraqi parliament.

The loopholes in the constitution were described as a “minefield” by the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, just 15 months ago. The civil war of 2006-2008 was sparked by the explosion of some of these mines, and so were the current demonstrations in the western Sunni provinces. Yet al-Maliki took advantage of the loopholes, shortcomings and vague articles to enhance his personal, extra-constitutional power and to weaken the power of the parliament, the judiciary and independent or civil society bodies.

Ultimately, al-Maliki and his Dawa Party have managed to create a new kind of dictatorship. This is a curse not only to the Sunnis, or the Kurds, or the swaths of Shias, but to the country as a whole.

As an editor and columnist of al-Mada, a critical, oppositional newspaper in Iraq, I am given considerable editorial freedom, and there is certainly no shortage of subjects to cover. I am, however, concerned about the freedom of the press.

Fortunately, a draft anti-media law has now been reversed, much to the relief of my colleagues and peers. Journalism is a dangerous business, and yet the level of hazards is hardly higher than the tension about the car bombs and assassinations that continue to plague the people of Iraq.

Adnan Hussein is the editor-in-chief and deputy director of al-Mada newspaper

US Marines chain the head of a statue of Saddam Hussein before pulling it down. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.