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Baghdad Women Shrouded in Fear
By Azadeh Moaveni
The Los Angeles Times
Monday 26 May 2003
Families' anxiety over risk of rape keeps females out of sight. 0aLawlessness and tradition combine to limit girls' movement.
BAGHDAD -- Every school day morning five fathers stand guard 0aoutside a girls' high school in west Baghdad, making sure their daughters are 0anot kidnapped and raped.
From the opening to the closing tinkles of the school bell, they 0apeer suspiciously into the chaotic street when cars slow down or strangers 0aloiter.
At noon on this day, Mohammed Abdel-Hassan pries his two 0adaughters away from a circle of chatting girls in navy-blue uniforms and takes 0athem home. The next day, five different fathers will have watch duty under the 0ascorching sun, in shifts organized by a newly formed committee of men dedicated 0ato keeping their daughters both safe and in school.
The insecurity that reigns in Iraq is the defining reality of 0apostwar life. But the lawlessness is felt disproportionately by young women and 0agirls who have yet to complete their education.
In one of the most secular capitals in the Arab world, where 0awomen were until recently a visible and integrated part of public life, females 0ahave all but disappeared. Men are the ones doing the shopping, turning up for 0awhat jobs remain and helping plan the future of Iraq with the U.S. 0areconstruction authority.
"There's so little security, and they are vulnerable as girls," 0asaid Abdel-Hassan. "We hear rumors constantly of kidnappings and rape."
In fact, the recorded numbers are small, but in a city with few 0apolice on the street and where law and order are at best tenuous, even talk of 0asuch crimes is enough to stir worry.
The fear of rape in the city is now so widespread that families 0aare rearranging their daily activities around providing security for their 0adaughters. Dedicated fathers such as Abdel-Hassan take personal steps to ensure 0atheir safety at school, but many who are unable or disinclined to take on an 0aadditional burden are simply opting to keep their daughters at home.
"We decided to give up on this school year entirely," said Ziad 0aHussein Ali, who hires out his services as a driver. He said his daughter's 0aschooling is important to him but that his long hours don't allow him to drive 0aher around himself. "Being safe is more important than being a year behind."
In Iraqi society, still shaped by tribal norms that define a 0afamily's honor by its women's reputations, there is no greater shame than rape. 0aRapes are only rarely reported, though, because news of a sexual assault would 0asully a family's name and doom the victim to either marrying her assailant or a 0astigmatized life of spinsterhood.
Even the word "rape" is difficult for Iraqis to utter; they 0agenerally use "kidnapping" as a euphemism.
With the chaotic conditions in the capital, it's impossible to 0aknow the number of rapes that have occurred since the fall of Saddam Hussein's 0aregime in early April. One housewife said she heard that there have been seven; 0aAbdel-Hassan puts the number at 100.
With nothing to counterbalance the rumor mill there is a void 0aof officialdom with the U.S. military still not in full control of the city, and 0athe Iraqi police force collapsed Iraqis believe violent crimes are being 0acommitted with impunity. Prisons are empty, and the thousands of hardened 0acriminals released by Hussein roam the streets.
U.S. officials here said they were concerned about the overall 0alack of security in Baghdad but were not taking specific measures to address its 0aeffects on women. They said women would feel safer as the overall security 0asituation improves.
In many cities outside Baghdad, the situation is more stable and 0acrime does not appear to be as big a problem. But in Baghdad, there seems to 0ahave been little progress in allaying the fears of women in particular.
Iraqi political groups operating in Baghdad are receiving regular 0areports from constituents.
"We've heard very disturbing accounts of abductions of women," 0asaid Qubad Talabany, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an Iraqi 0aKurdish group that controls about half of northern Iraq.
With official reports scarce, rumor is enough for most parents, 0awho intend to keep their daughters tucked away from public life until security 0ais fully restored to the city a process that could take months.
"We hear gunfire all the time, and we don't know who's shooting 0aor why. This makes people even more worried," said Faiza Mahmoud, a high school 0aEnglish teacher who now commutes to work with other teachers in her 0aneighborhood.
As with most of the troubling facets of postwar life here, Iraqis 0asuspect the hidden hand of the old regime.
"These rumors are all being spread by the Baathists," Mahmoud 0asaid. "They want to disrupt everything. They don't want anything to be 0aimproved."
For Um Omar, like other mothers who want to keep their girls in 0aclass and cannot afford a car, that means spending each afternoon in snarled 0atraffic, in taxis that often run out of gas, picking up each of her three 0adaughters at their schools in disparate parts of the city.
"They say even taxis aren't safe, and I'm scared to use them. 0aShould I be using the public buses? I don't know," she said, eyeing the traffic 0awarily.
The compulsion to guard women's honor can be so overwhelming in 0atraditional families that some girls are being locked up at home even when their 0aschools are nearby.
Nour Hassan, 16, has spent every day since the war confined to a 0anarrow apartment in stifling heat, waiting for the two-hour reprieve when the 0aelectricity comes on, so she can turn on the ceiling fan and listen to CDs.
Cut off from her friends by the collapse of the telephone 0anetwork, Nour's daily life has been reduced to a numbing routine: breakfast, 0ahouse chores, lunch, nap, dinner. Most hours the television doesn't work, since 0athere is no electricity, completing her isolation.
Female students at a college in north Baghdad who successfully 0abattled traditional norms for a measure of social independence now fear it will 0abe years before they can regain the prewar normalcy of their lives.
Such activities as meeting friends for dinner, swimming at the 0alocal pool and study dates are now out of the question, and the public places 0awhere young people used to meet cultural centers or social clubs have either 0abeen looted or taken over by bands of Iraqis. They provided rare venues for 0asurreptitious dating, an already tricky endeavor that is now impossible for 0aIraqi young people.
Zeinab, a 24-year-old computer science major who declined to give 0aher last name, would drive her own car to college before the U.S. invasion, but 0anow she's only permitted to leave the house for school with the man she jokingly 0acalls her "driver-bodyguard-chaperon."
The beauty salons she used to frequent for pedicures and 0aconversation are closed, so Zeinab spends much of her long hours at home in 0afront of a mirror, practicing different hairstyles for the day she regains a 0asocial life.
"Girls lost most of their freedom here a long time ago, but now 0awe've lost it all," she said angrily. "They want to protect our honor."