Iraqi Women Take On Roles Of Dead or Missing Husbands

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 22 -- Sabriyah Hilal Abadi began sleeping with a loaded AK-47 by her bed shortly after the war began.

It was a comforting possession for a woman who had lost her home, her husband and, last weekend, a room in a dilapidated building she shared with 27 squatter families, most headed by women.

The mother of four fought mightily to stay in the sparse, two-story building in the Zayouna neighborhood of Baghdad that once belonged to Hussein's Baath Party, but soldiers forced her out.

Iraq's government is intent on proving it can enforce the law. But in its determination to rid the party building of its squatters, the women say, the government has plunged them deeper into homelessness and may have pushed others toward violence.

Thousands of Iraqi women have in recent years embraced new roles as violence has claimed their men. For Abadi, 43, the turning point came when she accepted the powerful assault rifle from friends concerned about her welfare.

"Before the invasion -- never," said Abadi, who oscillated between rage and sadness during three interviews. Speaking about the army, she waggled her finger. Speaking about her son in college, she looked dismal. Speaking about her old house, she began to weep.

Times have changed, she said. "The women now take on the responsibilities of men and women."

Nearly 1 million women in Iraq are widows or divorcees, or their husbands are missing, according to Samira al-Mosawi, a Shiite member of parliament who heads the women's affairs committee. She said the number, an estimate reached by several government agencies, includes women who became widows during Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s.

Mosawi said approximately 86,000 widows are receiving about $40 a month from the government. Aid organizations and government agencies are unable to help more widows because of a lack of funds and the challenges of doing social work in volatile neighborhoods.

"Frankly speaking, there's not much attention paid to the social issues in the country," Mosawi said in an interview. "Attention goes to security and defense."

Before U.S. troops strode into Baghdad in the spring of 2003, Abadi worked as a seamstress to complement the earnings of her husband, who worked at a government factory.

She was optimistic during the days after the invasion. Her impressions of Americans, shaped largely by a news story she saw on television, gave her hope. The story was about an hours-long effort to rescue a cat stuck in a sewage pipe.

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