Contrary to the cliché, ignorance is not bliss; it breeds destruction and despair — a fact that is amply proved in Iraqi journalist Haifa Zangana’s incisive look at women in Iraq, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance. Zangana, who is now based in London, and whose analysis regularly appears in numerous publications in the UK, was imprisoned and tortured at Abu Ghraib for her political activities during Saddam Hussein’s reign. In this slim volume, she covers the rise of the modern Iraqi state, life under Hussein, the years of sanctions and occupation, and the status of women throughout.The book’s title reflects the plight of women in today’s Iraq. According to one report cited, each day 90 women become widows. Zangana recounts many of the horror stories of the occupation, like the rape and murder by U.S. soldiers of 14-year-old A’beer Qassim Hamza al-Janaby, whose family was also murdered and their bodies burned in an attempt to cover up the terrible crime. In discussing various aspects of the occupation — such as how deadly it’s been for media professionals as well as Iraqi citizens — she reveals how women’s experiences in particular have been buried and misunderstood.
The author lays a large part of that confusion at the feet of those she calls “imperialist feminists.” Leading up to the invasion, the Bush administration adopted sudden concern for the plight of Iraqi women as one of its reasons for wanting to “liberate” the country. To convey this idea to the U.S. media, several U.S.-funded Iraqi women’s organizations were founded, staffed largely by Iraqi exiles and Iraqi-Americans. Their job was to convince the U.S. public that Iraqi women were desperate for “regime change”; after the invasion, their role was to promote democracy.