Violence Draws Veil Over Women

BAQUBA — Conditions are particularly difficult for women in Baquba, despite the relative lull in violence. The city, about 40 km northeast of Baghdad, is capital of Diyala province, amongst the most troubled regions of Iraq in recent months.

As in all conflict areas, women, along with children and the elderly, have suffered most. A large number of women have been killed or kidnapped during close to five years of occupation.

Before the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, women in Iraq had jobs and enjoyed civil rights they can hardly dream of any more.

“My neighbour was killed because she was accused of working in the directorate-general of police of Diyala,” resident Um Haider told IPS. “This woman worked as a receptionist in the governor’s office, and not in the police. She was in charge of checking women who work in the governor’s office.”

Killings like this have led countless women to quit jobs, or to change them.

“I was head of the personnel division in an office,” a local woman speaking on condition of anonymity told IPS. “On the insistence of my family and relatives, I gave up my position and chose to be an employee.”

Women’s lives have changed, and they are beginning to look different. They are now too afraid to wear anything but conservative dresses — modern clothes could be a death warrant. The veil is particularly dominant in areas under the control of militias.

“My friend could not recognise his wife when she passed him on her way to school because she had her face veiled,” Najmidden Khamis, a local grocer, told IPS. “Earlier some liked it and others rejected it, but now it is dominant given the lack of law and government.”

“The veil is undesirable in university society,” an academic speaking on condition of anonymity told IPS. “I myself reject the idea because if I do not see the face of my student, how is it possible to tell who it is, or even whether it is a man or woman, especially at examinations?”

But many women do wear the veil because they choose to. “The principles of Islam are that a woman should cover her whole body including the face,” said a local woman employee in a public office. “Uncovering the face is a sin.”

“This matter is controversial,” says the sheikh at a local mosque. “The majority of specialists say that the woman should cover everything except the face and the palm of the hand. Many may put veils on the face because they are forced to.”

That the issue is controversial is clear. “This is a violation and transgression of women’s rights,” a local communist supporter told IPS. It comes on top of severe restrictions on women these days, he said. “A woman is not allowed out of home freely, and she has frequently to be escorted by someone like her husband or her brother.”

Women are paying a price for the occupation in all sorts of ways.

“Women bear great pain and risks when militants control the streets,” Um Basim, a mother of three, told IPS. “No man can move here or there. When a man is killed, the body is taken to the morgue. The body has to be received by the family, so women often go alone to the morgue to escort the body home. Some are targeted by militants when they do this.”

Confined to home, many women live in isolation and depression.

“Women have nowhere to go to spend leisure time,” Um Ali, a married woman, told IPS. “Our time is spent only at home now. I have not travelled outside Baquba for more than four years. The only place I can go to is my parents’ home. Housekeeping and children have been all my life; I have no goals to attain, no education to complete. Sometimes, I can’t leave home for weeks.”

Before the invasion, she said, “we, the family, used to go to Baghdad or other provinces to visit friends and places. We used to go with the children for festivals and vacations.”

“Iraqi women lack the freedom to do anything, and this, of course, depends on the cultural status of the society in which they live,” a local woman told IPS. “The freedom given to women in Baghdad differs from that in Baquba or in the south of Iraq. But society in general and the family in particular enjoy absolute power over the woman nowadays.”

“Women’s status in Iraq needs a great revolution,” the head of a division of the directorate-general of communications, and mother of two children, told IPS. “Things were going very well, but the absence of law that came with the occupation, which created the extremist militants, has ruined the prestige of woman. The bad status is a result of the bad security situation. Any improvement in women’s status means an improvement in the political situation.”

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)