Life in the New Iraq: Are Iraqis Better Off?
Zainab Salbi is an Iraqi-American writer and a women’s rights activist. Her new book, If You Knew Me You Would Care, was released in March. She is the founder of Women for Women International, and has written this piece from Baghdad, where she is currently working on a new book on Iraq.
The question everyone asks — whether things are better or worse in Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s time — is an unfair one.
For Iraqis, this is a question that requires them to choose between two evils.It’s been 10 years since the invasion of Iraq, and talk of explosions, lack of basic infrastructure, corruption, and sectarian violence still dominate daily discussions during family meals and on TV talk shows.
Recently in Baghdad, after we’d discussed the the latest explosion in the city, an old friend asked, “Do you also talk about such daily misery in America?” When I shook my head, he looked down. “It is sad what has happened to our Iraq,” he said. “I don’t know how will we ever go back to normal life.”
“America may have gotten rid of Saddam,” another friend added. “But it threw out the baby with the bath water by destroying the country in the process.”
When asked about the good things America and its allies brought with the invasion, Iraqis quickly respond with the same list: They got rid of Saddam, brought us the internet, cell phones, freedom of political expressions and satellite TV.
But there was a tradeoff. As Duha, a 37-year-old woman, told me recently: “We gained the freedom of expression, but we lost our security.”
Iraqis worry not just about the loss of security. They also talk about food, infrastructure, electricity, fuel and jobs. What was once provided at a subsidized price by the government under Saddam — clean water and electricity for example — now costs extra, and comes at a lower quality, leaving many in an endless struggle to keep up with life’s daily demands.
“It is sad what has happened to our Iraq,” an old friend told me. “I don’t know how will we ever go back to normal life.”
After the war, the country moved from producing its own food and light manufacturing to importing everything. Factories have been closed and farms have been abandoned for the same reason: lack of infrastructure and security. Limited job opportunities are available for men — mostly in the army and the police. Employment opportunities for women have nearly disappeared.
Women may have gained some political power in securing 25 percent representation in the Iraqi parliament, but they have regressed socially and economically since the invasion.
Amid the rise of religious conservatism in the new Iraq, violence against women by their husbands is often considered a right. Women have few legal repercussions for such abuse, and in many cases, it is even justified by religious authorities.
Most women have embraced the headscarf simply to avoid harassment. Many have retreated to their homes, abandoned jobs, and taken their daughters out of school. There are more illiterate girls and women in the country than 25 years ago. The average marriage age — once 18 — has fallen to 15, with even some 13-year-old girls becoming brides.
The few Christians who have chosen to remain in Iraq despite harassment from both Sunni and Shia religious zealots have given up hoping their status will improve. Sectarianism no longer only impacts their safety, but also their ability to get jobs.
They are not the only ones who have started to sound resigned to this new life. “We have given up on hope,” one 30-year-old women’s activist told me. “It has been 10 years now, and every time we leave our home, we still don’t know if we will come back or make it by the end of the day.”