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Veiled and Worried in Baghdad

New York Times Op-Ed

By Lauren Sandler
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.

"Under Saddam 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 women.

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.

"What's important 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 neighborhood.

"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 scandal."

"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.

Lauren Sandler, a journalist, is investigating issues of women and culture in Iraq for the Carr Foundation.

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