WASHINGTON — Iraq, where women once had more rights and freedom than most others in the Arab world, has turned deadly for women who dream of education and a professional career.
Former dictator Saddam Hussein maintained a relatively secular society, where it was common for women to take up jobs as professors, doctors and government officials. In today’s Iraq, women are being killed by militia groups for not conforming to strict Islamist ways.
Basra police chief Gen. Jalil Hannoon told reporters and Arab TV channels in December that at least 40 women had been killed during the previous five months in that city alone.
“We are sure there are many more victims whose families did not report their killing for fear of scandal,” Gen. Hannoon said.
The militias dominated by the Shia Badr Organisation and the Mehdi Army are leading imposition of strict Islamist rules. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government is seen as providing tacit and sometimes direct support to them.
The Badr Organisation answers to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the Shia bloc in the Iraqi government. The Mehdi army is the militia of anti-occupation Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Women who do not wear the hijab are becoming prime targets of militias, residents both in Basra and Baghdad have told IPS in recent months. Many women say they are threatened with death if they do not obey.
“Militiamen approached us to tell us we must wear the hijab and stop wearing make-up,” college student Zahra Alwan who fled Basra to Baghdad told IPS last December.
Graffiti in red on walls across Basra warns women against wearing make-up and stepping out without covering their bodies from head to toe, Alwan said.
“The situation in Baghdad is not very different,” Mazin Abdul Jabbar, social researcher at Baghdad University told IPS. “All universities are controlled by Islamic militiamen who harass female students all the time with religious restrictions.”
Jabbar said this is one reason that “many families have stopped sending their daughters to high schools and colleges.”
In early 2007 Iraq’s Ministry of Education found that more than 70 percent of girls and young women no longer attend school or college.
Several women victims have been accused of being “bad” before they were abducted, residents have told IPS in Baghdad. Most women who are abducted are later found dead.
The bodies of several have been found in garbage dumps, showing signs of rape and torture. Many bodies had a note attached saying the woman was “bad”, according to residents who did not give their names to IPS.
Similar problems exist for women in Baquba, the capital city of Diyala province, 40 km northeast of Baghdad.
“My neighbour was killed because she was accused of working in the directorate-general of police of Diyala,” resident Um Haider told IPS in January. “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 woman speaking on condition of anonymity told IPS in Baquba. “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 women are beginning to look different across most of Iraq. 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.
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 in Baquba recently. “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 in Baquba, 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.”
In northern Kurdish controlled Iraq, ‘honour killings’ continue. In the ancient tradition of ‘honour killing’, the view is that a family’s honour is paramount. As of last December, at least 27 Kurdish women were murdered on suspicion of having had ‘illicit’ affairs in the previous four months, according to Youssif Mohamed Aziz, the regional minister of human rights.
Iraqi women are not spared U.S. military prisons either. In December, Iraq’s parliamentary committee for women’s and children’s affairs demanded the release of female detainees in Iraqi and U.S.-run prisons.
According to Nadira Habib, deputy head of the parliamentary committee, there are around 200 women detained in the Iraqi run al-Adala prison in Baghdad. Habibi says there are presumably women in U.S.-run prisons too. “But no one knows how many female detainees are now in prisons run by U.S. forces as they always refuse requests from our committee to visit them.”
As the central government remains essentially powerless, and religious fundamentalism continues to grow across Iraq, it appears that the plight of Iraqi women will get worse.