Christina Asquith’s Sisters in War is a highly readable and emotional account of the war in Iraq from the perspective of a number of women who lived it and in many ways came to be defined by it. Asquith focuses on the daily lives of these women, both Iraqi and American, as they grapple with the hope and the despair of a new Iraq, one that they hope will usher in a new era of equality and participation for Iraq’s women.
The book focuses on the struggle to establish women’s rights in the new Iraq, and details the means with which the United States set about doing this within it’s broader plan for postwar Iraq. One of the main players in the book is Heather Coyne, an American servicewoman who left a job in the White House determined to make a difference for the people of Iraq, especially it’s women. Another key player is Manal Omar, an American Muslim of Arab decent, who, although suspect of the United States motives for the war, feels a deep duty to serve the women of Iraq. These two women team up to help establish a women’s center that would be used as a gathering place for Iraqi women. This project becomes a microcosm of the difficulty that was inherent in seeking to build up and stabilize Iraq in the wake of the American invasion.
The events that unfold throughout the book are also reflected in the struggle of two Iraqi sisters and their family. Coming from a secular Shia middle-class background, we learn of their great joy at the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which is soon displaced by the horror that follows the eruption of violence directed against coalition forces and the ugly sectarian war that commenced with full force in 2006.
Asquith describes with great detail how the preservation of and establishment of greater rights for women in postwar Iraq was mishandled by the Coalition Provisional Authority, as well as refused outright by the militias and terrorists that roamed the country after the outbreak of the war.
One such instance described in the book was an American initiative promoting business grants for women, the hope being that this would give Iraqi women a greater presence in the private sector. Iraqi women were befuddled at this, themselves seeing the deteriorating security situation and unemployment of their husbands as greater issues.
Instead of seeking to empower the majority of women at the lower end of the economic ladder, statistically more vulnerable to inequality, these early initiatives targeted the powerful elites of Iraqi society, alienating a large portion of those women struggling to get ahead, who in the wake of Saddam’s rule were still seeing their sons and husbands being arrested and killed, only now by Americans.
This highlights the dearth of knowledge of the culture and society of Iraq with which the Americans came, and while the United States may have had good intentions when it came to liberating Iraqi women, it was off the mark in its planning and execution. There was a large gap in degree between what an American perceived to be a liberated Iraqi woman and how an Iraqi women would perceive herself as being liberated. Indeed, it was cultural differences such as these, which the United States failed in many cases to understand and respect, which contributed to all the backlogs and lost opportunities that shaped the Coalition Provisional Authority’s governance of Iraq.
These missteps reinforced the fact that these changes would need to come from the grassroots level. Iraqi women could not be bought off by loans and the ideology that emanated from the Bush administration’s plans to democratize the region. International NGO’s such as Women for Women International picked up much of the slack that the U.S. neglected and sought to build up women’s rights by empowering Iraqi women to bring upon the change themselves. Indeed, the major victories for Iraqi women in post war Iraq, the overturning of a resolution supporting Islamic law, and the percentage of women who would come to be in government was for the most part the work of strong and determined Iraqi women.
Asquith’s book is also one of the first to detail the Iraqi refugee crises, and she especially chronicles the horrible situations faced by those Iraqi’s who came to work for the United States government. Many were forced to flee to save their lives, and the United States government did little to help them.
Overall Christina Asquith’s book is a great insight into the politics of the reconstruction of Iraq, especially when it comes to women’s issues. The book is also a great narrative that reminds us of the human aspect of this war, the depth of emotions that was shared by all participants, the hope, the despair and the faith that the future would deliver the promise of a free Iraq.