In Iraq, Women Fight A Separate War For Freedom

Author : Maureen Fan, San Jose Mercury News

Baghdad: Everywhere you turn, men are in charge — directing traffic, organizing demonstrations, conducting business, running schools where most of the teachers are women. But Iraqi men may find themselves in an awkward spot if the United States succeeds in grafting majority-rule democracy onto a society with a long legacy of chauvinism and cultural divisions. Men are the minority. Solidly.

Today, because of the ravages of three recent wars, women account for almost 60 percent of Iraq’s population. And, having already tasted some freedom under a secular government in the 1970s, they are increasingly vocal about prying loose the vise-like grip men have held on Iraqi society for generations. “Women in Iraq are used to the idea that they can participate,” said Mahnaz Afkhami, President of the Women’s Learning Partnership in Washington, which helps women’s groups in many Muslim countries. “They expect more, and they are ready to take on more.”

In public meetings, in private interviews, on their own and in front of officials, dozens of women and the men who support them are calling for the kinds of rights and privileges for women commonly found in the West. Whether they are 16 or 64, rich or poor, Christian, Kurdish, Sunni or Shiite, there is a unanimity to what many Iraqi women are saying these days. Among their goals: the end of restrictive laws that apply only to women; the ability to wear what they please so long as “social traditions” are respected; domestic shelters for abused women; positions as government ministers; more help in the home; an equal shot at attending university, and equality in women athletes.

“We need everything. We need an organization for women, we need a newspaper for women, we need informal groups talking about women, we need a connection with the outside world,” said Khadeja Muhsin, 38, a Shiite and a nursing school administrator. In the months since Saddam was driven out of Baghdad, Iraqi women say their struggle has become more urgent, as security decreases and as hard-line clerics have filled the power vacuum, decreeing in the name of Islam that women cloak themselves head to toe or that that they not leave the house without a male relative.

In the home and in the workplace, women young and old are fighting what one called their own “little Saddams.” They’re tangling with male colleagues who resent their authority, battling fathers and husbands who order them to stay home, and signing up to promote women’s rights. Some are taking giant steps — divorcing an abusive husband. For many others the struggle starts small — refusing to cook, for example. “Today I have prepared no lunch for my family and I don’t care!” said Asma Bahjat, a 40-something homemaker with two boys and a psychology degree. She recently joined about 200 women demanding their rights at a former clubhouse for Saddam’s cronies. “It took two hours to get here,” Bahjat said. “I asked my son, `Are you proud of me because I’m going and I’m not cooking lunch?’ And he said yes!”

For the past 15 years, since the end of devastating war with Iran, women have borne the brunt of economic sanctions, been concerned only with looking after their families and have not had a chance to think about the outside world, said Muhsin, the nursing administrator. “I’m not worried about who will take over the government because I am free now. I have the opportunity to talk to the press, to speak on television, to object to government decisions, and if we have women’s organizations, they can also object. Something here has changed,” Muhsin said, putting her hand over her heart.

Unlike women in Afghanistan, Iraqi women are fighting for freedoms they once had and lost. While these women vied for university seats and suffered from drastically lower literacy rates, they were allowed to vote, work, drive, and hold political office, even under Saddam’s Baathist regime. But in the early 1990s, in order to appease the majority Shia population that he so brutally put down during the Gulf War, Saddam began building enormous mosques, required children to attend Islamic studies, banned women from traveling without male relatives and allowed husbands to have up to four wives, one of the tenets of Sharia law not previously permitted in Iraq. Women retreated to the home.

Those who did not retreat have encountered the difficulties women worldwide have faced in workplaces and public spaces that once were the exclusive domains of men. Esther Oshana is a veteran of that battle of the sexes. Tough but weary, the 50-year-old head nurse of Baghdad’s largest and oldest hospital walks the halls, ordering male staffers to don uniforms, take temperatures more often and stop reading newspapers on the job. She has been at Yarmuk Hospital for 23 years, 11 as head nurse. Never has her job been so difficult. Her eyes fill with tears as she patrols crowded hallways talking about missing supplies and hospital workers accusing each other of corruption, theft and secret Baath party membership. “These days it is especially difficult for women. If you do your job well, they threaten you. If I ask why were you absent, why are you without your uniform, they say, `this is the new freedom,'” Oshana said. “If I was young and a student now, I would just stay in the house. There is no trust; people are still threatening each other, accusing each other, saying that Saddam will return and the Americans will go.”

She is fighting for women’s rights in the hospital, fighting each day for doctors who face resistance and resentment from male colleagues and subordinates. But she is weary. After 23 years, she longs to retire. “If they will give me a visa,” she said “I will go straight to America.” Many women blame their former president for their predicament. “What Saddam did was destroy our society and our manners,” said Suhair Mehdi, a Shiite who has an engineering degree but works as a secretary for about $100 a month. “If you came to Iraq 10 to 20 years ago you would seen a different kind of Iraqi woman. She had the right to work even at night. We were alive, as a nation. I am 33 years old, and I can’t say that I have lived yet.”

Women also are being hampered and threatened by increasing reports of sexual violence and abduction of women and girls in Baghdad. A Human Rights Watch report in July found women and girls failed to report abuse because they feared being ostracized, and becoming victims of “honor killings.” In the Al-Sena’a neighborhood of Baghdad, Shereen Husny, 16, is not allowed to walk the two minutes from her home to her father’s beauty salon for fear of being kidnapped. “I’m not allowed to act my age. I can’t go to clubs or jog in the streets. I can only do sit-ups inside the house,” said Husny, a Britney Spears fan who favors tight studded jeans and rhinestone-encrusted T-shirts — but only indoors. “There is no future for women in Iraq,” she complains. “If I wear this, people try to attack me. I need the freedom to go out alone, and to drive a car without thinking they will steal the car and steal me.”

Even strict Shia women who closely follow the instructions of their conservative imams say they, too, want more freedom, along with security. Dr. Amal Kashif Al-Ghita’a, a 55-year-old Islamic studies teacher from a prominent clerical family in Najaf, said decrees handed down by religious councils have no value if no one follows them. “We need to convince people to do things, not just impose orders,” she said through a translator as she defended her right to wear the full-length black abaya. “We need to guarantee the professional, political and economic freedom for women. We also need family rights for women, who are sometimes beaten, sometimes badly treated on a wide scale.” But such changes will not come easily.

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, who has made it clear he wants women to be active in a new government. But any legal reforms to protect women, for example, are likely to come out of a constitutional convention much later down the road. American officials are treading carefully on women’s rights in the home, even though it tops the list of demands of many Iraqi women. “It’s a very sensitive subject. Obviously under Islamic Sharia law men are allowed to have four wives,” said Bremer’s spokesman, Charles Heatly. “We are trying to step gently on those issues. We’re not even at the stage really where we’re prepared to say we believe there should be a division between religion and the state in this country. We are prepared to say we think ourselves that a division between religion and the state is the best way for a modern country to guarantee democracy and stability in their country.”

The delicate balance underscores the fact that while more and more women are speaking out, progress is being measured in steps rather than strides. Even in Baghdad, which is more modern than other parts of Iraq such as the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, Bremer’s staff has had trouble finding enough women to take active political roles. Of the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council, three are women. For all the resistance the powerless majority is getting from the ruling minority, some Iraqi men acknowledge that their country now needs all the help it can get — and that 60 percent of the population might just be a talent pool worth exploring. “I hope women will have a good future in Iraq,” said Munther Gorbas Hussein, 45, who attended a meeting at the League of Iraqi Women with his wife, Waheed Alwan Said, 38. “They are tired, they are sad, they are trapped in the house. I hope all men will agree with me. Women can be lawyers, ministers. We have a lot of women who are educated, active, who quit college because society was so repressive. Now they are coming back.”