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

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.

The Women's League now has 280 members, but not all are active. Only five showed up on a recent morning to plan another workshop, despite a government crackdown on militias that had made Basra safer. All wore head scarves.

"Women got killed in the streets," Saud said. "They are still afraid."

At a meeting in Az-Zubayr, a dusty town about 18 miles southwest of Basra, local activists informed her that only three women from the last workshop had landed jobs.

"Some ministries only want men," Saud said, shaking her head.

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.

Even the biggest victory of Iraqi women is bittersweet: A quarter of all seats in Iraq's parliament are constitutionally required to be filled by women. But out of 25 committees, only two are led by women. And most female lawmakers belong to the ruling religious parties. "It's all abayas and female mullahs," Saud said.

At the health ministry, Saud urged Abdul-Zahra to be more assertive and speak to her male boss about Selma. But Abdul-Zahra balked. Saud was disappointed but not discouraged. "I have my girls in every ministry," she said.

'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.

The teen said she was worried that the authorities would force her to return to her family. "I don't have money. I don't have a lawyer. I don't know what is going on," she said. She asked that her name not be used because she feared for her life.

Rashid asked social worker Tafgah Faisullah Muhammed what would happen if the court returned the teenager to her family and then killed.

"We can't do anything," Muhammed said.

"Have any girls been killed after they were released to their families?" Rashid asked.

"Yes, four girls were killed after they left this place," Muhammed said.

Rashid returned to her apartment. It was time to write.

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