The Veil of Freedom
By Zelie Pollon, AlterNet
Posted on February 25, 2005, Printed on February 25, 2005
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Two years after the invasion of Iraq and just weeks
before the country's first free election, "Amina" began wearing a
headscarf for the first time in her life. Her father insisted upon it.
don't like this and I don't see the danger. No one ever bothered me
before," Amina says, sitting in her office located in the predominantly
Shiite neighborhood of Khadimiya, her long brown hair streaming down
her back. At first the 27-year-old professor at the engineering college
resisted, arguing that her students will lose respect for her for
caving in to the fundamentalists. But her father would not be moved:
Amina didn't have a choice; the extremists were far too dangerous to be
She is already making plans to leave the country to pursue a Ph.D. in Europe.
wasn't always this dangerous for women like Amina. Under Saddam
Hussein, Iraq was a secular country where women could freely walk the
busy streets without a scarf or a male escort, and stay out late at
outdoor cafes with their families, sometimes until two or three in the
morning. While women suffered as much as any other Iraqi under Saddam's
tyranny, Baathist laws were noteworthy for their commitment to gender
equality. Unlike their peers in the Arab world, Iraqi women enjoyed
equal employment and educational opportunities and equal pay.
the U.S. invasion in March, 2003, changed everything. With the
departure of Saddam, women became a target for both fundamentalist
Islamists and U.S. soldiers. According to a new report released by
Amnesty International early this week, "Women and girls in Iraq live in
fear of violence as the conflict intensifies and insecurity spirals."
fear of armed groups who terrorize anyone who defies their religious
edicts has made many Iraqi women prisoners within their own home. "The
lawlessness and increased killings, abductions and rapes that followed
the overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein have restricted
women's freedom of movement and their ability to go to school or to
work," the human rights organization reports.
Then there is the
added threat of abuse posed by U.S. soldiers: "Women have been
subjected to sexual threats by members of the U.S.-led forces and some
women detained by U.S. forces have been sexually abused, possibly
With the Shiite victory in the January elections, the
future for Iraqi women looks no less bleak. Shiites make up 60 percent
of Iraq's population and consider Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as
their spiritual leader. Their electoral triumph underscored and
legitimized the Shiite majority's immense political power, and will
ensure a dominant role in crafting the future Iraqi constitution. While
many Shiites say they don't support a theocratic state and Sistani has
proven to be a moderate leader, women's rights activists like Yanar
Mohammed are less optimistic.
"Shiite political groups want to
impose Islamic sharia and let it override the civil code that we've had
for 30 years. This will turn women not into second class citizens but
into third and fourth class citizens," says Mohammed, who heads The
Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, which opened the first
domestic violence shelter for women escaping abuse or "honor killings"
from their families.
"In other words, the thief will have the
hand cut off, the criminal will be beheaded and women will be stoned to
death. Divorce will not be a woman's right," she says. Where Baathist
laws prohibited a woman under 18 from marrying, Islamic law imposes no
such minimum age of consent. Mohammed points out that without such
protection a girl who is six can be married to a 70-year-old man, who
is also free to have four wives. "This is a dark page in the history of
Iraq. Women are being kidnapped, there is trafficking and now it will
be written into the constitution that we will be denied equal rights."
worries that a large number of the seats set aside for women (25
percent) in the National Assembly will be filled by members handpicked
by the Islamic parties – women who embrace the religious edicts of
To offset this threat, she is working on bringing
together a secular coalition of educated, professional women and
members of other political parties. They often meet in her office in a
small and well-hidden residential house located off a side street in
downtown Baghdad. The doors are guarded and the entry obscured.
Security is important for any woman who intends to take on the
fundamentalists, especially Mohammed, who always travels with two armed
Not all Iraqi women are as unhappy with the Shiite
victory in the elections as Mohammed. Samira Hillmi, a 57-year-old
educator in Iraq, willingly shrouds herself from head to toe in black
as she strolls through a crowded market-place in Baghdad. She wears her
veil as a choice, she says, for God, and it is to Him she is grateful
for the recent turn of events.
"The election was so good. Finally
we will move forward now that the Shiites are no longer under the foot
of Saddam," she says. Hillmi is not too worried about the possibility
of the leadership establishing a theocratic state similar to Iran: "No,
it will be OK. What we need is just for Iraq to be safe."
Hillmi, most Iraqi men are not very worried about the threat of
fundamentalism. "I wouldn't be forced to wear an abaya," says Esam
Pasha, a 29-year old artist. Pasha is confident that he will find ways
to express his art under an Islamic regime – much in the same way as he
did under Saddam. Besides, he is sure that the United States will not
let his country become Islamic, regardless of the sovereign status of
Iraq. "Donald Rumsfeld says Iraq can choose any system we want as long
as it isn't Islamic or Communist. That's the democracy we're allowed,"
he says sarcastically.
While those who fear Islamic
fundamentalism may also resent the occupation, they are counting on the
U.S. presence – however despised by many Iraqis – to keep the
extremists at bay. "No, they cannot leave," Amina says. "The Taliban
would be here in two days."
© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/21347/