Women Fear Their Rights Will End With Hussein Era

Sunday, 27 April 2003 05:27 by: Anonymous
By Laura King
Los Angeles Times

Sunday 27 April 2003

Many in Iraq say their liberties and ambitions may be curtailed if Shiite religious leaders prevail.

BAGHDAD -- Haida Azzawi doesn't wear a scarf to hide her long, flowing hair. She dresses in striped cotton trousers and a colorful T-shirt. She comes and goes from her house as she pleases, unescorted by male relatives.

And she wants to keep it that way.

Like many Iraqi women, the lively 24-year-old, who has a degree in math and statistics from a private college in Baghdad, is happy about the end of Saddam Hussein's rule, but she worries that the change in government could lead to a dramatic erosion of women's freedoms.

"I have never worn hijab, and I don't want to," said Azzawi, referring to the head covering worn by observant Muslim women. "But now I wonder if that is what's in store for the future. That and more things like it."

For decades, Iraqi women -- at least those living in Baghdad and some other big cities -- have enjoyed a degree of personal liberty undreamed of by women in neighboring nations such as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates.

They can drive. They can attend coeducational college classes. They can work outside the home in offices where men work as well. They can inherit property equally with their brothers.

Women make up a large proportion of Iraq's professional class -- doctors, lawyers, engineers, college professors, bank directors, faculty deans. Many are free to choose whom, or even whether, to marry.

But there is a growing sense here that the power vacuum left by Hussein's fall will probably be filled, in large measure, by Shiite Muslim political figures who may seek to impose the conservative social mores that are typical in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south.

Like their society as a whole, Iraqi women are wrestling with a complex and subtle calculus of gains that is yet to be realized, coupled with potentially irredeemable losses, as a result of Hussein's fall.

The Iraqi leader presided over one of the world's most repressive police states, but at the same time his secular, socialist-minded Baath Party provided many women with professional and educational opportunities unparalleled in the region.

"It's all mixed in my mind," said May George, a 41-year-old professor of engineering at Baghdad Technical College. "I am so glad he is gone, yes, but look at this."

She was standing in her shattered office in the college's department of metallurgy and industrial engineering, where looters had smashed windows, scattered documents, set fires that left a still-acrid pall of soot and smoke, and tossed computer terminals out third-story windows.

"It's a reminder to me that where there is change, there is often destruction as well," said George, who was born to a Christian family in the northern city of Mosul. "So I'm worried -- very, very worried -- about whether I can continue with the kind of life and work that I have had until now."

There have been signs that the American-backed transitional government will protect women's rights.

"We will have a very strong, democratic government in Iraq," Jay Garner, the retired U.S. Army general charged with administering postwar Iraq, told questioners last week on a visit to the Kurdish north. "And maybe one day, we will have a woman to govern Iraq."

Whatever the Americans' intent, powerful social forces unleashed by the toppling of Hussein will ultimately come into play, predicted Wamid Nadmi, professor of political science at Baghdad University.

"Iraq is like any Muslim country -- there is a real conservatism, though to a lesser degree here than in some places," he said. "At some point, the direction of the new government will have to reflect that."

Nadmi foresees a split in the months and years ahead not only between the Shiites and the more traditionally secular Sunni Muslims but also between the fundamentalists and pragmatic elements within the Shiite community.

"There is a real question about what kind of a country this should be," he said.

Hussein's Iraq operated on a model in many ways similar to that of the former Soviet Union, with women's rights enshrined in party doctrine.

Iraqi women were afforded some genuine opportunities as a result, but some commonly cited indicators of women's status were artificial ones, said Hana Ibrahim Kafaji, a prominent economist.

"Yes, there were women government ministers and women members of parliament and a few high-ranking women in the structure of the Baath Party, but they were all handpicked loyalists," she said. "It doesn't represent real equality for women."

Some women, like some Iraqi men, said they had been stymied in their careers by their refusal to join the party, or felt that they had to pledge allegiance to advance.

"You have to be a member of the Baath Party to find work in my field," said Azzawi, the young math graduate, who has been unemployed since finishing school. "I want a job, and my family was willing to allow it, but I couldn't find work because of this."

Areij Ibrahimi, 30, a law graduate, said she joined the party because she wanted to pursue a doctorate in international criminal law.

"Otherwise, I would not have been able to continue my studies," she said. "All of us in my class were told to sign a paper saying we supported the government, and we did."

Some women, though, carved out satisfying professional lives regardless whether they were part of the party machine.

At 68, Abla Azzawi, no relation to Haida, is a grande dame of the Iraqi arts establishment. Her work, mainly in mosaics and ceramics, incorporates themes of traditional Islamic decorative art with folk elements and a bold abstract style. She is one of the country's most popular artists, with a Baghdad street named after her.

"I knew many artists, many of them women, whose work was political, and they had to flee the country to find the freedom they needed," she said. "I didn't support the regime, but I didn't encounter trouble with it either. I heard there was art of mine in the house of Saddam. And I just didn't care. It wasn't any honor for me."

She prides herself on always having managed without depending on a man.

"I never married," she said. "I worked, I studied abroad, and I built my house and my art gallery with my own work, by my own hands."

Under Hussein, some professional gains made by women were linked to the terrible cost in young men's lives exacted by the drawn-out war with Iran in the 1980s.

The death toll -- reportedly in the tens of thousands -- was so high that it skewed the country's male-female demographic, making women a pronounced majority.

"At the height of it, you would walk into a bank or a post office and see only women working there," recalled Nadmi, the political science professor. "After the war, some of the men came back and reclaimed their jobs, but many of them did not return."

The debate over women's freedoms in Iraq is not one that resonates outside the big cities. Before and during the era of Hussein, rural women shared few of the gains made by their urban counterparts.

Most are mired in poverty. Virtually none work outside the home, marriages are arranged, and a woman who is seen as having besmirched the family honor faces ostracism or worse.

"They are struggling so -- they do not have good access to medical care, especially for reproductive health," said Kafaji, the economist. "And schooling is much, much more limited. Their lives are very different, and I think change will be very slow in coming out in the countryside, no matter what the new government is like."

Already, in these early postwar days, some women say they are seeing signs that they might be relegated to a more restricted role.

Ibrahimi, the doctoral candidate, comes from a Shiite family but one that is liberal in its outlook. A few days ago, one of her cousins looked critically at her tinted blond ponytail as she was preparing to leave the house.

"He said to me, 'Maybe you should be wearing hijab,' " she said.

Occasionally, Ibrahimi said, she encountered male students -- or even professors -- who told her that higher education for women was a waste of time.

"Before, I didn't pay any attention to them," she said. "But now I feel less secure. I don't know if I can ignore this point of view."

Others, though, are more optimistic. Iraq's needs are so pressing, they say, that everyone's help -- women included -- will be crucial.

"Once you have traveled a certain road, there is no going back," Kafaji said. "You cannot take away everything that women have gained, everything that they are contributing. No one will accept that."

She said that with any measure of freedom at all, the pent-up entrepreneurial talents of Iraqis could transform the country's fortunes.

"Saddam's government killed all initiative, all originality, all new ideas," Kafaji said. "Maybe now some of that will be allowed to flower, and I believe women will be a big part of that."

Azzawi, the math graduate, said she has high hopes for Iraq's future.

"Iraqi women are so smart, so talented, so capable," she said. "I know we can really help rebuild this country."

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Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 13:38