Iraqi Women Have Lost the Post-War Rapes, Sequestrations, and a Return to the Veil Develop.
By Marie-Laure Colson
Tuesday 02 September 2003
"The Islamist extremist groups are here to stay. Women take the veil as the price for tranquility." - Yanar Mohammed, Organization for the Freedom of Women in Iraq.
BAGHDAD | In the street one sees only them. Head-bare women are so rare they're called "Christians" even if they're not. At the end of the afternoon when the temperature drops to a tolerable level and families do their shopping, feminine hair is veiled in a scarf that uncovers a few strands, in a hijab, or in an abaya, the black cape that uncovers nothing but the face.
Fear of Violence, Fear of Insult.
"Almost all my colleagues have changed their behavior", says Dr. Enas Al-Hamdani, one of the officials of the Al-alwaya Hospital. "Those who have never worn the veil put it on to avoid problems. They don't wear make-up any more, or jewelry." She herself is coiffed with a light scarf. She doesn't drive anymore. Either her husband or her bodyguard, the new accessory for the comfortable classes, accompanies her from the hospital to her clinic.
Women who don't work live with their curtains drawn; their doors open to pale faces and dark-circled eyes. "Fear prevents us from going out", whispers Virgin. She continues to make pastries, but entertains no longer since Saddam's fall, hangs around the house in Bermuda shorts and flip flops. Her neighbors have rejoined their son in the United States. The daughter of her neighbor from across the street is in bed, in shock since some men tried to drag her into their car by force. Virgin doesn't understand the world that surrounds her anymore: "Those kinds of stories were rare under the old regime. Today, anything can happen. Listen, two weeks ago a family was coming home on foot. Armed criminals stopped their car, threatened the father, then raped the mother and the daughter in front of him. All the women say the same thing: we mustn't go out. Even my little daughter, I won't let her past the threshold."
Security has become an obsession in Baghdad. In this chaotic parenthesis the capital is experiencing under American tutelage, women feel particularly vulnerable. According to a Human Rights Watch report published in mid-July, there were at least 25 rapes and kidnappings of women between the end of May and the end of June in Baghdad. Before the war, the police recorded one case every three months on average. "Since the beginning of the war, more than 400 women have been raped, kidnapped, and sometimes even sold," asserts Yanar Mohammed, of the Organization for the Freedom of Women in Iraq. "Family and clan ties have become so suffocating, they prefer to hide or disappear."
The least incident takes on dramatic proportions, even in the most open families. Sawsan, in trousers with her hair up, left the medical office where she works, when three men opened the door to her car: "They insulted me. I wept, certain that they were going to carry me off. Fortunately, a friend arrived. I begged him not to talk about it; otherwise my brother would keep me from going out." In Baghdad, "many women prefer to give up working" contends Human Rights Watch. The home is no longer a refuge: "Men are unemployed: they live as recluses, frustrated, and domestic violence is on the rise", declares Basma al-Khateb of Unifem, a United Nations agency. "Saddam is no longer here, but he lives on in men's heads", sighs a nurse.
Rapes were first attributed to settling of accounts, revenge against families from the fallen regime. Four months after the end of operations, no one speaks of anything but violent crime: "Armed men want to steal a car, they make the man get out, and keep the woman, whom they'll rape, kidnap for ransom, or sell to other criminals", summarizes a police officer who has received thirty complaints of this nature since Saddam's fall. Enas Al-Hamdani avers that the incidence of rape is declining, even though the fear for tomorrow is there, heightened by the emergence of Islamic radicals on the political scene.
The Christian Virgin expects to wear the long voluminous skirts of Muslim women. "Women are convinced they'll take over," says Yanar Mohammed. "Islamist extremist groups are here to stay. Women put on the veil as the price for their tranquility. In these temperatures, it's a real punishment. All the more so as, in Baghdad, women enjoyed a certain freedom. We had, in that regard, the most advanced Constitution in the Arab world, even if it wasn't always applied." The first Arab women to be ambassadors, doctors, military or high officials were Iraqis; however appeals to Saddam from Muslim dignitaries in the nineties obscured their status. Women under 45 years old found themselves forbidden from traveling without the "protection" of a male relative. Polygamy was encouraged to "help" the war widows. That was also an era of honor crimes and of decapitations for women accused of prostitution.
The hard years of the embargo, the propaganda of the former regime, and religious restoration have isolated women more effectively than abayas. There's nothing unusual in Iraq today about repeating self-contradictory rumors. For example, there are three young women attorneys, trained at Baghdad University, who wear the hijab, and who assure you that they exercise their profession thanks to Saddam and contrary to the advice of the UN. They assert that they want to become judges, yet nevertheless approve the religious fatwas against the coalition's attempt to name a woman judge in Nadjaf. "In a general way, our society is not much interested in the question of sexual equality," states Basma al-Khateb, "and women, myself first of all, don't know their rights."
Islands of Militancy
Today one finds little islands of militancy for the equality of women among Iraqis returned from exile. At the time she was putting together the team for her paper in Baghdad, Ka s Jewad, after thirty years in France, took care to engage as many men as women, including young Muslim women dressed in western style, who don't hesitate to break off an engagement with a fianc e who tries to impose the veil on them.
The writer Jabbar Yassin Hussin, back in the country after a twenty-seven year exile, is optimistic: "my sister, who wore a miniskirt in the seventies, put on a veil during the Saddam years. The veil was a sort of consolation for her, practically a sign of mourning. Since I've been back, she's taken it off." He's one of those who believe that women's physical and psychic imprisonment is temporary: "Iraq will modernize itself. We're still in the provisional. When a government, an administration, are in place, the veils will end up in shreds." In the meantime, the first post-Saddam government counts only one woman among the twenty-five ministers.
Translation: Truthout French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.
Jump to TO Features for Wednesday 03 September 2003