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Dec 7th, 2008

Iraqi Women, Fighting for a Voice

By Sudarsan Raghavan
The Washington Post
December 7, 2008


IRBIL, Iraq — Hawjin Hama Rashid, a feisty journalist in bluejeans and a frilly blouse, had come to the morgue in this Kurdish city to research tribal killings of women. “A week doesn’t pass without at least 10,” the morgue director said, showing Rashid pictures of corpses on his computer screen.

First, a bloated, pummeled face.

Next, a red, shapeless, charred body. “Raped, then burned,” the director said.

Then, another face, eyes half-closed, stab wounds below her neck.

Rashid leaned closer to the screen.

It was the bloody corpse of her best friend, Begard Hussein. Hussein had complained to police about her ex-husband, who had threatened to kill her if she refused to annul their divorce. …

Women ‘strangled by religion and tribalism’

From the southern port city of Basra to bustling Irbil in northern Iraq, Iraqi activists are trying to counter the rising influence of religious fundamentalists and tribal chieftains who have insisted that women wear the veil, prevented girls from receiving education and sanctioned killings of women accused of besmirching their family’s honor.

In their quest for stability in Iraq, U.S. officials have empowered tribal and religious leaders, Sunni and Shiite, who reject the secularism that Saddam Hussein once largely maintained. These leaders have imposed strict interpretations of Islam and enforced tribal codes that female activists say limit their freedom and encourage violence against them.

“Women are being strangled by religion and tribalism,” said Muna Saud, a 52-year-old activist in Basra. …

Rashid, 36, writes a column for a magazine run by Shawushka, a women’s group named after a Kurdish goddess. The bimonthly publication has 2,000 readers, but its Web site provides a wider reach. …

Tribal killings and burnings

In her columns, Rashid has railed against forcing women to wear head scarves and battled for the rights of imprisoned women. Mostly, Rashid writes about “honor crimes” — tribal killings and burnings of women accused of engaging in premarital sex or adultery. …

In the first six months of this year, 206 women were killed in Kurdistan, 150 of them burned to death. The killings were up 30 percent from the previous six months, according to the Kurdish regional government’s Human Rights Ministry. Activists say many honor crimes go unreported or are portrayed as accidents. …

Iraq’s constitution states that men and women are equal under the law. But it also states that no laws can be passed that are inconsistent with Islam, allowing for ultraconservative interpretations, female activists say.

Kurdish lawmakers are trying to enact regional legislation that would outlaw forced and early marriages, female genital mutilation and honor killings. They would also give women greater rights and status in marriage, divorce and inheritance. But the lawmakers acknowledge that such measures will be difficult to pass and even harder to enforce.

When Iraqi women didn’t need ‘wasta’

On a sultry morning in Basra, Muna Saud, her face framed by a black shawl, slipped unnoticed past the thick knots of men at the provincial health ministry. …

Saud helps lead the Iraqi Women’s League, an activist group whose members teach women computer skills, English and how to be assertive in a male-dominated world. …

Saud remembered when Iraqi women didn’t need wasta — connections — to find a job. In the late 1970s, thousands of Iraqi women, then among the most liberated in the Arab world, worked as doctors, engineers and civil servants. …

Woman attacked for being too educated

After the invasion, she and 30 Women’s League members started their workshops. But by 2005, Iraqi women were being attacked for not covering their faces or for being too educated. Some had acid thrown in their faces. Many feared leaving home.

In a nationwide survey of 1,500 Iraqi women released this year by Women for Women International, a Washington-based nonprofit, nearly two-thirds of women who were questioned said violence against them had risen; slightly more described the availability of jobs as “bad.”

Last year, Saud also visited morgues to tabulate the number of women killed in Basra for a report to Iraq’s parliament. She found 150 victims. She said she had known three of them: Maysoon was killed with her brother, both shot five times in the head for being Christians; gunmen killed Lubna for walking a little too close to her fiance; Sabah was murdered in a market for not wearing a head scarf.

Honor killings are a problem in Basra, too, but Saud understands her boundaries. “I’ll get killed if I try to protect a woman from her tribe,” she said. …

U.S. empowered religious parties, tribal groups

She said she watched with apprehension as the U.S. military backed tribal groups to fight Sunni insurgents. “In the beginning, the United States gave power to religious parties. Now, giving power to tribal leaders is also a mistake,” Saud said. “They consider the women as nothing.”

Saud shakes hands with men in public. She refuses to wear a head scarf, which she views as a symbol of submission. She wears a shawl only because her family fears for her life. But she is careful not to anger the religious conservatives who rule Basra.

“I’m never aggressive with them. I respect their ideologies,” Saud said.

Anwar Indalel Shubbar, a local government official with the ultra-religious Fadhila Party said that women are entering “illegal relationships” if they have premarital sex and that honor killings are sanctioned by tribal laws.

“Our religion rejects the honor killings, but we can’t stop the habits and traditions we have inherited,” Shubbar said. She said she favors the imposition of Islamic law. …

‘My family will kill me’

A day after her visit to the morgue in Irbil, Rashid interviewed a pale 17-year-old inside a women’s prison. Eyes clouding with tears, the teenager recounted her romance with a young man. Her relatives had accused her of dishonoring her family and tribe; her brother had tried to kill her to restore that honor. She had taken refuge here, behind walls topped with barbed wire.

A few days earlier, her father had offered to forgive her — if she became the second wife of a relative old enough to be her grandfather. She refused.

“I know my family will kill me if I go back home,” she told Rashid. …


Security Developments in Iraq

Following are security developments in Iraq on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008, as reported by Reuters.

UDHAIM – One of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s security guards was killed by a roadside bomb in Udhaim, 60 miles north of Baghdad, police said. The guard was off duty.

BAQUBA – A bomb exploded inside a cafe near Baquba on Saturday, killing one person and wounding 27 others, including eight members of a local Awakening Council, police said. Baquba is 40 miles northeast of Baghdad.

MOSUL – A roadside bomb wounded two policemen in western Mosul, 240 km north of Baghdad, police said.

TUZ KHURMATO – A bomb attached to a vehicle wounded an off-duty soldier and a civilian in central Tuz Khurmato, 105 miles, north of Baghdad, police said.

BAGHDAD – U.S. forces arrested 10 suspects in operations throughout central Iraq on Friday and Saturday, the U.S. military said in a statement.

BAGHDAD – A bomb attached to a pickup truck killed one person and wounded three people in southern Baghdad, police said.

BAGHDAD – A roadside bomb wounded two people in the al-Qahira neighborhood of northern Baghdad, police said.

KIRKUK – A suicide bomber killed one policeman and wounded six people, including police and civilians, near a police academy on Saturday in central Kirkuk, according to Serhat Qader, a police brigadier based in Kirkuk. A hospital source in Kirkuk said one person was killed and nine were wounded. Kirkuk is 155 miles north of Baghdad.

BAQUBA – Armed men attacked the headquarters of an Awakening Council, a neighborhood guard unit, east of Baquba before dawn on Saturday, killing three people and wounding four Awakening guards.

MOSUL – Armed men shot and killed a civilian on Friday in eastern Mosul, police said.

BAGHDAD – A roadside bomb exploded in southern Baghdad on Friday near a patrol manned by police and neighborhood guards, killing two people and wounding two others.

BAGHDAD – Iraqi security forces, backed by the U.S. military, captured four suspected members of Iranian-backed militias the United States blames for bloodshed in Iraq. The first two arrests occurred on Dec. 2 in Baghdad, and the remainder took place in Kifl, south of Baghdad, on Dec. 3.

2 Responses to “Fundamentalist Surge in Iraq”
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