Women Under Siege | The Nation


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.

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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!"

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