The Cost of Liberty
In a Chaotic New Iraq, A Young Widow Turns to Prostitution
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page C01
The row of beauty salons had been ransacked and torched. Shards of glass, dust and bottles leaking sweet-smelling liquid were all that was left, creating an eerie mosaic in the afternoon light. Wrapped in a black abaya, Halla Muhammad Maarouf stood in the middle of the street, staring at the destruction and trying not to cry. There was no note, no graffiti saying who had done it or why, but Halla knew the attack was a warning meant for her.
Three months before, in October, Halla had begun working as a prostitute to supplement the income she earned helping out at her mother's salon. Her brother had been killed in the U.S.-led invasion, and after her husband was killed in the bloody chaos that followed, Halla suddenly found herself solely responsible for supporting her two young children. The $5 or so a week she earned at the salon was not enough.
She had tried to be discreet, but word got out. Earlier that week, she says, a stranger had shown up at her doorway with a copy of the Koran and asked her whether she knew any women who sold their bodies and, if she did, to tell them it was wrong. Neighbors inquired about the men coming and going from her apartment, and potential clients had tracked her down at the salon.
When U.S. troops marched into the capital on April 9 last year, they liberated a people who, for decades, had lived under a government that controlled nearly every aspect of their lives. In the later years of Saddam Hussein's rule, getting caught trying to solicit meant life in prison or even death. In a public ceremony in 2000, Hussein had 200 women beheaded after accusing them of prostitution.
Today, under a justice system largely overseen by foreigners, getting caught generally means a slap on the wrist and 48 hours in a jail cell. That has made soliciting a more inviting option for a new generation of women, especially in a place where few employment opportunities exist and hundreds of thousands of women have been left widows as a result of three successive wars.
But as the U.S. occupation draws to an end, and more conservative Islamic clerics gain power, the fate of prostitutes like Halla is uncertain. In recent months, attacks on people and establishments accused of promoting vices have escalated. Masked gunmen have shot at liquor vendors, according to Iraqi police officials. Religious leaders have run renters of racy videotapes out of town. And anonymous vigilantes have kidnapped, beaten and killed prostitutes in several major cities. Women's rights groups, including the Organization of Women's Freedom, have decried the killings, saying the women are in need of help, not punishment.
"Maybe there is an order to kill all the prostitutes," Halla would recall thinking that day. "If the Islamic parties arrive to power maybe even the Americans can't stop them." As she made her way through the rubble, Halla wondered what it would be like to have a real job, of being a receptionist at a hotel, a laundry woman or maybe opening a boutique for used clothes. She was 23 years old, healthy and a hard worker. There was a chance she could start anew. Wasn't there?
Halla grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Baghdad, a strip of nondescript apartment buildings a few blocks from the Palestine and Sheraton hotels that became bunkers for foreign journalists during the U.S.-led invasion. Her father was a carpenter, her mother a beauty stylist. She had three younger brothers, and money was always a problem. After her parents separated when she was 10 years old, she dropped out of school to work alongside her mother. She washed hair and swept the floors.
The Loving Wife
She met her husband at the salon years later. She had spied a tall, muscular man staring at her. She was 15, barely five feet tall with bleached blond hair and a sassy attitude. At 26, Walid Hameed was more serious and worked as a security guard in Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad. He had stopped by to pick up a friend who was getting her tresses set.
Within days they went on their first date and within a few months he proposed. At first, both families objected. Halla's mother had another, wealthier beau in mind for her only daughter. Walid's parents thought Halla was too young. But the two were in love, and in late 1996 they were married at the swank Babylon Hotel. There were mounds of sweets, pretty shimmery clothes, and family and friends from all over Iraq. When her new husband came to their bedroom that night and tried to take her clothes off, she giggled. She says she changed into a nightgown and insisted on keeping her flowing white veil and her elbow-length white gloves. She ran out of the room and back to the elevator, where she spent the entire night pressing buttons and going up and down. It would be a week before she figured out what it meant to lose her virginity.
Married life suited Halla and Walid. They both kept their jobs, lived in a small one-bedroom apartment and shared the chores. On hot evenings, they used to get ice cream and sit on the sidewalk staring at the passersby. She affectionately called him "bald man" because his hair was thinning. He called her "baga," or bug, because she was so tiny. The couple had two boys, Iaad and Saif, in quick succession.
Everything changed with the war. Her middle brother, Ali Muhammad Maarouf, 20, a soldier, was shot and killed in the first few days of the fighting in the southern port city of Basra. And a few weeks later, after major combat was declared over but when law and order had yet to be established, her husband was shot in the head one night by a business associate. Halla said that her husband was still alive when she arrived at the hospital and that he managed to tell her, "Halla, be a good girl," before he died. Halla insisted on spending the night at the morgue, hugging Walid's body and weeping. At daybreak, one of her brothers came and gently carried her away.
Halla says she did not leave her mother's house for a month. When she finally ventured out and started thinking about her situation, she knew it was dire. Shortly after Walid's death, his family took all of the couple's possessions and stopped talking to her. She had already used up their modest savings and knew her wages from the salon would not be enough to support her sons and her younger brothers, who had had trouble finding work.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Halla Maarouf bargains with a customer in her mother's house.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
The Cost of Liberty: In a chaotic new Iraq, a young widow turns to prostitution to help support her family.