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Women lose ground in the new Iraq

Life has become more difficult for most Iraqis since the February bombing of a Shiite Muslim mosque in Samarra sparked a rise in sectarian killings and overall lawlessness. For many women, though, it has become unbearable.
Zahra Khalid, 30, left, shops in the Al-Laith Compound shopping area in the Karrada district of Baghdad. The other women are shoppers who are reflected in the windows of the storefronts.
Zahra Khalid, 30, left, shops in the Al-Laith Compound shopping area in the Karrada district of Baghdad. The other women are shoppers who are reflected in the windows of the storefronts.Andrea Bruce / Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Browsing the shelves of a cosmetics store in the Karrada shopping district, Zahra Khalid felt giddy at the sight of Alberto shampoo and Miss Rose eye shadow, blusher and powder.

Before leaving her house, she had covered her body in a billowing black abaya and wrapped a black head scarf around her thick brown hair. She had asked her brother to drive. She had done all the things that a woman living in Baghdad is supposed to do these days to avoid drawing attention to herself.

It was the first time she had left home in two months.

"For a woman, it's just like being in jail," she said. "I can't go anywhere."

Life has become more difficult for most Iraqis since the February bombing of a Shiite Muslim mosque in Samarra sparked a rise in sectarian killings and overall lawlessness. For many women, though, it has become unbearable.

As Islamic fundamentalism seeps into society and sectarian warfare escalates, more and more women live in fear of being kidnapped or raped. They receive death threats because of their religious sects and careers. They are harassed for not abiding by the strict dress code of long skirts and head scarves or for driving cars.

Once a progressive country
For much of the 20th century, and under various leaders, Iraq was one of the most progressive Middle Eastern countries in its treatment of women, who were encouraged to go to school and enter the workforce. Saddam Hussein's Baath Party espoused a secular Arab nationalism that advocated women's full participation in society. But years of war changed that.

In the days after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many women were hopeful that they would enjoy greater parity with men. President Bush said that increasing women's rights was essential to creating a new, democratic Iraq.

But interviews with 16 Iraqi women, ranging in age from 21 to 52, show that much of that postwar hope is gone. The younger women say they fear being snatched on their way to school and wonder whether their college degrees will mean anything in the new Iraq. The older women, proud of their education and careers, are watching their independence slip away.

"At the beginning, we were very happy with those achievements and gains, and we were looking for more," said Ina'am al-Sultani, 36, a leader of the Progressive Women's Movement, a nongovernmental organization. "Women are now restrained."

Khalid, 30, whose only visible features as she shopped on a recent day were her round face and long eyelashes, was an accountant at the Planning Ministry until she received a death threat four months ago. She quit, moved to a new home and changed her phone number.

"We're suffering right now," Khalid said, her two sons tugging at her abaya. "The war took all our rights. We're not free because of terrorism."

Hope and fear

Before the war, Sundus Abbas, 38, was a researcher at a governmental organization. After the war, she became a women's rights activist.

After Saddam Hussein was forced out of power, many women like Abbas appeared on television talk shows and wrote newspaper articles challenging traditional views on marriage and other family issues and demanding that women be granted a greater role in government.

"They were there asking for their rights loudly and clearly," said Maysoon al-Damluji, a member of parliament.

There were signs of success. Twenty-five percent of the seats in the new National Assembly were reserved for women. Under Hussein, only one ministry was headed by a woman, Damluji said. Now, of the 38 ministry heads, four are women.

Iraqi women had been earning university degrees since the 1920s. Many earned master's degrees and doctorates and became physicians, engineers and lawyers.

Then came the 1980s war with Iran and the embargo imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Hussein, who began embracing Islamic and tribal traditions as a way to consolidate power, forbade women younger than 45 to travel abroad without a male relative.

Encouraged by Bush, women began to reassert themselves after 2003. But the collapse of security, the absence of the rule of law and the presence of extremist groups have weakened the budding movement, activists said. In the past year, its leaders have received death threats. Politicians have accused them of working in collusion with enemy countries, and police officers have harassed them, activists said.

On June 4, Abbas received an anonymous e-mail at her Baghdad office warning her to leave Iraq within 10 days. Three days later, another e-mail said she would be killed for not complying with the first threat.

She stayed home and canceled her scheduled appearances. A third threat came June 10 in a telephone text message. She recalled thinking that she did not want to be killed in front of her parents, who had already lost a daughter in a U.S. airstrike.

"I left with a feeling of humiliation and bitterness," she wrote in an e-mail from an undisclosed location. "Just imagine, I left my home, my family, my work and my city, for nowhere."

'Psychologically tired'

Aseel Bahjet and her mother shot nervous glances at each other as the 23-year-old spoke to a stranger in a Karrada perfume shop on a recent afternoon. Her mother wore an abaya. Bahjet wore a long black skirt, a black sweater and a head scarf. The shopkeeper closed the door so that no one would see a foreigner talking to the young woman.

Bahjet, a petite figure with pale skin and big brown eyes, recently graduated from Baghdad University with an engineering degree. But she doesn't know what to do with it.

Her mother, Shadam, wants her to stay at home as much as possible, saying she has heard too many stories about young women being kidnapped. Bahjet has nothing to do at home, other than talk to her friends on the phone.

"There's no chance to build our future," she said.

She lowered her voice and spoke slowly as she searched for the right words in English: "I joke that we should go see psychiatrists. All Iraqis are depressed."

Many young women at Bahjet's alma mater worry that they, too, will have nothing to do after they graduate. On a recent afternoon, Enas Moyad sat in an empty classroom at Baghdad University contemplating her future. Ask her if she is depressed, and she's quick to answer: "I'm psychologically tired."

She is 21.

Like many Iraqi parents, Moyad's had encouraged her to go to school. Now they don't.

This month, a Sunni Arab insurgent group asked Sunni students and professors not to attend classes while it "cleanses" the campuses of Shiite death squads. The group later said in a statement that it was canceling the rest of the school year. The threat was circulated so widely that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement urging students to ignore it.

Fearing attacks on the way to campus, Moyad and nine other students have pitched in to hire a Kia minibus to take them there. Some of her girlfriends carry knives in their bags. Others take pistols, she said.

For months, attendance has been falling at the College of Education for Women, where Moyad is in her fourth year. One sociology professor said he had given only two lectures since Sept. 3. Normally, he gives 22 lectures a week.

Moyad, who shows her rebellious side by letting a few dyed blond bangs show from under her green hijab, or head scarf, said she worries about what her degree will do for her in the new Iraq.

"We are afraid that no one will take them," she said.

Stay or leave?

Many educated, professional women have struggled with the question of whether to stay in Iraq.

Muna Nouri, 52, a high school teacher, doesn't want to leave, even if it means having to abide by rules she does not believe in.

As a college student in 1974, Nouri showed off her long black hair. She wore short skirts. She walked around campus with friends who happened to be boys.

As an adult, she and her two daughters -- one is 20, the other 17 -- took walks around their neighborhood in the Hadra district, wearing whatever they wanted.

"I consider myself and my daughters liberated women," she said. "We go out and walk in the street. That was last year even. But this year, it's more difficult. Every day, it's worse than the day before."

The wife of one of the security guards at the mosque across the street, an impoverished woman to whom Nouri had given money, urged her to wear a head scarf for her own good, she recalled.

The day after sectarian violence erupted in Sadr City late last month, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr instructed women to continue wearing their hijabs.

"There are some voices being heard against the hijab, from inside and outside Islam," Sadr said. "I say it will remain a protection for our women and call on our sisters to be patient, not to listen to these voices."

Nouri considers herself a religious woman. She prays and reads the Koran. The Islam she knows does not oppress women, she said.

"I think Islam is more liberated than that," she said.

This year, more than 300 teachers and Education Ministry employees have been killed, according to government reports. Nouri does not want to make herself a target at the all-girls' high school where she teaches. So she wears long skirts and a head scarf to work.

"I don't like it, because I think the women here are very beautiful," she said, speaking by phone because she did not want her neighbors to see a stranger visiting her home. "This scarf is not beautiful."

Like Nouri, Bushra Shimirya, 42, had considered herself an independent woman. That changed dramatically in just a few months, she said. She knew things were bad when she could no longer drive her car.

"Anyone who's in her 20s and drives a car for the first time, you feel very happy and very independent," she said. "Like you can do anything."

Since the Samarra bombings, she said, she has felt she can do almost nothing.

Relatives had seen fliers warning women not to drive. They pleaded with her to stop. She resisted.

Shimirya, who has a doctorate in psychological studies, had been driving since she was 20.

But the stares started to bother her. They came from men anytime they saw her behind the wheel of her 1984 Toyota Crown.

So she hired a car service to take her to her job at Baghdad University. She stopped going out unless it was necessary. No more dinners with her girlfriends. No more walking the streets of her affluent Mansour neighborhood.

"It's become so bad that a woman who drives a car will be slaughtered, and a woman who doesn't put a scarf on her hair will be slaughtered," she said.

When classes ended in July, Shimirya and her husband, an engineer, sold their cars, locked up their large, modern-style house and headed to Dubai.

"I miss my home," she said, speaking by phone from Dubai. "I miss my colleagues at work. I miss my neighbors. I miss my family. I miss the air in Iraq. There is nothing more beautiful than Iraq."