Women Lose Ground in the New Iraq

Zahra Khalid, 30, left, shops in Baghdad on her first outing in two months. With Islamic fundamentalism and sectarian warfare on the rise in Iraq, more and more women live in fear.
Zahra Khalid, 30, left, shops in Baghdad on her first outing in two months. With Islamic fundamentalism and sectarian warfare on the rise in Iraq, more and more women live in fear. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2006

BAGHDAD -- Browsing the shelves of a cosmetics store in the Karrada shopping district, Zahra Khalid felt giddy at the sight of Alberto shampoo and Miss Rose eye shadow, blusher and powder.

Before leaving her house, she had covered her body in a billowing black abaya and wrapped a black head scarf around her thick brown hair. She had asked her brother to drive. She had done all the things that a woman living in Baghdad is supposed to do these days to avoid drawing attention to herself.

It was the first time she had left home in two months.

"For a woman, it's just like being in jail," she said. "I can't go anywhere."

Life has become more difficult for most Iraqis since the February bombing of a Shiite Muslim mosque in Samarra sparked a rise in sectarian killings and overall lawlessness. For many women, though, it has become unbearable.

As Islamic fundamentalism seeps into society and sectarian warfare escalates, more and more women live in fear of being kidnapped or raped. They receive death threats because of their religious sects and careers. They are harassed for not abiding by the strict dress code of long skirts and head scarves or for driving cars.

For much of the 20th century, and under various leaders, Iraq was one of the most progressive Middle Eastern countries in its treatment of women, who were encouraged to go to school and enter the workforce. Saddam Hussein's Baath Party espoused a secular Arab nationalism that advocated women's full participation in society. But years of war changed that.

In the days after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many women were hopeful that they would enjoy greater parity with men. President Bush said that increasing women's rights was essential to creating a new, democratic Iraq.

But interviews with 16 Iraqi women, ranging in age from 21 to 52, show that much of that postwar hope is gone. The younger women say they fear being snatched on their way to school and wonder whether their college degrees will mean anything in the new Iraq. The older women, proud of their education and careers, are watching their independence slip away.

"At the beginning, we were very happy with those achievements and gains, and we were looking for more," said Ina'am al-Sultani, 36, a leader of the Progressive Women's Movement, a nongovernmental organization. "Women are now restrained."

Khalid, 30, whose only visible features as she shopped on a recent day were her round face and long eyelashes, was an accountant at the Planning Ministry until she received a death threat four months ago. She quit, moved to a new home and changed her phone number.

"We're suffering right now," Khalid said, her two sons tugging at her abaya. "The war took all our rights. We're not free because of terrorism."


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