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Iraqi women see little but darkness

Women's rights advocates are skeptical that approval of Iraq's draft constitution would improve their lives.
An Iraqi woman holds a copy of the draft
An Iraqi woman holds a copy of the draft constitution in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, on Thursday.Qassem Zein / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Three school years' worth of unbaked clay pieces have piled up in Hanna Milla's darkened office at Iraq's National Museum of Modern Art: rounded vases, stern masks, a lumpy hawk on its post, all shaped by the hands of young students and smoothed by Milla's coral-tipped fingers. And all waiting to be fired in kilns that have sat without reliable electricity for two years.

Teachers in the museum's warren of classrooms and halls last ran the kilns in January 2003, as students and instructors prepared for what would be their last exhibition as war closed in.

At the exhibition that night, the instructors -- almost all female -- mingled with students and artists, sipped drinks and eyed the displays. For the women, it would be the last late evening for years.

"We stayed . . . until 1 or 2 in the morning," Milla recalled, sounding the nostalgic note heard often now in Iraq.

The art, and the women, have receded to the dark corners. As with women in all wars, those in Iraq have been forced to yield the center to men waving guns. Saturday's vote on a constitution will not improve their lives, Milla and her colleagues say; at this point, they cannot imagine anything that would. They just hope it won't make their existences any worse.

As the constitution was being drafted by rival factions battling for control of Iraq and its future, women, who make up more than 50 percent of the population, were never treated as more than a side issue. None was involved in the backroom dealing. They had to rely on male leaders with other issues on their minds to plead their case.

President Bush has said women's rights is one of the reasons Americans are fighting in Iraq. A Western official in Baghdad said Friday that the proposed constitution was "a good constitution for women, and very frankly that's something we were very insistent upon."

Equal rights?
The draft going before voters Saturday specifies equality regardless of a person's sex and aspires to reserve 25 percent of the seats in the National Assembly for women.

But it also gives each Iraqi household the option of using religious law to decide matters of inheritance, divorce, alimony and other family issues. Rights advocates have said they fear women will be coerced by male relatives into accepting the least favorable interpretations of religious law -- forbidding divorce without a husband's permission, for example, or cutting a daughter's inheritance compared with a son's.

The constitution also sets aside seats for Muslim clerics on the Supreme Court, which will weigh the constitutionality of all laws. In a country where an Iranian-influenced Shiite religious party holds the balance of power, that alarms proponents of women's rights.

"They call this constitution a tent, but they pulled Iraqi women out of this tent," said Zakiya Khalifa Zaidi, 73, a well-known actress who is now an activist.

"The constitution was written in a very tense atmosphere," Zaidi said. "That's why we lost many of our rights amid the chaos."

"Women lost ground in the constitution," agreed Hajim M. Hasani, the speaker of the National Assembly.

Hasani held out hope that ground could be made up if moderate Sunni Arabs, and secular politicians in general, won more seats in the new parliament to be elected in December and were able to counter the fundamentalist tilt of post-invasion Iraq.

Growth of fundamentalism
Shiite marshals roam the southern city of Basra, chastising women for showing a bare arm or calf and beating them for picnicking with male friends. Female lawmakers from the governing Shiite religious parties talk with relish of establishing a husband's right to beat wives -- albeit subject to regulation. Female officials speak with approval of a woman in the southern city of Najaf who was denied a judgeship because of her sex.

Milla says she has seen more and more colleagues retreat under head scarves, saying they fear becoming targets of the fundamentalism, linked to anti-American sentiment, that has been growing since the war.

She has resisted wearing a scarf, or hijab , however, and covers her head only when she goes into a conservative neighborhood. "I feel inside myself that my belief, my heart, is stronger than hijab," she said.

Born in 1952, Milla was a teenager at a time when women in Baghdad and other Muslim capitals, including Kabul and Tehran, wore miniskirts and let their pageboys and flip haircuts lift in the breeze. She graduated from Baghdad's Fine Arts Institute and traveled freely to Russia, Jordan, Egypt and France.

In the 1990s, after the Persian Gulf War, fundamentalism closed in on women as sanctions did on President Saddam Hussein. The government instituted a rule that no woman could travel outside the country without a male relative. Hussein's pride had been stung, Iraqis said, by rumors that the women of Iraq, freer than most of their counterparts in the Arab world, were going abroad to prostitute themselves.

'I used to go out'
Until the spring of 2003, Milla could still move about freely in Iraq. "It was, my God, wonderful," Milla said, sitting in her dark office at a metal desk and chair, furnishings scrounged from the wreckage left by looters. "I used to go out. I used to shop."

When the Americans came, security collapsed. Crime and war shut the door on women.

Milla and the other women in her department are now driven to and from work by male chauffeurs. Milla seldom leaves the house otherwise. She and her colleagues once taught six classes of 30 students each. Today there are 15 students in the whole school. The rest have fled the country or holed up in their homes. Some sent word they would miss this school year but would come after the referendum, hoping for a downturn in violence, Milla said.

One day last week, a handful of young female students in head scarves risked their lives to venture out for art's sake. They worked alongside young men in Milla's drab classroom, smiling, talking and scrutinizing their sculptures.

'Prisoners of their own home'
Milla's own daughters are among the legions of unseen women. Her 25-year-old, a literature graduate, and 29-year-old, who holds a bachelor's degree in science, gave up searching for jobs amid the violence. One donned a head scarf at the request of her husband; the other, like Milla, wears one only when necessary.

"They have become prisoners of their own home," she said.

Was her own life better than those of her daughters? "Of course," she said.

Women "used to complain in Saddam's times," said Milla's colleague, Atika Muhanned Sayeed. "Now, after complaining, they got worse."

Neither woman has seen a copy of the draft constitution. The many amendments, made up to 72 hours before the vote, left them uncertain about just what it held for women, or what it said at all.

The dealmaking also left them deeply skeptical that political leaders would feel bound by the charter. Neither woman plans to vote on Saturday. "It's all just speeches," Sayeed said. "Just words."

Sayeed is nevertheless confident, she said, that Iraqi women need not fear the worst -- a religious government that would force them into full veils and a housebound existence. "This isn't Iran," Sayeed said.

Milla shifted forward on her uncomfortable metal chair but said nothing.

Special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.