The Veil of Freedom


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.

"I 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 defied.

She is already making plans to leave the country to pursue a Ph.D. in Europe.

Life 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.

But 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."

The 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 raped."

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."

Mohammed 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 leadership.

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 bodyguards.

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."

Like 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."

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