The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Why Iraqi women should read The Taming of the Shrew

There was a time when March 8 meant more than an official lip-service to women's rights, or advertisements in Indian newspapers for pre-fabricated ginger-garlic paste that saves women the trouble of grinding fresh masala. For those of us who grew up believing in March 8, the day tells the story of ordinary women as makers of history, and the struggle of women everywhere to participate in society on an equal footing with men. The symbolism of International Women's Day is rooted in a rich range of historical and imaginative moorings. There are echoes, for instance, of ancient Greece's Lysistrata, who initiated a sexual strike against men in order to end war ' an appropriate echo, given the sustained link between women's movements and peace movements. Again, there are the powerful memories of Parisian women calling for liberty, equality and fraternity as they marched on to Versailles to demand women's suffrage.

Since the idea of an International Women's Day first arose at the turn of the century, its context has been the popular movements for women's rights. In the early years, universal suffrage for women was one of the recurring specific themes. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, the day also reminded the world of women's rights to work, to vocational training and to the injustice of job discrimination. International Women's Day has, time and again, protested against the horrors of war. One eloquent example: as part of the peace movement brewing on the eve of World War I, Russian women observed their first International Women's Day on the last Sunday in February 1913. Elsewhere in Europe, on or around March 8 of the following year, women held rallies either to protest against the war or to express solidarity with their sisters. With two million Russian soldiers dead in the war, Russian women again chose the last Sunday in February to strike for 'bread and peace'. Though political leaders opposed the timing of the strike, the women went ahead. Four days later, the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government granted women the right to vote.

With such a history, International Women's Day became, by tradition, a time to reflect on progress made in different parts of the world, to call for further change, and to celebrate acts of courage by ordinary women. I belong to a generation for whom March 8 is one of the most important days of the year. In fact, I know several women who chose to get married on the day, with what now seems touching hope ' hope encouraged either by their youth, or by the fact that they were growing up in a time different from the present. At any rate, such a sense of hope ' of better times to come ' was possible when we were allowed to be clearer about what March 8 stood for. The day had not yet been appropriated by a range of conservatives ready to use anything to further their own causes. Now that all kinds of unlikely champions of women's rights have discovered March 8, the day may never be the same again.

Consider a recent mockery of March 8. On International Women's Day in 2004, Colin Powell announced grants of $10 million earmarked for the greater good of Iraqi women. Apparently, a number of senior government officials from the state department, the National Security Council, the US Agency for International Development and leading non-government experts and activists gathered at the White House to discuss the role of Iraqi women in the 'historic transformation' of the country. No doubt these wise and generous souls were convinced that they had helped women in Afghanistan transform their country, and that women in the other theatres of American warfare deserved a similar gift.

The objective of this $10 million gift, the 'Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative', is to 'to help women become full and vibrant partners in Iraq's developing democracy'. To this end, the state department signed on several non-profit organizations to bring democracy to Iraqi women. The claim is that thousands of Iraqi women will be 'trained' in political leadership, advocacy, entrepreneurship and organizational skills ' knowledge that 'could facilitate and encourage their participation in Iraq's elections in 2005'. In the grand words of the lady of the manor distributing largesse, American under-secretary of state for global affairs, Paula Dobriansky said, 'We will give them the tools to manage their own associations and to build coalitions with others, and we will provide the information and experience they need to run for office, lobby for fair treatment and lead Iraq's emerging institutions.' Clearly, what women of the world need to do is unite to agitate for the Americans to come and occupy their countries as well.

One of the recipients of $10 million in grants to 'train Iraqi women in the skills and practices of democratic public life' is the Independent Women's Forum. The IWF, with its partners, has begun implementing a 12-month women leaders programme and Democracy Network Information and Coordination Center. The Center will be a key source of information and educational materials on democracy, campaigning and governance for a variety of Iraqi democracy and women's rights advocacy organizations.

What exactly is this IWF, and how is it qualified to train Iraqi women to shed their chains' The IWF, it turns out, was started precisely to oppose 'radical feminism'. Ann Lewis, in an article called 'Anti-feminists for Iraqi women', lists several rather dubious achievements of the IWF. These include lobbying against the Violence Against Women Act for its 'wishful thinking about the power of the federal government to curb violence against intimate partners'. The IWF has disputed the existence of a wage-gap between men and women; naturally it opposes greater enforcement of the Equal Pay Act, since it explains away disparity in income as linked to the fact of women 'choosing' to have children. An IWF-sponsored study criticized women's studies curricula at 30 universities, and the study's author, Christine Stolba, claimed on Fox's O'Reilly Factor that women could learn more about gender politics by reading Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew than reading any of the many important books in the various syllabi.

The group receives regular contributions from some of the most conservative family endowments in the country, including the Olin and Randolph Foundations, and the IWF's board of directors includes such notable anti-feminists such as the vice-president's wife, Lynne Cheney; the Clinton-hunter, Midge Decter; and Wendy Lee Gramm, the former Enron board-member and wife of former Texas senator, Phil Gramm.

This International Women's Day, consider the awful irony of two simultaneous sets of signals competing for our attention, and making a travesty of what March 8 used to stand for. On the one hand, 'democracy' at gunpoint: the new custodians of Iraqi progress pushing money into women's rights in a country they have ravaged with war. On the other hand, headlines hinting at the lives of women in occupied Iraq: 'City of ghosts', 'Parents concerned as child kidnappings increase', 'Gunfire is the only common language', and 'No escape for civilians in Iraq war of attrition'.

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