CNN’s Special on Women in Iraq: Painting Iraqi Women With the Victim Brush

by Racialicious special correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie, originally published at Muslimah Media Watch

On Saturday and Sunday, CNN ran a program called On Deadly Ground: The Women of Iraq. Hosted by Arwa Damon, the program briefly profiled several women who live in Iraq; at the beginning, she promises, “You will meet the women of Iraq.”

The program opens on a street somewhere in Baghdad: unpaved, muddy, with trash lying in heaps on the street. Damon’s voiceover introduces us to a young woman who squats in a decrepit building with her children because she has divorced her husband—she won’t live with her family because they will make her return her children to her ex-husband. When speaking about her living conditions, Damon’s tone is that of incredulousness and even disgust: “They’re squatting in an old building,” she says in an attempt to elicit a sympathetic response from the viewer. “What you see her [the young woman] going through…this is normal.” She wants us to realize how badly this woman (whose name is not shared) has it, and the fact that she is not the only one: “They [displaced families] are tragically becoming more and more the norm.”

Damon tells us that “Iraq is a country of contrasts” and makes this the official theme of the program. She contrasts the divorcee living in poverty with Iraq’s remaining elites who can afford to play at private pools. She contrasts these same elites with women who cannot afford to feed their children and thus live two lives: one life with husbands and children, a second life as a prostitute to earn the money that feeds their families. Women without agency to a woman with an agency: Yanar Mohammed, the founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Then, Samar, a 25-year-old woman on death row because she is accused of being an accomplice to murders committed by her fiancé. Another contrast, between a young woman who will either be put to death or spend her life in prison, and 14-year-old Wurud, who chats on the internet and whose father is a high-profile Iraqi official. A girl who believes in Iraq’s government vs. the wife of an insurgent who is against the government. Then Dr. Eaman, who disassociates herself from her only son to keep him safe from the insurgents that threaten her own life, but treats Iraqi children. And, finally, Nahla: she still has her child, but she no longer has her husband, who was killed in an attack.

The program does not focus on the overall condition of Iraqi women as the title might imply. This was a missed opportunity: the security of and increased violence against Iraqi women has made headlines, with male gynecologists in Iraq being targeted and increased attacks on women who attend school or don’t wear headscarves.

Instead of focusing on all Iraqi women, the program zeroes in on these women and their particular difficulties. It is the common tragedies of these specific women’s lives that Damon makes into a second theme. All of these women live with fear of raids or bombs, and all of their stories feature tragic events. Even the “positive” stories like Wurud’s or Mohammed’s, stories about women making or wholeheartedly believing in change, are tinged with bitterness and despair. When Damon asks Wurud if she is ever afraid, she brushes this off with teenage bravado: “I am never afraid.” The viewer understands this as boasting: we still feel sorry for her life that is interrupted by bomb blasts and the fact that her beloved father is a target. Even Mohammed and Dr. Eaman, both women who work for positive change, leave behind their sons. Mohammed tells us that she continues to return to Iraq because, “all the people that I love have been crushed.”

Damon does a good job of not pointing fingers. She doesn’t blame Islam, Iraqi culture, or U.S. troops for anything that these women go through; when mentioning attacks or raids, no one names the entities responsible for them. In this program, everything is a consequence of “The War.” The women she interviews refer to The War as their obstacle to normalcy and stability. But herein lies the problem: the program does too good of a job of not pointing fingers. This gives rise to a vague idea of The War that is the problem for everything, but is also blameless because it is painted as so large, so permeating, and so normal for Iraq that it seems that these women’s situations just can’t be helped. The War is never referred to as The Occupation, The War is never painted as a direct consequence of government armies or sectarian militias. The War is just The War, and this makes it something too large and hopeless for these women to fight against.

The fact that the program doesn’t address Iraq’s past or speak of a tangible future reinforces the present Iraq as a normal—and hopeless—Iraq. This hopelessness is what creates the sense of hand-wringing despair in the program. There are women who fight, women who survive, but they do not address what or who these women fight against or survive. The program wants your heart to constrict (and provides the somber notes of an ‘oud to help it along) for these women, their experiences, and the instability they live through, but it refuses to address the institutional, cultural, and military factors that create the instability in their lives, that take their husbands and children away and threaten their survival.

These women’s stories are accompanied by pictures that reinforce the seemingly irrevocable damage and despair: shots of unpaved streets littered with high heaps of trash, images of disfigured children lying solemnly in hospital beds, insurgents with faces covered and guns brandished, images of bodies covered with cloths, waiting to be washed and buried. Damon notes in her narration that “Life [in Iraq] is so inexplicably wretched.” The pictures that accompany these women’s stories will make you believe it.

The program had a good aim: these women’s stories must be told. They don’t need to be portrayed as desolate victims, whose situations have no remedy or blame, but their stories are valid and we need to be reminded that war has a price for everyone. The problem with the program is that it paints these women’s lives as too wretched to be helped, as if all we can do for them is to sit and be sad about their predicaments. The viewer is expected to think to him/herself: “Iraq is such a scary place. People there have it very bad. These poor Iraqi women!” Even Damon’s narration hosts tones of pity and dismay to clue the reader in about how to feel bad for these women. But as soon as the program is over, the viewer is absolved of responsibility and sad feelings: the program’s credits offer no solutions, no websites or charities to visit (with the exception of Mohammed’s website shown after her interview). Only a “special thanks” to their Iraqi crew who “risked their lives.”

The program wants us only to feel sorry for these women: tragedy shapes their stories, and we hear nothing of lives lived before misfortune. What good does feeling sorry for these women do them? These women don’t want pity. They want lives that are not full of fear, lives in a stable country, lives that are not spent worrying about how to feed their children or whether they will be captured by The War. Damon cannot give them that, and the program offers no way for the viewers to attempt this, either.

But the program is over. After our eyes have welled with tears at the pain these women endure and we have wrung our hands and said, “How horrible!”, we can go back to our disappointment over who lost Project Runway.

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.