Iraqi Women, Fighting for a Voice; Activists Confront Dual Powers of Religion, Tribalism

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, 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. Rashid had wanted to publish a photograph of her friend's body after she was killed in April, but officials said none existed. "They lied to me," Rashid said as she left the morgue, her sorrow fusing with anger.

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.

The activists' struggle is part of a broader battle over the identity of a nation in transition. Driving the debate are questions central to Iraq's future: What role should Islam play in government, politics and society? And to what extent should Western attitudes and ideas influence the country?

"Without changing the way society thinks, changing laws on paper is useless," Rashid said.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, satellite television, cellphones and Internet access have deepened the West's imprint on the relatively stable Kurdish region of Iraq, known as Kurdistan. Today, many urban women wear Western clothes and eschew Islamic head scarves. Women make up more than a quarter of the regional parliament.

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