and Worried in Baghdad
New York Times Op-Ed
August 22, 2003
A single word is
on the tight, pencil-lined lips of women here. You'll hear it
spoken over lunch at a women's leadership conference in a restaurant
off busy Al Nidal Street, in a shade-darkened beauty shop in upscale
Mansour, in the ramshackle ghettos of Sadr City. The word is "himaya,"
or security. With an intensity reminiscent of how they feared
Saddam Hussein, women now fear the abduction, rape and murder
that have become rampant here since his regime fell. Life for
Iraqi women has been reduced to one need that must be met before
anything else can happen.
we could drive, we could walk down the street until two in the
morning," a young designer told me as she bounced her 4-year-old
daughter on her lap. "Who would have thought the Americans
could have made it worse for women? This is liberation?"
In their palace surrounded
by armed soldiers, officials from the occupying forces talk about
democracy. But in the same cool marble rooms, when one mentions
the fears of the majority of Iraq's population, one can hear a
representative of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees
the police, say, "We don't do women." What they don't
seem to realize is that you can't do democracy if you don't do
In Afghanistan, women
threw off their burqas when American forces arrived. In Baghdad
the veils have multiplied, and most women are hiding at home instead
of working, studying or playing a role in reconstructing Iraq.
Under Saddam Hussein, crimes against women — or at least
ones his son Uday, Iraq's vicious Caligula, did not commit —
were relatively rare (though solid statistics for such crimes
don't exist). Last October, the regime opened the doors to the
prisons. Kidnappers, rapists and murderers were allowed to blend
back into society, but they were kept in check by the police state.
When the Americans arrived and the police force disappeared, however,
these old predators re-emerged alongside new ones. And in a country
that essentially relies on rumor as its national news, word of
sadistic abduction quickly began to spread.
A young Iraqi woman
I met represents the reality of these rumors, sitting in her darkened
living room surrounded by female relatives. She leans forward
to show the sutures running the length of her scalp. She and her
fiancé were carjacked by a gang of thieves in July, and
when one tried to rape her she threw herself out of the speeding
car. She says that was the last time she left the house. She hasn't
heard a word from her fiancé since he went to the police
station to file a report, not about the attempted rape, but about
his missing Toyota RAV-4.
isn't a woman's life here, but a nice car," she said with
a blade-sharp laugh.
Two sisters, 13 and
18, weren't as lucky. A neighbor — a kidnapper and murderer
who had been released in the general amnesty — led a gang
of heavily armed friends to their home one night a few weeks ago.
The girls were beaten and raped. When the police finally arrived,
the attackers fled with the 13-year-old. She was taken to an abandoned
house and left there, blindfolded, for a couple of weeks before
she was dropped at her door upon threat of death if anyone learned
of what had happened. Now she hides out with her sister, young
brother and mother in an abandoned office building in a seedy
"What do you
expect?" said the 18-year-old. "They let out the criminals.
They got rid of the law. Here we are."
Even these brutalized
sisters are luckier than many women in Iraq. They have no adult
male relatives, and thus are not at risk for the honor killings
that claim the lives of many Muslim women here. Tribal custom
demands that a designated male kill a female relative who has
been raped, and the law allows only a maximum of three years in
prison for such a killing, which Iraqis call "washing the
"We never investigate
these cases anyway — someone has to come and confess the
killing, which they almost never do," said an investigator
who looked into the case and then dismissed it because the sisters
"knew one of the men, so it must not be kidnapping."
This violence has
made postwar Iraq a prison of fear for women. "This issue
of security is the immediate issue for women now — this
horrible time that was triggered the very first day of the invasion,"
said Yanar Mohammed, the founder of the Organization of Women's
Freedom in Iraq.
Ms. Mohammed organized
a demonstration against the violence last month. She also sent
a letter to the occupation administrator, Paul Bremer, demanding
his attention. Weeks later, with no reply from Mr. Bremer, she
shook her head in the shadowy light of her office, darkened by
one of frequent blackouts here. "We want to be able to talk
about other issues, like the separation of mosque and state and
the development of a civil law based on equality between men and
women, but when women can't even leave their homes to discuss
such things, our work is quite hard," she said.
Baghdadi women were
used to a cosmopolitan city in which doctorates, debating and
dancing into the wee hours were ordinary parts of life. That Baghdad
now seems as ancient as this country's Mesopotamian history. College
students are staying home; lawyers are avoiding their offices.
A formerly first-world capital has become a city where the women
have largely vanished.
To support their
basic liberties will no doubt require the deeply complicated task
of disentangling the threads of tribal, Islamic and civil law
that have made the misogyny in each systemic. This is a matter
of culture, not just policy.
But to understand
the culture of women in Iraq, coalition officials must venture
beyond their razor-wired checkpoints and step down from their
convoys of Land Cruisers so they can talk to the nation they occupy.
On the streets and in the markets, they'll receive warm invitations
to share enormous lunches in welcoming homes, as is the Iraqi
custom. And there they'll hear this notion repeated frankly and
frequently: without himaya for women, there will be no place for
democracy to grow in Iraq.
a journalist, is investigating issues of women and culture in
Iraq for the Carr Foundation.