Saturday 24 May 2003
Baghdad -- From the barren concrete courtyard of al-Rahmah Orphanage, the view outside the squeaky iron gates reveals a dozen acres of hostile desert encircled by three prisons and a mental hospital.
But even this desolate playground now is mostly off-limits to the 26 girls who live at the orphanage.
In the chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein last month, the Hawza,
a powerful group of senior Shiite Muslim clerics, took over al-Rahmah. In the name of security and Islamic values, the new management stationed 12 armed guards around the perimeter and confined the girls to two rooms in one of the building's four wings.
To make sure the boys and the girls didn't mingle, Hawza guards built a brick wall separating the girls' wing from the rest of the building.
"This is the only way we can control the girls in an Islamic fashion. It is really better this way," said Sheikh Bakr Saadi, the orphanage manager appointed by the Hawza.
With a violent crime wave still engulfing Baghdad, even the girls say they have no alternative.
"For now, the most important thing for us is to be protected," said Sahat Karim, 14, clad in a brown gown several sizes too big for her. "Most of all, we need security and safety. The Hawza gives us that."
The powerlessness of American troops to provide security in postwar Iraq is helping Shiite clerics gain leverage in many parts of the country. Religious leaders have set up their own administration, rivaling the American one, in the eastern half of Baghdad, mainly in the derelict Shiite enclave of Sadr City, taking control of hospitals, schools and orphanages.
"They replace Saddam's portraits with verses from the Koran," said Ban Dhayi, a spokeswoman in Baghdad for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "They make children in schools, instead of saying 'Hail Saddam,' say 'Hail Islam.' They make girls and women wear hijab (traditional head covering). "
At al-Rahmah, the orphanage's 26 boys roam freely around the courtyard. But the girls, ages 5 to 20, are allowed outside for only two hours in the evening.
They spend the rest of the day indoors, mopping the floors over and over, playing with a ball -- the only toy left after looters swept through -- and reading the sole book available: the holy Koran.
"Groups like the Hawza are taking over people's confidence because people no longer have confidence in the Americans," said Amal Khodhairi, a grande dame of the arts establishment whose Beit al-Iraqi culture center was a favorite place of liberal Iraqis until it was looted last month.
"These groups are the only ones left with some semblance of structure," Khodhairi said. "They feed people, protect them, but they are limiting. They stay in the past, with their outdated ideas. They force limitations on people. They want Iraq to become extremist."
FREEDOMS UNDER HUSSEIN
Although Hussein's secular Baath Party created one of the world's most despotic regimes, it allowed Iraqi women personal rights and freedoms unparalleled in the Persian Gulf. Women could drive, travel abroad alone, study in universities, serve in the army and work side-by-side with men. Iraqi women, who make up at least 55 percent of the population and are among the most educated in the region, can become anything, from college professors to lawyers. They choose whom to marry and whether to marry at all.
In lawless Baghdad, however, safety is now more prized than freedom.
"We have heard of many problems for the children -- and girls in particular -- of abductions, vendettas, children of former Baathists being targeted," UNICEF's Dhayi said.
The true extent of the danger remains unclear, but many parents aren't taking chances.
"Our girls are not safe, not here, not anywhere," said retired military officer Abdel Jaba, 53, as he waited with more than 20 mothers and fathers at the entrance to al-Makasib school for their daughters to finish classes.
Like many of the parents, Jaba escorts his 13-year-old daughter, Yasmin, to school every morning and remains there until she finishes at 12 p.m. He then takes her back to their house, where she stays until the next day.
About 1,000 girls ages 7 to 15 ordinarily attended Catholic-affiliated al- Makasib, which has a reputation for excellence. Security fears have now cut attendance in half.
Sister Yvette Maria, a nun at nearby St. Joseph's convent who has taught theology and Arabic at the school for 34 years, pulled a key from her pocket and said she had prepared a safe house close by for the girls in case they need to escape at short notice.
'NO FUN OUR WHOLE LIVES'
For 13-year-old Tabarek Mahmoud, the fears and insecurity have become too much to bear. Among her friends at al-Makasib school, she exudes an aura of confidence, but in the quiet of the principal's office, Mahmoud begins to shake, and tears roll down her face.
"We have had wars and no fun our whole lives. There is no stability," she said, weeping. "It is so hot. There is no electricity and the light is so dim I am damaging my eyes. I am scared of being attacked, and I see guns everywhere. I just want to enjoy my childhood."
While some parents are escorting their children to classes, others are schooling them at home until the security situation improves. In the meantime, many young women remain virtual prisoners in their homes.
Bassem al-Hassona, 20, a fashionably dressed college business student, has stayed home for more than a month, fearful of venturing outside in a city where armed gangs roam the streets.
"I cannot go out, I can't even buy a present for my friend whose birthday is next week. My female friends are too scared to drive. Everything is bad now, " she said.
"The Americans say they brought us freedom. That's OK. But freedom doesn't mean much to me without security and the chance to live my life."
As the clerics increasingly take advantage of the power vacuum in the country, inspiring calls for Iraq to become an Islamic state, many women wonder if life without Hussein's oppressive regime will mean erosion of liberty they have enjoyed for decades.
"Like all my friends, I worry a lot about my future and my freedom in this new country," said Thanaa al-Taee, 34, an arts critic and a ceramics teacher who is now completing her fourth master's degree.
"I am Shia, but I don't want to wear a scarf on my head," said al-Taee, dressed in bell-bottom jeans and a tight T-shirt. "And I want to be able to work and travel unrestrained. If I can't do it in post-Saddam Iraq, I will have to leave the country."