Iraq, Women, Democracy, and Liberty

(You can have any three of the nouns in the title, but only three, sorry.)

Over at Political Cartel, Karie has written about Iraqi Women’s Rights Falling By the Wayside. She has some astute observations about the paradox of majoritarianism and liberty for women:

Mature, responsible, hardworking women are told to wear headscarves, occasionally not allowed to drive their own cars, and given a 5 p.m. curfew. Their antagonists? Young, uneducated Iraqi men with weapons and no sense of decency. If an Iraqi man kills his wife or daughter because of suspected sexual promiscuity, he can be imprisoned for no more than three years. If a woman kills an adulterous man, she is tried for murder.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the worst part of it is that conditions for women have actually worsened under the surge. Under Saddam Hussein in the early 90s, “enforced secularism” was the law of the land, and women were largely free to go to college and marry who they liked. But now, under the surge, the US is letting things like gender issues slide for stability’s sake. . . It’s incredibly ironic that an American surge in the name of democracy should actually worsen democratic conditions.

The take-home point here is that majority rule and individual liberty are not necessarily compatible. Here’s what I said in the comments section:

This may have an interesting parallel to Turkish society, where secularism (and women’s rights) must be enforced by a somewhat autocratic state (or at least a democracy with a strongly-involved military). Like Iraq and some other areas of the world, it’s arguable that more democracy will lead to less rights for women. Which really sucks.

It also poses an interesting hypothetical–which do we value more: Democracy, or liberty? In some places they seem to go together and even compliment each other, whereas in others they can conflict.

And David Manes followed up:

Liberty is an end in and of itself; democracy is just a means to achieving other ends. If democracy isn’t taking a society to better places (tolerance, prosperity, human rights, etc.) then it is useless. There is nothing magical about simple majoritarianism if it becomes oppressive.

And (master of hegemonic discourse) Steve Denney:

I think Americans, especially, see [liberty and democracy] as commensurate, which is a false perception. Americans think that Democracy will bring about liberty — a non sequitor, because democracy can bring about the proscription of certain liberties, regardless of the ramifications or the consequences.

When we talk about democracy, I think we’re usually referring to “liberal democracies” like the US, Canada, much of Western Europe, etc. Iran is also a democracy, but it’s a theocratic one. It’s quite arguable that the majority really is getting its way in Iran (to the detriment of those who disagree). Turkey is a democracy of sorts as well, but with a sort of military-enforced secularism that likely goes against the mainstream of public opinion and helps to shape public opinion too. Iran is probably closer to democracy, but I’d take living in Turkey any day, because it is a lot closer to liberty. Of course, it’d be great if we could have both.

4 Responses to Iraq, Women, Democracy, and Liberty

  1. S.C. Denney says:

    I’m not quite sure how I earned such an honorable title; but I like it!

    Brett, have you read On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill?

  2. globalizati says:

    I have (for Western Political Thought), but that was like 3 years ago. Have a pithy quote or passage to share?

  3. Derick Malone says:

    I’m sure someone will come along and mention also that America is a republic with democratic intentions. The founding idea was that majority rule is still tyranny. Liberty was important and so checks an balances must be put in place such that the individual, the true minority in any society, is never coerced by the majority to lose their liberty.

    If people actually had some understanding of what liberty is it would help. But very few Americans actually believe in liberty. They believe darwinistic economics but not liberty. Liberty sounds far to much like socialism for most Americans these days. After all, it’s the concept that all mean treat one another as equals.

    Why? Because an egalitarian society is necessary for freedom. Otherwise the majority or those who set themselves up as “leaders” start acting like masters and then kings. You will know a tyrant, they seek power over others for their own gain.

    The reason many of these countries fail is partly Americas fault. We gave up our liberty for the tyranny of profit. We cook the books, we lie, we do all the things we complain about other countries doing but in sneakier fashion. We really don’t believe in the egalitarian society. That’s to bad, because such a society would be unstopable and unbeatable in any situation. After all it’s a team.

    In liberty united we must stand. America is a divided nation of both rhetoric and dogma. It’s tearing us apart and we have followed the path of majority rule. Which actually is manipulated by the power brokers for their gain. If things go their way they say it’s okay for laws to pass, when things don’t go their way they use the checks and balances to throw out the laws in their favor.

    Until Americans start realizing liberty is more valuable than profits, we will have this problem. It’s to bad, we really had a great chance about 10 years ago to move towards an enlightned society and lift up the world. I think we have moved about 300 years backwards to where aristorcrats held most of the power and the people were simply pawns in their game.

    It’s also very likely that liberty can’t survive in large populations. Large populations favor mass manipulation because large groups of people naturally disagree and can be fragmented by a few people pulling strings on top. And as long as people have something that divides them against the principle of liberty, it is very difficult for it to exist.

    Liberty is very weak, it isn’t a gladiator that harms people or kills. It really only works when people choose to respect it. It only works in an enlightned society where people choose to respect one another as equals instead of master and slave.

    It’s very obvious America has failed. The only thing that keeps it from being a serious problem is because most Americans have some wealth and a decent life style to hide from the world with. If that is lost, everything changes especially when people realize they are not so free as they thought they were.

  4. S.C. Denney says:


    “Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

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