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‘Look sad like an Iraqi woman’


Dolls and dogmas: a widow stands in front of her work. Photo: New Internationalist/Hadani Ditmars

In the through-the-looking-glass world of the new Baghdad, there is hardly any space left for women in the public sphere. I only see women on the streets on Fridays, when they walk with their husbands and families, almost always in abaya or hijab.

The words of a young actor, 28-year-old Shams (whose name means Sunshine), haunt me. ‘I feel like a little doll, like a child,’ she complained when I met her at her play rehearsal. While on stage she was free to dance, emote and move with other men and women, off stage her life was confined to home or ‘trips to the market in a car, with my aunt and my brother. I can’t even shop for food on my own. It’s just too risky.’

One day I reluctantly accept my documentary filmmaker friend Haydar’s invitation to eat at a well-known kebab restaurant. I am the only woman there, and even covered and hijabed, I am stared at unrelentingly as I pick at my food. Amidst the décor of artificial flowers and images of Imam Hussein, I have lost my appetite.

Could this be the same city I used to find one of the easiest in the Arab world to work in as a woman? A place where, 20 years ago, half the doctors and civil servants were women; where Government-subsidized childcare and family planning facilities made Baghdad more progressive than some US states? A country that boasted the first female government minister and judge in the Arab world?

I am somewhat reassured when I attend an exhibition by Iraqi women artists at the al Hewar Gallery in Waziriya. Here men and women – some in hijab, some with uncovered heads and make-up – mix freely, and Nermin Mufti – a journalist turned candidate in the elections – glad-hands with enthusiasm. Still, there is an underlying edge of anxiety, as if someone somewhere is watching us.

When I try to interview the artists, I am reminded of the bad old days, when it was difficult to pierce the barrier of Baathist platitudes. A young woman in hijab stands in front of her sculpture: the figure of a woman, trapped in a clear plexiglass cube, from which she is desperately trying to escape. When I ask her what the work means, she is maddeningly vague.

‘Life is difficult for Iraqi women,’ she opines, ‘but we have always managed to survive.’ Another artist, whose work is apparently all about the struggle of the Iraqi woman, refuses to get into specifics when I ask her how things have changed for women since the invasion. What about the rise in violence against women? Or the rewriting of the old civil code and liberal family law along regressive sharia lines? She is tight-lipped, but manages to say: ‘Well look, there’s a problem with widows here. My husband was in the Iraqi army and killed in the sectarian violence of 2006. I still can’t collect his pension.’

When pressed, she admits: ‘I don’t want to say anything against the Government, or any parties. I’m worried there might be repercussions against me and my family.’ The Iraqi television cameras whirl, local paparazzi snap shots of the artists, but their work will have to speak for itself.

Could this be the same city I used to find one of the easiest in the Arab world to work in as a woman? A place more progressive than some US states?

Next, I head to a women’s centre in Baladiyat with Haydar, who has turned up hungover after a night out at a men-only haunt called The Stranger Club. We park next to a vaguely post-apocalyptic-feeling market where a child sells old radios and ancient batteries. There is garbage piled up on the street, and open sewers in plain view.

Haydar advises me to keep my head down. ‘Don’t smile at anyone,’ he instructs. ‘Look sad like an Iraqi woman.’

This neighbourhood was once the headquarters of the old regime’s General Security Directorate. It was also an area where Saddam had built housing for the Palestinian refugees welcomed by previous Iraqi governments, but harassed and displaced in the wake of the invasion. Considered a Sunni area, and one to which many displaced Sunnis have fled, it now endures regular katyusha rocket attacks from the Shi’a stronghold of Sadr City.

In the midst of this ruination, we find a soccer field, where some kids are in mid-game. It’s still too risky to take a photo, so I practise keeping my head down and not smiling until we enter the centre. Run by a plucky woman in her early forties named Sabah, who is half Iraqi and half Palestinian, the centre is a small oasis of hope in a desert of despair. Sabah runs courses ranging from computer training to sewing to political empowerment for women. She organizes recreational activities for children, in addition to an educational programme that tries to prevent kids from joining militias. One of the techniques involves bringing together Sunni and Shi’a youngsters, who, with the current sectarian segregation of Baghdad, may otherwise never have the opportunity to meet in a neutral and relatively peaceful space.

For many of the women here, the centre is clearly a lifeline, and several are eager to tell me their stories.

But first I ask Sabah how things have changed for women since 2003. ‘Things have definitely gone downhill for women. One of the big changes is in the rewriting of the Iraqi constitution, which changed the old civil code to a religious one.’ I am relieved finally to hear someone speak about this. ‘Now, if a woman wants to get a divorce, or arrange for custody of children, or settle her husband’s estate, she must follow the religious law of whichever sect her husband belongs to. If she is a Christian, and he is a Shi’a Muslim, then she must follow the Shi’a sharia. She has no other choice.’

Sabah goes on to explain that many men are taking second wives now, often leaving both wives in precarious legal and economic circumstances. In addition, early marriage for girls, and even forced marriage at the hands of militias, has increased dramatically.

Militarism is always bad for women and children, and the occupation and invasion – which have enriched war profiteers, foreign contractors and corrupt officials – have left 43 per cent of the population in abject poverty. While it’s hard to separate the suffering of Iraqi women from that of society at large, the post-invasion combination of lawlessness and fundamentalism has increased the risk of rapes and ‘honour’ killings.

  1. Women Solidarity for Unified and Independent Iraq’s Report to UNHRC, http://solidarityiraq.blogspot.com/search/label/women
  2. According to the US military, only 16 per cent of Baghdad’s 300,000 displaced families – the majority Sunni – have returned.

There are three million female-headed households in Iraq now, including at least a million widows. But thanks to ongoing human rights abuses by US-trained Iraqi forces (such as the imprisonment of female relatives to blackmail men) and the lack of support of women parliamentarians who, beholden to militia leaders via Iraq’s new sectarian constitution, only pay lip service to the plight of their unelected sisters, it’s no surprise that the hard-won status of Iraq’s women has plummeted.1

But the biggest issue for women, says Sabah, is security. The threat of violence lurks everywhere now.

‘I’m afraid of the police,’ says a 40-year-old unmarried Palestinian woman who lives alone a few streets away. ‘There was another incident [a katyusha rocket] the other day, and they were questioning me in a very rough manner. Sometimes they knock on my door in the middle of the night.

‘And when I go out to the market, the men there make threatening remarks and tell me: “Go back to where you came from.” But I was born here in Baghdad. My parents were refugees. Where am I supposed to go?’

She lost her job at the Ministry of Trade shortly after the invasion. She was unemployed for many years but, with the help of the women’s centre, has retrained as a nurse at the local hospital, where she treats many victims of ongoing sectarian and gang violence.

I interview another woman in her sixties with a kind, doughy face. She has just retired from the Ministry of Finance today, she says proudly. But when she tells me her story, her demeanour changes.

‘All the troubles started in 2006. We were living in Hurriya (in north Baghdad), and one day my daughter, who was a medical student – she was at the top of her class,’ she says, the sense of pride briefly returning to her face, ‘she was killed in the crossfire between a Sunni militia and American forces. Soon after that we were forced to flee to this neighbourhood by the Mahdi army [a Shi’a militia]. We had to leave everything behind.’2

I pause for a moment to take in this tragedy. Haydar motions that we have stayed too long already. It’s never good to stay too long in one place these days. But what can I possibly say to this woman?

‘Well,’ I begin tentatively, ‘is life a little better economically these days?’

‘Yes,’ she admits, mentioning that her Government salary increased by over one hundred per cent in the last decade – from just $2 a month at the height of the sanctions regime.

‘But what good is money without my daughter? I would give anything to have her back.’

I bid goodbye to Sabah and the others and leave looking sad like an Iraqi woman.

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