Iraq: Women’s Liberation and the Struggle Against Imperialist Subjugation

Reprinted from Women and Revolution pages of Workers Vanguard No. 802, 25 April 2003.

We print below in edited form a presentation by Spartacist League speaker and former Women and Revolution editor Amy Rath at a forum in New York City on March 29.

As we meet here today, American and British forces are moving north toward Baghdad and bombs rain down on the city. In the war against Iraq, the International Communist League clearly takes a side. We stand for the military defense of Iraq without giving an ounce of political support to the Saddam Hussein regime. Hussein is a bloody oppressor of Iraqi workers, leftists, Shi’ite Muslims and the Kurdish people. His Ba’ath Party regime defends the existing social relations in Iraq and perpetuates the enslavement of women.

I’m speaking here today in honor of International Women’s Day. In 2003, the women of Iraq illustrate the status of most of the world’s women, caught between the domination of imperialism and the oppression of stifling ancient “customs” like the veil, holdovers from a more backward era. For the past 12 years, American imperialism, under the guise of the United Nations, has imposed death and disease on Iraq through the starvation blockade. Out of a population of some 23 or 24 million, one and a half million Iraqis have already died from the effects of the sanctions—from starvation and lack of medical supplies. Between the blockade and the bombing, the economic infrastructure of the country has been damaged or destroyed—including power, sewage and water plants, food processing plants, irrigation facilities, pharmaceutical plants and hospitals. And Iraqi women have suffered more than their share of this misery. The imperialist vendetta against Iraq has thrown the country backward, reviving and reinforcing conservative and patriarchal practices that oppress women.

The history of the Near East shows over and over again the bankruptcy of reform schemes, of deals with the imperialists, of relying on the so-called “progressive” Arab nationalist bourgeoisie to break the chains of imperialism. The idea that the working class and the oppressed can move forward by pressuring the rulers to make reforms, or by joining with them in administering their state, has led to one bloody defeat after another. The imperialists and bourgeois nationalists are utterly hostile to women’s emancipation, which can only be achieved through a thoroughgoing socialist revolution that shatters capitalist property relations and all associated social institutions.

The war on Iraq is the shape of the “New World Order” emerging from the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. That counterrevolution, which restored the capitalist profit system, was a huge defeat for the world’s working class that has defined the past period. In 1917 the October Revolution, the world’s first and to date only victorious workers revolution, marked the seizure of power by the working class. It was a beacon of hope for the millions of oppressed and exploited.

Upon coming to power as the leadership of the working class, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the goal of the full political and social participation of women. Insofar as they were able, the Bolsheviks instituted concrete measures to make this possible, such as day-care centers and cafeterias. Activists in the Bolsheviks’ women’s bureau donned the veil to work among the oppressed women of the Muslim East in Soviet Central Asia.

Despite its Stalinist degeneration beginning in 1924, the Soviet Union represented the industrial and military powerhouse for every state that overthrew capitalist rule, from Vietnam to Cuba. Today, without Soviet military might to stay its hand, U.S. imperialism is expanding its military presence on every continent.

What force can act against this lone superpower? We need class struggle in the imperialist centers. Every strike, every labor mobilization against the war, every mass protest against attacks on workers and minorities, every struggle against domestic repression puts a dent in the imperialists’ war drive. To put an end to imperialist war once and for all, the capitalist system that breeds war must be swept away through a series of workers revolutions. We must establish a planned socialist economy on a world scale in which the great wealth and technology of the imperialist centers can be deployed to wipe out the poverty of the Third World.

Women and Religion

In Iraq, many women, especially in the rural areas, live under the hideous oppression of a backward, tradition-bound society. They are subjected to tribal practices of forced and arranged marriages, polygamy, the “bride price” where women and girls are bought and sold, and the head-to-toe black abaya, the Iraqi form of hijab, or veil. But Iraq is not Afghanistan. Side by side with these ancient “customs” is a modern oil industry and a powerful working class with a history of revolutionary struggle. And not coincidentally, in the last 30 years many women in the cities have gained an education, held professional jobs and benefited from what used to be the Near East’s best medical system.

What accounts for the higher status of women in Iraq compared to most other countries of the Near East? Is it because Islam has less of a hold over the population? In fact, liberals and nationalists often describe Iraq as a secular state. Well, that is a misleading way to pose the question. In any society, the relationship between the classes is the starting point for understanding what is happening there. We Marxists see the institution of the family as the main source of women’s oppression in class society, and we understand that the family as an institution functions according to the needs of the ruling class in any given society.

Institutionalized religion plays a crucial role in reinforcing this oppression, but it is not its origin. Islam is no different from Christianity or any other religion—they all reinforce the family, authority and the particular sexual and moral codes of their respective societies. Certainly Islam has no corner on savagery and anti-woman bigotry for the glory of god. Just one graphic example now in the news: a nine-year-old girl in Nicaragua was made pregnant as a result of rape. Her parents arranged an abortion for her—and they went through hell to get it. Now the Catholic church has launched a crusade against abortion across Central America to prevent things like this from happening again.

It’s a truism to refer to the great Muslim civilization of the eighth and ninth centuries, when Baghdad was the Paris of the world and Europe was in the Dark Ages. They gave us algebra, Arabic numbers and many other key inventions. But do you know about the role of the Spanish crown and the Inquisition in destroying the civilization of Andalus in southern Spain in the later Middle Ages? Not only did they brutally massacre Muslims and Jews of all classes, but they burned thousands upon thousands of books of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, poetry. The Christians also destroyed the public baths because bathing was considered a sign of Muslim faith. Only heretics took baths. Now you know why the Spanish queen Isabella never washed.

The Spanish soldiers went on to become the conquistadors that instigated the genocide of the native peoples of the New World. (The Muslims and Jews were driven out of Andalus in the same year that Columbus discovered America.) Christianity, however, had to adapt with the advent of capitalism in Europe and the development of a modern industrial society—that was basically the reason for the Protestant Reformation and the breaking of the dominance of the Catholic church over much of Europe. Its ideology therefore became more compliant to capitalist social relations, as opposed to pre-feudal or medieval.

In the precapitalist society where Islam first developed (seventh-century Arabia), there was a strategic relationship between the institution of the family, the subordination of women and primitive agricultural production, herding, land and water rights. Women were their father’s means of exchange through the bride price and were their husband’s chattel. The polygamous family became the mechanism by which inheritance and property was organized. For inheritance to mean anything, of course, the chief has got to be able to be sure it’s really his child. The subordination of women through polygamy, the bride price, the veil—these are not “bad ideas” thought up by bossy men or even the result of religious ideology, but a means of enforcing property rights in a very backward rural society. As long as the poverty and backwardness remained, the status of women was not going to improve.

Iraq: Uneven and Combined Development

If anything, it tended to get worse in Iraq into the 20th century, including after the British took over after World War I. As ancient tribal social relations eroded along with the nomadic way of life, they were replaced with virtual serfdom. Tribal communal lands became the private fiefdoms of sheiks who became landlords. The former nomadic warriors were subjected to forced labor on the sheik’s land. Peasant women were in certain areas little more than chattel; they could be awarded in fasl, a way of settling a tribal dispute by giving away a girl or woman instead of drawing blood. This is only one example of women’s subordinate status. Relying upon the backing of the sheiks and landlords, British policies strengthened these oppressive customs and sought to reverse the erosion of the tribes. For example, they instituted two separate legal codes in Iraq, one for the countryside based on tribal law and another for the cities (see Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq [1978]). This is a clear example of the Marxist point that imperialism will ally with backward social and political forces to reinforce its power.

Ownership of the land was concentrated in the hands of a few families. Desperate peasants, unable to scratch out a living on tiny plots of arid land, fled to the shantytowns ringing Baghdad, where they lived in one-room mud huts, sarifas. Limited land reforms initiated in 1958 broke up much of the large-scale landed property owned by the sheiks and merchants; however, the peasants, unable to afford the costs of modern agricultural techniques, remained as poor as ever.

But side by side with this rural poverty was a developing modern industry—oil. Oil production went from 4.6 million tons in 1946 to 35.8 million tons in 1958. However, the enormous profits from oil went to the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company—straight into the imperialists’ pockets. In 1972, the Iraqi regime nationalized the oil industry, bringing enormous wealth to the country and enabling it to embark on rapid industrialization and the construction of a modern infrastructure (see Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett, Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship [2001]).

This could not have happened without massive Soviet aid. Such Soviet government aid in technology, funding and military might enabled Third World countries like Iraq to have some room to maneuver against the imperialist powers. The result of Iraq’s modernization was the emergence and expansion of a broad middle class and urbanization of nearly 70 percent of the population by 1980. The growth of the labor force impacted the status of women in a big way, because their labor was needed in Iraq, which, along with Iran, is unique in the Gulf states in having an indigenous working class.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, massive campaigns eradicated illiteracy among both men and women. Schooling was made compulsory for children. As an Arabic adage puts it, “Books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut and read in Baghdad.” Iraq produced more doctors, engineers and scientists than any other country in the Near East. All university graduates, men and women, were granted automatic employment. By law women had equal rights to employment. The percentage of women in the workforce reached over 40 percent; in professions like teaching and the pharmaceutical industry, it was well over 50 percent. Laws were passed to enable women to work closer to home and they were provided with free transportation.

Health care and contraception were free and housing was subsidized. A working woman could take a maternity leave of one year, six months with full pay and six months at half pay. Workplaces had free or heavily subsidized day-care centers and nursing mothers were allowed two hours a day to breast-feed their babies. Polygamy was illegal. Iraq had the first and probably the only women’s soccer team in the region. Women’s sports were regularly broadcast on television where women appeared in shorts and swimsuits, a phenomenon unheard of in the rest of the region, except in Israel.

However, as real as these gains were, they were limited to the urban centers, necessarily partial and highly contradictory. Most fundamentally, their impact rose and fell with the needs of the labor market and the economy. For example, the eight-year war with Iran had a huge impact on the status of women. With hundreds of thousands of men in the armed forces, women joined the labor force in large numbers. But at the same time, the regime banned the use of contraceptives to force women to “produce” more future citizens to make up for the loss of lives during the war. The end of the war in 1988 and the demobilization of men and their return to the workforce marked the end of Iraqi women’s heyday. Employment for women shrank sharply.

The bourgeois Ba’ath Party espouses a populist-nationalist ideology as it crushes all workers resistance. Its opposition to the U.S.-backed Zionist state of Israel and its drive to wrest its oil industry from the imperialists resulted in a certain empty anti-imperialist rhetoric. So, for example, the Iraqi government declared fulsome support for the Palestinian cause. During the 1970 massacre of Palestinians by the Jordanian army, known as Black September, Iraq pledged aid for the Palestinians. But this did not happen.

The regime that postured as “progressive” also espoused rhetoric about the liberation of women. Saddam Hussein called for “the complete emancipation of women from the ties which held them back in the past” (quoted in Doreen Ingrams, The Awakened: Women in Iraq [1983]). While it’s hard to imagine George W. Bush even saying that, Hussein didn’t mean it. The Ba’ath declared Islam the state religion in 1969. Countries of the Near East, Israel included, never realized the ideal of separation between established religion and state. Centuries of decay under Ottoman rule effectively sealed the region from the effects of the Reformation and the European bourgeois revolutions that broke the hold of the old feudal social relations there. The imperialist rule that followed arrested the development of the Near East and reinforced the existing backward precapitalist order. After independence these countries co-opted religion and incorporated it into the state apparatus. With no exception, Muslim countries in the region inscribe in their constitution that “Islamic law is the principal source of all legislation.”

Family law in Iraq is largely drawn from the Islamic code of the sharia. By law, as of 1983 a woman could inherit only half of what her brother or other male relative inherits (this is straight from the Koran), and she could not divorce her husband unless this right was recognized in the marriage contract before the marriage. While Muslim men can legally marry non-Muslims, Muslim women cannot. Abortion is illegal. The General Federation of Iraqi Women, the Ba’ath Party’s women’s wing, defends Islam as providing “equality for both sexes.” Its president, considered to be the First Lady of Iraq, wears the veil.

Even in the cities, the modern existed side by side with holdovers from the ancient ways. Khairallah Tulfah, Saddam Hussein’s uncle, who was appointed mayor of Baghdad shortly after the Ba’athists came to power, is best known in the West for his bigoted government pamphlet called “Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies.” Baghdad women grew to fear his legion of employed vigilantes who pounced on them in public to paint their legs black if they were considered to be showing too much leg. Finally he got to be too much even for Hussein, who had to remove him.

Women and the UN Sanctions

Under the sanctions, with widespread unemployment and the disappearance of public services such as free transportation and childcare facilities, women were driven back into the home. With over 50 percent of the schools destroyed and the lack of instructional materials (computers and writing materials are not allowed under the sanctions), the literacy rate among women plummeted to 45 percent. Many children no longer attend school; in 1997-98, for example, the dropout rate was 53 percent. And many children work to supplement family income. Many men have either died in the military slaughter of the Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War or left the country to escape the bleak economic conditions. This results in a high number of female-headed households, putting the brunt of the sanctions on women. A reported 95 percent of pregnant Iraqi women are anemic. The maternal death rate, 37 per 1,000 in 1990, more than tripled in the next 18 months to over 140 per 1,000. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 children die every month. And this is before the UN’s “food for oil” program was suspended with the beginning of the war.

A country that used to import 75 to 80 percent of its food has been forced to resort to local production, meaning a massive deurbanization of a wide section of the population with attendant conservatizing effects and restrictions that target women. The fathomless misery and fear have driven the population into such despair that, as Nuha Al-Radi writes in Baghdad Diaries (2003), a father, no longer able to provide for his family, fed them a poisoned fish and they all died together. She tells stories of parents beating their children so that they would be hospitalized, because the hospital was the only place where they could get fed. The people of Iraq have sought solace in the comfort of religion, what Marx called “the opiate of the people.”

In the last decade, the country has seen a surge in religious sentiment that is encouraged by the regime. To appease local and regional reactionary religious forces, Hussein launched a mosque-building spree and adopted the habit of frequently peppering his speeches with religious maxims. He added the words “god is great” to the national flag on the eve of the ’91 war. Unable to patch together a national front of rival ethnic groups, Hussein was attempting to rally them under a religious banner. Preachers at Friday prayers invoke historic Islamic battles and urge worshippers to fight the “infidel” invaders. Superstitious beliefs of all kinds are on the increase as people turn to witchcraft and exorcism, or zar.

With the surge in religiosity comes an increase in conservative practices that target women. According to the newspaper Al-Hayat (15 June 2000), Hussein declared that women should no longer work outside the home—and gave as the reason that they bought dresses and shoes when they did! A Baghdad mullah decreed that the solution to the food crisis included telling girls to fast every other day—until one teenager fainted in her class. In a country where Johnnie Walker whisky once enjoyed a state subsidy, women are now pushed into wearing the veil. Hussein, who once told a congress of the General Federation of Iraqi Women that “polygamy ought to be condemned in every corner of our society,” has taken a second wife. Polygamy and forced and arranged marriages, once confined to the rural south, are now common in the urban centers. Nadje Al-Ali, an Iraqi historian who is a professor at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter, Britain, describes in “Women, Gender Relations and Sanctions in Iraq” ( how her aunts and cousins, who had never worn the hijab in the past, were now veiled and prayed regularly. And this is the educated, elite layer.

The so-called “honor” killings of women are on the rise across the country and they are sanctioned by the regime. Under recent laws, men who kill female relatives for “immoral deeds” (which include not only having sex outside marriage or getting pregnant but also running away from home or even being suspected of doing these things) are considered innocent, since the murders are committed for the sake of “honor.” In December 1991 in a TV broadcast, Hussein told Iraqis, “If you see a woman or her daughters flirting on the street, or if you suspect misconduct, you are a people’s council. You are allowed to kick that family out of the neighborhood and confiscate their house” (quoted in Jan Goodwin, Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the the Islamic World [2003]).

What makes this horror even worse is that, as you would expect, prostitution is on the increase among Iraqi women. So they have to endure not only the degradation of prostitution but the threat of murder from their own families. Most of the female prostitutes in Jordan, for example, are Iraqis. When the Jordanian government complained about this, Iraq imposed the mahram escort for women under the age of 45 who travel abroad. A mahram is a close relative who acts as a male chaperon.

The Iraqi Communist Party

The country of Iraq was artificially carved up by the victorious imperialist powers out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. In fact, anticipating the demise of the Ottomans, France and Britain negotiated a secret treaty, Sykes-Picot, sketching out areas of domination in the Near East. Britain got the three former Ottoman provinces that became Iraq, more or less randomly cobbled together out of a part of mountainous Kurdistan to the north, bits of the territories of the Assyrians and Turkomans, and the Arabic-speaking lands to the south. The country was 97 percent Muslim, with 65 percent Shi’ites, concentrated in the south and historically linked to neighboring Persia (Iran).

Kuwait was carved out of the Ottoman province of Basra as a separate country. In the words of the British War Office, the purpose was “to limit [Iraq’s] influence in the gulf and keep it dependent on Britain.” The wealthier classes and the traditional rulers of the society were primarily Sunni Muslim, as had been the old Ottoman overlords. The British continued this tradition, making the Sunnis their agents and exacerbating ethnic and religious tensions. The so-called king of Iraq was a Hashemite tribal chief—not even from the area—elevated to the throne by his majesty’s troops. In 1932 Iraq became formally independent, but Britain continued to dominate the country in every way.

Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution teaches:

“With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leaders of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.”

The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), once the largest and most proletarian Communist party in the Arab world, was based in all sectors of the working class. In 1958-59, the party had probably the best chance at seizing power and overturning the capitalist system of any such party in the Near East, ever. Why this opportunity did not result in a new October Revolution in Iraq is a crucial question, one whose lessons must be assimilated by all revolutionaries seeking to forge genuine Leninist parties in the Near East.

Founded in 1935, by 1948 the ICP was the dominant force in a nationwide upsurge against the presence of British military bases—an example of the necessary leading role of the proletariat. There were mass mobilizations and strikes such as the Communist-led strike of oil workers near Hidatha. The extent to which the government would go to defend British interests was shown by the crackdown that brought the upsurge to an end. Hundreds of Communists were arrested and ICP leader Fahd and two other members of the Political Bureau were publicly hanged. Their bodies were left on public display for several days as a warning.

The ICP was able to organize across national, religious and ethnic lines and to address the woman question in Iraq. The League for the Defense of Women’s Rights, founded in 1952, had 40,000 members at its height, and a Communist women’s weekly, 14 July, was published from 1958 to 1963. The party sought to recruit Kurdish workers and published a Kurdish newspaper. By the early 1950s, one-third of the party’s leadership were Kurds. From its inception, the ICP called for the Kurds’ right to independence. But this principled position was abandoned in the mid 1950s. Pressured by the Kremlin, Stalinists throughout the Near East courted the Arab nationalist regimes like Nasser’s Egypt. The ICP criticized its previous stance “that there exist two main national groups in Iraq,” declaring that “the fraternal Kurdish people has no interests which are incompatible with the interests of any of the Arab countries.”

Lessons of 1958

After World War II, the support of Britain and the U.S. for the Zionist state of Israel contributed to an upsurge of Arab nationalism across the region. When Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt in 1956 in response to Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the ICP launched a campaign against the government that triggered mass uprisings in the Communist strongholds of Najaf and Hayy. Two years later in July 1958, the Free Officers movement overthrew the monarchy. Upon hearing the news, hundreds of thousands of Baghdad’s dispossessed poured into the streets screaming their joy and their hatred of the British and the royal family. But the ICP threw its support behind the government headed by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qassim (Kassem) and called for “a democratic federal republic” with unity of all the Arab peoples “of all classes.” Qassim tried to play off the ICP against the pan-Arab nationalists in the officer corps as well as the Ba’ath Party, who were clamoring for Iraq to merge into Nasser’s newly formed United Arab Republic. The drive for unity with Egypt was motivated by the desire of the Ba’ath and other Arab nationalists to use Nasser’s authority and Egypt’s anti-Communist laws to break the growing power of the Communists.

The imperialist overlords in Washington and London were quite alarmed by the downfall of the king and the ensuing revolutionary upsurge, which removed a main pillar of the Anglo-American anti-Soviet alliance in the Near East and threatened capitalist rule itself. American Marines were landed in Lebanon and British paratroopers were flown into Jordan in a menacing move aimed at the Iraqi masses.

By late summer, a peasant insurrection was sweeping across the agricultural plains of Iraq as peasants burned landlords’ estates, destroyed the account ledgers and seized the land. The forces of reaction were frantically organizing to crush the revolutionary wave. In March 1959, nationalist officers and the Ba’ath, backed by the large landowners and tribal chiefs, prepared to launch a counterrevolutionary coup starting from the city of Mosul. The ICP wrecked this scheme by organizing a demonstration of 250,000 people, triggering an upsurge that swept the reactionaries from the streets.

The Communists dominated the labor unions, the peasants organizations and the union of students. But with the question of proletarian state power posed, all the ICP demanded was representation in the capitalist government. They continued to hold that the task was to create a native Iraqi capitalist government, according to the Stalinist dogma of “two-stage” revolution. Mammoth rallies, some over one million strong, swept Baghdad to support the ICP’s demand. Army units loyal to the ICP broke open arsenals and distributed weapons.

Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher describes what happened next. Soviet Stalinist chief Khrushchev was about to meet with imperialist chief Eisenhower at Camp David. In order to make this meeting more congenial, he ordered the Iraqi CP to stand down. Says Deutscher:

“Most Western observers on the spot agreed that Kassem could hardly hold his ground against an all-out communist offensive. His own following was small, and he refused to try and rally the anti-communist forces which were intimidated and disorganized and for whose support Nasser made a bid when he attacked Kassem as a ‘communist stooge.’

“Then, in the summer, the communist offensive was suddenly called off—on urgent demands from Moscow. In Moscow reports about the rising revolutionary temperature of Iraq had caused alarm. Khrushchev refused to countenance a communist upheaval in Baghdad, afraid that this would provoke renewed Western intervention in the Eastern Mediterranean, set the Middle East aflame, and wreck his policy of peaceful coexistence. He was already reckoning with the prospect of his visit to Washington and was anxious to produce evidence of Soviet ‘goodwill’ in the Middle East.

“A bill of indictment against the Iraqi communist leaders was drawn up in Moscow and the Iraqi Party was ordered not merely to make its peace with Kassem, but to surrender to him unconditionally with only a minimum of face-saving.”

Qassim and the anti-Communist nationalists now took the offensive. Bloody encounters took place between Ba’athist gangs and Communists in Baghdad; Communist trade-union leaders were killed, removed from their posts or rounded up by the police. In Kirkuk, the largely Kurdish CP organization turned an incipient revolt into a communalist massacre of Turkomans, who were prominent in the city’s commercial elite. The Kirkuk massacre was used by Qassim as a pretext for suppressing the Communist Party.

This attempt to make a deal with the ruling class did not gain the Communists any good will—it only allowed the ruling class a breathing space to reassemble their forces. When the Ba’ath came to power briefly in 1963 in a CIA-backed coup, it unleashed the counterrevolutionary furies. With the help of the CIA, an estimated 5,000 Communists were killed and thousands more jailed. After the Ba’athists regained power in 1968, they took up where they had left off—with trials of Jews, Communists and oppositionists, while laying waste to the Kurdish regions.

The intervention of even a relatively small Trotskyist party could have split the Communist organizations, winning revolutionary-minded workers and intellectuals away from their Stalinist misleaders. This is the road to forging authentic Leninist vanguard parties in the region. Such a party must inscribe on its banner the program of the permanent revolution and intransigent opposition to every form of oppression—of women, of national, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as of homosexuals and others.

Today the war brings the question of Kurdistan once more to the fore. Defense of the right of self-determination for the Kurdish people is a crucial obligation for would-be communists in Turkey and Iraq as well as Iran and Syria. The Near Eastern working classes must be won to a perspective of upholding the national rights of the Kurds, defending Kurdish organizations against state terror and championing full and equal rights for the Kurdish language. Only by fighting all manifestations of Turkish and Iraqi chauvinism and national oppression can the road be opened for joint struggle among the workers against their common capitalist oppressors. The rights of the Kurdish people can only be guaranteed by proletarian socialist revolutions to smash the capitalist states that oppress them—Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. To achieve this, it is necessary to build Leninist-Trotskyist parties that unite the working people of different national and ethnic backgrounds. Such parties will inscribe on their banner the call for a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan, part of a socialist federation of the Near East.

The Rise of Political Islam

The betrayal of socialist revolution, such as happened in Iraq in 1958-59, is the backdrop to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a mass movement in the last two decades. With the bankruptcy of the nationalist governments and in the absence of a viable communist alternative, political Islam feeds off the despair and anger of the masses. Islamic fundamentalism poses as an anti-imperialist force, the savior from mass poverty and the promoter of social justice through upholding the “word of god” and Islamic law.

Imperialism has sought to drown in blood every movement for emancipation from the centuries-old chains of tradition and the exploitation of the landlords and the capitalists. In this aim, institutionalized religion has been one of its main tools and the rights of women one of the main casualties. Arch-Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles—the U.S. secretary of state in 1958 at the time of the Iraqi revolution—earlier urged U.S. imperialism to make common cause with the “religions of the East” against “Communist atheism and materialism.”

While there are many examples of this, probably the most glaring is Afghanistan. In 1979, a civil war between the modernizing Kabul regime and the tribal mujahedin broke out. In dispute was the government’s move to introduce a few rather minor reforms—like reducing the bride price, not even abolishing it. To protect its borders from the fundamentalist threat, the Soviet Union sent in the Red Army to defend Kabul. Whatever the Kremlin’s motive, nevertheless the Red Army’s presence was defending the rights of the women of Afghanistan. Its opponents, the mujahedin, were shooting schoolteachers for teaching girls how to read and throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women. And on their side was the United States, arming and funding them in what was the largest CIA operation in history.

We said, “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” and called on the Soviets to extend the gains of October to the people of Afghanistan. What were those gains? Just across the border, Central Asia had once been exactly like Afghanistan—a miserably backward, desolate and benighted place. But in the 1920s, Soviet power came to Central Asia. To be sure, even the most powerful government cannot decree social advancement—it must be built. In 50 years, Soviet Central Asia had moved forward ten centuries because it had been transformed from a backward, tribal area by a socialized, planned economy.

The planned economy is a tremendous force for revolutionary change. Because its central dynamic is to maximize the socially productive labor of all citizens, women are a necessary part of the workforce. Stalin—no champion of the liberation of women—nevertheless saw no reason why women should not be drawn into industry. The first Five Year Plans, which transformed the USSR from a largely peasant country into an industrial power, mobilized women en masse, and could not have succeeded without them. In contrast, under capitalist production of commodities for the market, the exploitation of labor for profit drives the capitalist to not hire women at all, or to hire them at a lower wage—because, for example, they can be more expensive to train and they tend to leave their jobs for marriage or children.

For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

Upon coming to power in 1917, the Bolsheviks put into practice a number of crucial measures to begin the liberation of women. They made marriage and divorce simple matters of civil registration, entirely independent of the reactionary Russian Orthodox church, as part of an early decree giving women equal rights with men. Insofar as the poverty of the country allowed, they established communal kitchens, laundries and childcare centers to free women from the drudgery of housework—measures which sought to bring women into the workforce and into political life and lay the basis for replacing the family with socialized alternatives.

They abolished all laws regarding consensual sexual relations (laws against sodomy, fornication, homosexuality) because they thought the state had no business interfering in private sexual matters. In 1919, the Communist Party created the Department of Working Women and Peasant Women, or Zhenotdel, to organize special work among women, which included building over 25,000 literacy schools and donning the veil to reach the women of the Muslim East.

The gains made by women in the Soviet Union are one of the reasons why Trotskyists stood for unconditional military defense of the USSR against imperialist threats and internal counterrevolution. Stalin turned back the clock on many of the gains of women—for example, abortion was made illegal in 1936—but the enormous power of the planned economy remained, however deformed it was by the Stalinist bureaucracy.

In Iraq today, the task is to fully mobilize the workers and rural toilers against American imperialism. A Leninist-Trotskyist party in Iraq today would seek to combine the struggle for national independence against the U.S. with a social revolution against the Iraqi capitalists and landlords.

Trotsky stressed that “the subsequent fate of the [proletarian] dictatorship and socialism depends in the last analysis not only and not so much upon the national productive forces as upon the development of the international socialist revolution.” Today in the Near East, the struggle against imperialism cannot be resolved within the confines of a single country. Justice for the Palestinian people, national emancipation for the Kurds, freedom from the veil and Islamic law for women require sweeping away the capitalist regimes from Iran to Egypt and establishing a socialist federation of the Near East.

These struggles must be linked to the fight for socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe, North America and Japan. Throughout the imperialist centers, immigrant workers and their children represent a living bridge with the former colonies and link oppressed immigrants to the power of the proletariat as a whole. The fight against war and for the liberation of the workers and oppressed needs a revolutionary instrument of struggle, an internationalist Trotskyist party, to lead the workers to power and wrest the means of production from the hands of the imperialist rulers. We must have an international planned economy in a socialist world. We in the International Communist League are dedicated to this task.

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