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Women Under Siege | The Nation

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Women Under Siege

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All the shades are drawn in Raba's house on a wide residential street in one of Baghdad's more affluent neighborhoods. Small daughters and nieces streak through a well-appointed living room, leaving giggles and shrieks in their wake, as their young mothers and aunts sip Pepsi from cans and make wry comments in the darkened space. None of these women leave this home, even so many months after the war came to its so-called end. And Raba, a usually spunky twentysomething, is afraid even to stand in her own doorway. "Before the war we were out until 2 o'clock in the morning all the time," she says. "Now I don't even bother to put on my shoes."

Lauren Sandler investigated issues of women and culture in Iraq on behalf of the Carr Foundation.

About the Author

Lauren Sandler
Lauren Sandler, who writes about media and culture, lives in New York.

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Millions of women have found themselves living under such de facto house arrest since the coalition forces claimed Baghdad in April. They have been forced into this situation by a menacing triple threat that has emerged since the war: First, Saddam Hussein threw open the doors to his prisons in October 2002, releasing criminals onto Iraq's tightly policed streets. Then came the fall of the regime and the concomitant crumbling of law enforcement. And now, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is treating a growing human rights crisis for women as an extracurricular issue at best, leaving women at the mercy of thugs on the streets and the religious parties that have rushed into the political vacuum. Upwards of 400 women have been kidnapped in this city alone, according to various women's groups, and each horror story ripples with alacrity throughout each neighborhood. Raba's story is one of them. As she leans forward to fuss over a tiny niece, her auburn curls part to show a jagged line of black stitches that vertically bisect her scalp. "My wound from the war," she says with a sardonic laugh.

Raba and her fiancé were driving late one summer evening in his Toyota RAV 4 when they were attacked by a band of men engaged in a popular and profitable postoccupation occupation: carjacking. As they were violently booting the fiancé from the car, one of the men decided that Raba would make a nice addition to the evening's spoils. But as he was attempting to rape her in the back seat, the intrepid--more furious than afraid, she says--Raba pulled open the door handle and flung herself from the speeding car. The next day, her fiancé and her brother went to the police station to report the stolen car. They didn't file anything regarding the attempted rape, since, as she says, neither they nor the cops were interested.

"What did I learn from all of this? That what's important here isn't a woman's life, but a nice car," she says, closing the subject. She's more interested in talking about how she hasn't heard a word from her fiancé since the incident, and our conversation spirals easily into a lengthy eye-rolling and hand-squeezing conference on men and commitment--the sort of thing we should be discussing over brunch, or window shopping in the Mansour district, which everyone says is very fashionable but which these days feels like a ghost town. It's impossible for Raba and her relatives to imagine feeling safe anywhere but in this room these days, her sister comments as she jumps at the sound of what we hope is just a car backfiring outside. "You can't imagine what this time has done to us," she says. "This is not how anything was supposed to be."

If you talk to women throughout Bagdhad, from the brave few who venture out to beauty salons--some of which are now being targeted by fundamentalist groups--to many others at their dining tables, "This is liberation?" emerges as a constant, insistent refrain. Not that they feel any great nostalgia for life under Saddam. Far more women here have stories about husbands and sons who disappeared into mass graves and torture prisons under Saddam than tales of nieces and female neighbors who have gone missing since the war. And sexual violence was a hallmark of a regime that employed men to hold the job of "Violator of Women's Honor," who would videotape themselves raping the wives of men the regime perceived as suspect. But as women here will remind you, the advantage to living under a police state is that the streets feel safe. As demeaning, terrifying and tragic as life under a dictator was for Iraqis, threats were not random acts from random criminals but rather tightly controlled, deliberately deployed terrors. These days the sheer unpredictability of violence is what makes the fear so pervasive. Then, women may have been afraid to step out of line, but now they're afraid even to step outside their homes alone.

It's not hard to find women in Baghdad who tell stories of life since the war that make Raba's tale seem like a lucky break. Eighteen-year-old Zainab and 14-year-old Hanaa can't use their real names, since every day outside the semivacant office building they call home, a man who wants to kill them sits parked in a white car. The two girls were abducted and gang-raped in August when heavily armed former neighbors of theirs burst into their front door late one evening. After several hours of torturous violence at gunpoint Zainab escaped. Hanaa wasn't so fortunate. She spent the next week blindfolded in an abandoned house. Each night her abductors would tell her she was to be sold the next day in the north, as part of a growing ring of trafficking in abducted women. But word got out that Zainab had gone to the police, and so they dropped Hanaa off at her doorstep with the threat that if she told anyone what had happened to her, her family would be murdered. Now every day the girls sit at home in pajamas in the empty rooms they share with their mother and small brother watching their sole luxury, a black-and-white television. Their captors were a prominent Baathist's son and his newly released felon cronies. "What do you expect?" said Zainab when I first met her in the hours before the gang dropped a trembling Hanaa at the door, when she thought she might never see her sister again. "They let out the criminals. They got rid of the law. Here we are."

Zainab and Hanaa say their only hope rests with the Iraqi police--a cruel irony. It turns out that once the police impounded the car used to abduct the sisters, they closed the case. The lead investigating officer, a portly, chain-smoking man with a shaved head named Major Hasan, refused to term the case kidnapping because the captors were known by the girls in their old neighborhood. "They knew them, yes? So how is it kidnapping?" he says. His treatment of the case is hardly unique--it's standard practice. "All cases that have to do with kidnapping, they are lies, they are not real. And after the war we haven't received any case of rape," says a thickly mustached Lieut. Khalil Majid Ahmed, who manages the all-male-staffed precinct. My questioning of this assertion was met with livid bellowing. "Has anyone tried to assault you? No? So how can you judge? This subject should be closed!" His second in command--with matching mustache--named Lieut. Col. Ra'ad Heider, elaborated vehemently, "Iraqi society has customs and traditions that keep us very well served. No American values are practiced here. Things that have to do with women, rape, that kind of thing--we will never follow American values!"

To women who remember the days before the cultural shifts that followed the Baathist seizure of power in 1968, when freedom from rape was an Iraqi value, not a Western construct, it's this misogynistic culture that is an imposition. "Do you think this is the real Iraq?" says Amal Al-Khaderi, a member of Baghdad's intelligentsia who remembers a very different life here. "This is Iraq since the wars. This Iraq where women are covered, stay inside, do not speak their mind, this is not Iraq, not the real Iraq." Today's Iraqi culture is a multilayered and deeply complicated dish of still-living ancient tribal traditions, varying forms of Islam and the vestiges of a modern secular society that not so long ago saw miniskirted women working for equal pay, heading ministries and demonstrating for equality throughout the nation's cities. Under Saddam those women receded from view as their groups were outlawed and their rights stripped. Today, when associations like the Iraqi Women's League, the oldest such group in the country, are allowed free speech and organization, subjects like rape go unmentioned for fear of angering the newly empowered religious authorities. "We can't even mention such things," says founding member Wassan Al Souz, who shudders in frustration at the situation in which she finds her group. "Just like under Saddam, the problem is the barrier of fear" in this insecure environment, she says.

That is also why women's groups like the league have decided they cannot take on the penal code Saddam enacted in 1990, which obliterated most rights of women. "What is law? Something you write with a pencil," the dictator once said flippantly, explaining why he could change laws at will and ignore the Iraqi Constitution, which guaranteed equal rights for men and women. His laws remain what the police as well as judges, even women judges I met, enthusiastically continue to enforce since the war. Laws permit a man to take up to four wives, and they deny women rights in issues of inheritance and divorce. Then there are laws like Article 427, which states that a rapist is not guilty of rape if he marries his victim. Or Article 409, which prescribes leniency for any man who murders his female relative if she has had sexual intercourse--including rape--that could dishonor the family.

At the CPA's interim Ministry of Justice, a row of cubicles crammed into a marble stateroom in Saddam's former Baghdad palace, Zakia Hakki taps away at her keyboard with long fingernails. This elegant woman wrapped head to toe in black, who was one of Iraq's first women judges, had just been hired by the CPA to make recommendations about legal reforms. At first she seems like a true flash of hope for women's rights within the occupation--a progressive past as an activist in Kurdistan, a strong connection to her country, a history of work and study in Washington. But after some prodding she begins to describe the legal reforms she imagines, and the complex ideological contradictions that bind so many Iraqi women present themselves. For all her talk of change, Hakki does not believe Saddam's laws should be jettisoned. "Take polygamy," she says. "We need to change the law. If a man is going to take another wife, it can only be because she is mentally ill, sexually dysfunctional, can't have a child or has AIDS. You know, things like that. We can't just let men do whatever they want just because they want it. We need rules." The new rules, of course, sound awfully similar to the old ones, but she justifies her modest approach simply: These laws exist to protect the sanctity and longevity of the family. And in this country that has known nothing for decades but fear, the family and a strong and self-protecting tribal culture represent the only hope for stability and comfort.

Tension between protecting the family and protecting women's rights is a common theme in Iraq, when women gab over lunch in their homes or discuss politics in the heavily guarded meeting rooms of the CPA compound. This past September, I spoke with Governing Council member Aquila al-Hashimi in the marble jewel box of a building that only recently housed a segment of the fallen regime and now serves as the council headquarters. As a member of the previous Ministry of Foreign Affairs, al-Hashimi was not allowed to leave the country without a male relative, so fierce was the notion that women, even ones in high positions, needed to be protected. This perceived need to protect women, said al-Hashimi, was inextricably linked to the central concept of honor. And honor worked to represent not just men's interests but those of the families they headed. It was the ideal of protecting the family that made the law codes, and the culture that absorbed them, palatable to women. "Take honor killings," said al-Hashimi. "They only exist to protect the family. That may sound crazy, but it is simply a question of culture." (Two days after our conversation, al-Hashimi was fatally shot, leaving only two women on the Governing Council.)

The women who live in fear of "honor" killings have little support in Iraq, as Hadil Jawad attests. After Jawad ran off with her neighbor--a man her family passionately disapproved of--eight years ago, her parents and brother made regular visits to her husband's family's home in the hopes that the couple would arrive and they could make good on their desire to murder their daughter, or "wash the scandal," as it is called here. She and her husband returned to Baghdad after living on the lam before the war, Jawad says, but she still expects every day to be recognized by a relative who will put an end to her life. "I am scared to run into my brother and my uncles, and yet I am still dying to hear news of my family," she sighs. Each time a woman is raped or even kidnapped--since most families assume that the kidnapping of a woman results in rape--her life is endangered not just by her abductors but by her closest relatives. "A lot of women are like me," says Jawad, beginning a litany of horror stories. Jawad, who unlike most women in this city refuses to cover her long wavy hair with the hijab, or headscarf, blames Islam and its Sharia law for the culture that she says makes certain her future murder.

Other women activists are doing their best to work within the Islamic system, like Manal Omar, a Muslim American who heads the Iraq field office of the Washington-based group Women for Women International. When Omar was attempting to set up work-training programs for women here, she was astonished to hear many women say that they would be breaking Islam's tenets if they took jobs. Omar's response was to approach Shiite clerics throughout the country and convince them to issue fatwas permitting women to work. "It's not news that Islam and women's rights can coexist--I mean look at me," she says, a round face full of urban American attitude glowing from under her hijab.

Many Iraqis are hopeful that Islamic leaders will take it upon themselves to institute changes in favor of women. Maybe--but I had to wonder what kind of liberation that would be when I visited a small mosque in Salam City one Friday afternoon. Mosques in Iraq open their main spaces only for men to pray, but this one had announced the seemingly radical decision to offer the space for a women's service instead. That first Friday, more than a hundred women formed lines of black abayas (the garment that covers all but a woman's face, hands and feet), performing the elaborate kneeling and standing choreography of Friday prayer in the stifling space. The two-hour service was broken by a solemn sermon, in which the prayer leader repeated for upwards of ten minutes the importance of waking two hours early to prepare meals for husbands and children and to clean the house so that prayer attendance would in no way interrupt domestic duties. "We used to talk about equality," said Hanaa Edwards, an Iraqi activist, after hearing about the service. "Now we only talk about this kind of advancement."

A few do still talk about equality, most notably Yanar Mohammed, whose bare arms in this sweltering country would be enough to establish iconoclasm, even leaving aside the radically secular group she has founded since the war, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq. Mohammed travels with bodyguards and packs a pistol in her compact handbag because of the death threats she has received for her very public views. She has appeared on Al Jazeera arguing that the hijab constitutes a form of slavery for women--a view not very popular in a country where Shiite extremists have been invading university classrooms with machine guns to threaten women who will not cover their heads, as they have been doing since summer exams began in occupied Basra. "Who should we fear more these days, these religious fascists or the men who are kidnapping and raping women?" she says, her dark eyes shining in anger.

But talk to Mohammed about how to establish a secular democracy and impossible contradictions abound. "Of course everyone should be given a free vote," she says, "and of course we should have a secular government." The trouble is, it's likely that only a small minority of Iraqis would use their votes to such ends. Indeed, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the cleric who has the ear and esteem of the majority of Shiites, who in turn make up the majority of the country, recently proposed that Islam be "considered a main source for the constitution," according to Jalal Talabani, current president of the Governing Council. This will surely add momentum to a constitutional process already on that track. The council's appointed Constitutional Provisional Committee (an all-male gang) had intimated that an Iraqi constitution would need to have a distinctly Islamic flavor. Now Sistani and his representatives want the general public to elect the constitution's drafters--a move that would almost certainly ensure a Sharia-based constitution, which does not bode well for women's rights.

For women, moreover, the sad irony is that while many Iraqis would see any attempt to help them as a US ploy (à la Colonel Heider), the coalition is doing nothing to help them anyway. In the aftermath of so many failed wars, Saddam played the misogyny card as a way of appealing to the millions of Iraqi men who felt their masculinity had been robbed by defeat, and then poverty. The absence of action on the part of the coalition is, in effect, doing much the same thing, sacrificing women to the larger cause of currying favor with an increasingly restive male population.

When the coalition claimed Saddam's palaces as its own and sought to establish legitimacy and control with existing non-Baathist structures, the Shiite majority Saddam had violently ostracized was the most organized game in town. But the coalition failed to grapple with the human rights consequences of a power shift in that direction, especially as far as women, who make up 65 percent of Iraq's war-ravaged population, are concerned. While new governmental ministries were created to support various causes like the environment and displaced people, a ministry of women's affairs was immediately rejected. (Instead, a single person is the dedicated "focal point" for women's issues; none of various people who have occupied that revolving-door position have been permitted any real authority within the coalition.) Over dinner in the palace cafeteria one night, when I discussed the accelerating crisis for women with two high-ranking American officials in the Interior Ministry--which oversees police and security--I was told with shocking candor as my pen perched over my reporter's notebook: "We don't do women." It's hardly a dirty secret that our government abroad views women's rights as at most a secondary concern, yet it was thoroughly sobering to hear this lack of interest so casually discussed.

As anticoalition violence erupts with greater intensity, officials retreat farther behind the tank-guarded checkpoints of their security compound, and many of the existing resources of Iraq--the once-great university system, the numerous women's groups that dream of the opportunity to take advantage of their newfound freedom of speech, the millions of educated women who survived the terrors of the regime only to be threatened by random abduction, rape and murder--are being overlooked and squandered in favor of tribal and Islamic structures and the airlifted and imposed rule by US-led committee. The Americans' utter lack of comprehension of what Iraqi women have to offer was apparent at a meeting about women's work prospects, when one well-meaning camouflage-clad officer said to rows of female attendees, including many professionals such as judges and doctors, "Under the occupation, you can think about what work is appropriate for women to do--you don't have to just sew anymore."

Before her death, Governing Council member al-Hashimi warned of putting too much emphasis on what the coalition could accomplish through top-down initiatives. "You must not impose by laws what culture should be. Culture creates laws, not the other way around," she said. Of course, laws can provide a buffer when culture fosters human rights abuses. But al-Hashimi's ideas resonate with many people working to address the difficulty of life as an Iraqi woman, like Hanaa Edwards, whose group, called Al Amal (Arabic for "hope"), is instituting human rights training courses for women throughout Baghdad, modeled on a program thousands of women have attended in the more liberal Kurdish north. "I used to think in terms of political reform," says this veteran of the 1960s student movement. "Now I think about the grassroots. Now, humanitarian assistance is what's important." It is perhaps unimaginable now that the governing authority could work at the grassroots level as well, establishing shelters for women in need, or reforming the social infrastructure, which now requires women who have been raped to undergo a forensics test at the morgue and counsels women seeking divorce to work it out with their husbands.

Unless the coalition and the conservative tribal and religious authorities of Iraq are somehow compelled to recognize that women are crucial to the future of the country--not just as mothers and homemakers but as full members and leaders of Iraqi society--the current situation is not likely to improve. Which means, for example, that men will continue to have the right to marry additional wives without spousal permission, except if Hakki's reforms pass, in which case they would have to demonstrate their wife (or wives') sexual dysfunction or mental illness. Hadil Jawad will continue to live under threat, knowing that if her brother or father or uncle sees her he may shoot her in the head, or strangle her with a rope, or stab her to death with a kitchen knife, as a member of the Iraqi police nonchalantly described the manner of so many honor killings. Zainab and Hanaa will continue to believe that the Iraqi police force that ignores them is in fact safeguarding them as they hide out at home. And each day it becomes less likely that Raba and the millions of women like her will stay out until 2 o'clock in the morning any time soon.

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