Sunday June 04, 2006
Men in black terrorise Iraq's women
Marie Colvin and Widiane Moussa
Western clothes are death sentence
NOOR and her boyfriend used to go out a lot and listen to dance in their favourite restaurant in Baghdad. The 26-year-old university lecturer also used to enjoy going window shopping at night in the city’s once-glitzy Mansour district, dressed in the latest fashions.
That was before the “men in black”, the Taliban-style militias waging terror against the urban middle class, arrived in Noor’s neighbourhood, threatening to shoot, kidnap and shave the heads of anyone who challenged their draconian strictures.
The militias are part of a hardline religious crackdown organised by Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. On Friday he released a four-hour sermon, effectively a message of hate, calling on Sunni Muslims to confront adherents of the rival Shi’ite branch of Islam.
Zarqawi, who appears to act with impunity in Iraq despite a £13m bounty on his head, has printed pamphlets that were delivered through doors in the Amariya district of Baghdad, one of his self-declared Sunni “emirates”.
The “emir”, identified as Abu Houzeifa, announced new rules: “Women cannot drive; women cannot go out after midday; women and men are not allowed to go out and walk together, they must walk separately.” The rules are enforced by Al-Qaeda thugs who drive around in cars in Amariya, Yarmouk and other Sunni areas that Zarqawi has declared are his. Noor said: “If they see someone breaking the rules, they shoot them.”
The “men in black” have turned women into virtual prisoners in their homes. “At first we were more afraid of bombs but now we are more afraid of being killed for what we are wearing,” Noor said.
“I used to wear jeans or short skirts. We didn’t have to worry,” she recalled, for a moment gushing like any of her fashion-conscious contemporaries in the West.
“My favourites were in the Qasar al Nisaa shop. Before, they sold all kinds of clothes, but now it’s so conservative. They’re not even allowed to display underwear in shops: you have to ask from under the counter and then only a woman can serve you.”
The atmosphere is becoming ever more oppressive. Men came to Noor’s house and told her she could not drive any more. Her father has to drive her to her lectures at the same university where she drove to class as an undergraduate.
She dare not step outside without a hijab, or headscarf. Last month two teenage girls were dragged off the al-Amal al-Shahbi street in the Amariya district. When they emerged several hours later their heads had been shaved.
The militants issued a warning that in future women walking down the street without a hijab faced death.
Zarqawi’s reign of terror in the most affluent Sunni neighbourhoods illustrates the insurgents’ all-pervasive power. None of the restrictions imposed by his militias are law, yet women have no legal recourse.
“The police do nothing, even if something happens in front of their eyes,” said a woman politician who did not want her name used because she and her family have been targeted. She has survived an assassination attempt but two relatives were murdered because of her job.
Others have not been so fortunate. Henna Aziz, a prominent engineer, refused threats to stop working because she wanted to help rebuild her country. A fundamentalist gang broke into her home and shot her.
“The police don’t investigate because they are too afraid,” the politician said. “The Americans are too scared of roadside bombs, so when they go out they accomplish their mission and return directly to base. They don’t see anything.”
Noor can no longer buy CDs of Kazem al-Sahir, her favourite singer, who played at the Albert Hall in London three months ago. Only men can go into music or film shops. The “men in black” have closed down some music shops and blown up others.
Such restrictions are taken for granted in fundamentalist Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. But under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women were among the most liberated in the Arab world. “My friends at university, my neighbours they’re all in the same situation as me,” Noor mourned.
Iraqi women are now dependent on the men in their family. One young Iraqi woman, who writes a blog called Riverbend, described her humiliation when she tried to return to her job as a computer network administrator. “My former manager said females weren’t welcome and told me, in not so many words, to ‘go home’,” she said. “There was a hostility I couldn’t believe.”
Now, to go out, she must take two “preferably large” male relatives. She makes up reasons why she must go shopping. “And always the question, ‘But do you have to go out and buy it? Can’t I get it for you?’ “ ‘No you can’t’, I reply, because the kilo of aubergines I absolutely have to select with my own hands is just an excuse to see the light of day and walk down a street. It feels like we’ve gone back 50 years.”