London -- Monday May 8, 2006
'No one knows what we are going through'
Read Channel 4's brief synopsis of Zeina's courageous film
Women in Iraq are living a nightmare that is hidden from the west. Now one has turned film-maker to give us a window on to what they endure. She tells Natasha Walter what she saw
Rayya Osseilly is an Iraqi doctor who cares for other women in the beleaguered city of Qaim. Unsurprisingly, her tale is not a happy one. "I never feel that today is better than yesterday," she says. "It always seems that yesterday was better than today." Looking at the bombed-out remains of the hospital where she works, it is clear she is struggling against the odds.
It is unusual to see at close quarters what is going on for women in cities like Qaim, which last year came under heavy attack from American troops. Access for the western media is severely restricted. Now, though, we have a window on to Qaim thanks to another Iraqi woman, a film-maker who has travelled through the country speaking to widows and children, to doctors and students, in pursuit of the reality of her fellow country-women's lives.
The film-maker, who lives in Baghdad, wants to keep her identity secret because she fears reprisals, so I'll call her Zeina. When I spoke to her by telephone, the first first thing I asked her was why it is that she feels she has to hide her identity, and in her answer she does not distinguish between the government and the insurgents, in the way that we are taught to do here. "I feel the threat from the government and from the sectarian militias," she says. "The danger in Iraq comes from the Americans, from the sectarian militias - and, of course, it also comes from the crime, the gangs, the random kidnappings."
She decided she wanted to make this film because the things she saw every day were not being seen by the outside world. "No one sees what we are going through. All Iraqis are psychologically traumatised by what is happening. I have seen an eight-year old child who has involuntary tremors, whenever she hears an aeroplane or sees soldiers. I have seen families displaced. I have seen women forced into prostitution because of the poverty of their families."
Zeina was not a supporter of Saddam Hussein's regime. During his rule, she worked as a journalist and a translator of literary criticism. "Politically, before the war, I was not happy," she says. "So many things were not right. We had no freedom of speech, no freedom of expression. But I never imagined the change would be this way, so bad. I never imagined that at all."
From the very start of making her film, this fiftysomething writer knew she would be taking risks. "We travelled just two or three of us, in an ordinary car. It was dangerous. When we went into Qaim we had to travel across the desert because the Americans had blocked the road. It was dark when we got to Qaim, and we could see a cloud of dust ahead of us, and then there was a flash of light in the dust. We were driving right towards the guns. The driver moved so fast off the road that the car almost overturned. Then another time we were filming the hospital that had been bombed. We went to the roof of the hospital and the Americans began shooting at us. They didn't want to kill us, I think, but they wanted to threaten us, they wanted to show us who was in control."
That footage - of the film-makers taking refuge from gunfire in a ruined hospital - is in the finished film. Indeed, the film that has resulted from Zeina's journey is not a polished product, but more like a filmed blog, a series of telling observations that dip in and out of women's lives. Often you are left frustrated, eager for more context in which to slot these moments. But given that western journalists are so constrained by the security situation that most of the country has simply become invisible to us, you can forgive the film's limitations.
The film is particularly good at capturing the texture of family life lived in such insecurity, and one effective section concentrates on the tale of a young girl, just eight years old, who was picked up by American troops after an attack on the car in which she and her father and other Iraqis were travelling. The troops first took her to a military hospital, but then her family say she was held for three months. They were not informed of her whereabouts and she was interrogated by being asked to identify Iraqi corpses in photographs. Her grandfather eventually tracked her down in Baghdad, and as we see her weeping in his lap we sense her family's frustration at having no accountable authority to whom they can take their anger.
Zeina also shows, in a way that will surely give pause for thought even to those people in Britain who supported the war, how women's lives are being curtailed by the rise of religious fundamentalists who have stepped into the power vacuum. "All the time in the television and the newspapers there is propaganda concerning women. It is really disgusting, it is nothing to do with Islam, but everything to do with taking women back into the home and depriving them of rights."
To show the negative effects of these developments on women, Zeina travels to Basra. It will not come as news to those who have followed developments in southern Iraq that women are being forced to wear the hijab and prevented from living their lives freely. But it brings these developments home when we see young women and their families talking about being sent bullets and death threats because they played sport or did not wear a headscarf. As Zeina emphasises, this kind of experience is new to most women in Iraq, who enjoyed economic and social freedom before the occupation. "A while ago, I was looking at photographs of my aunt in college in the 60s, wearing pants and sleeveless tops, playing sports in the college yard; and then I looked at the photographs of the women in college today, and they are covered in black from head to toe, their faces also covered."
Zeina says the responsibility for these developments squarely at the feet of the occupation - it has given sectarianism the opportunity to flourish. She simply laughs when I ask her whether she feels grateful for the democracy that America has given Iraq. "Democracy? What democracy? We do not have democracy. This democracy that Bush talks about - it is a completely empty structure, based on sectarian and ethnic interests. How can you have democracy when you are afraid that your life will be threatened, or your husband will be killed if you express yourself freely? It is a bad joke."
Not all women in Iraq are against the occupation - women are as divided as the men, and we in the west have heard Iraqi women speak in support of the US war. But it is hard to resist the force of Zeina's passion as she describes the chaos that the war has brought to Iraq. She longs to go on documenting the situation of women, despite the very narrow limits within which she has to work. "I feel very restricted. I really want to report on the families who are being arrested, on the bodies that are being found, on torture. But either you are a journalist who is working with the Americans - embedded with them - or you jeopardise your life to cover these stories."
Despite the dangers, she is eager to communicate the reality as she sees it, and she would like us to listen: "I do want people in Britain to understand that the occupation of Iraq is not in the interests of Iraq or Britain. Your soldiers are getting killed and nothing is better for the Iraqi people. On the contrary, the situation is going from bad to worse every day, especially for women"
· Dispatches: Iraq: The Women's Story will be shown on Channel 4 tonight at 8pm