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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.

Oval-faced with curly, brown hair, Rashid grew up in a secular Kurdish family in Sulaymaniyah, the main city of eastern Kurdistan. In high school, she read socialist writers and joined the student union. When Hussein's Baath Party tried to expel the school's female dean for not joining the party, Rashid led a demonstration to protest the expulsion. The dean was reinstated.

After college she became a journalist, covering women's issues. Today she lives alone, unconventional for most single Iraqi women. A Jennifer Lopez poster hangs on her living room wall.

Rashid, 36, writes a column for a magazine run by Shawushka, a women's group named after a Kurdish goddess. The bimonthly publication has 2,000 readers, but its Web site provides a wider reach. Rashid also appears frequently on Kurdish television networks, where she routinely criticizes the government.

Such pressure helped push the regional Interior Ministry to launch a task force to combat violence against women, but it is also seen as a threat to traditional values. "Women are trapped in a moral and cultural tug of war," said Pakshan Zangana, a Kurdish lawmaker. "There are forces trying to pull women into the 21st century. Then, there are other forces pulling women backwards, to keep them as second-class citizens."

In her columns, Rashid has railed against forcing women to wear head scarves and battled for the rights of imprisoned women. Mostly, Rashid writes about "honor crimes" -- tribal killings and burnings of women accused of engaging in premarital sex or adultery.

Iraqi laws allow for leniency for such killings, but Kurdish authorities have made the crimes equivalent to any other murder. Yet the violence has mounted since the invasion. Activists say that police rarely enforce the law, fearing tribal disputes; and when they do, perpetrators are still handed light punishments.

In the first six months of this year, 206 women were killed in Kurdistan, 150 of them burned to death. The killings were up 30 percent from the previous six months, according to the Kurdish regional government's Human Rights Ministry. Activists say many honor crimes go unreported or are portrayed as accidents. They also say that some women have immolated themselves out of despair.

Rashid has received numerous death threats. In an e-mail, someone threatened to rape her for being un-Islamic. When Rashid complained, a police officer told her to stop fighting for women's rights.

The ex-husband of her friend Hussein, Rashid said, also vowed to kill her after she published her article. "The police didn't pursue him because they considered it an honor killing," Rashid said. "He is still free today." Repeated efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Ari Rafiq, an Interior Ministry official who heads its task force on women, said his men were searching for the ex-husband. "There are eyewitnesses who saw him murder her," Rafiq said.

Iraq's constitution states that men and women are equal under the law. But it also states that no laws can be passed that are inconsistent with Islam, allowing for ultraconservative interpretations, female activists say.

Kurdish lawmakers are trying to enact regional legislation that would outlaw forced and early marriages, female genital mutilation and honor killings. They would also give women greater rights and status in marriage, divorce and inheritance. But the lawmakers acknowledge that such measures will be difficult to pass and even harder to enforce.

"We're still suffering from the past," said Jinan Q. Ali, the minister of women's affairs in the Kurdish regional government. "You can't say the government and police are not doing their job. To transfer a society from a violent one to a peaceful one won't happen suddenly."

'The Habits and Traditions'

On a sultry morning in Basra, Muna Saud, her face framed by a black shawl, slipped unnoticed past the thick knots of men at the provincial health ministry. She glided from office to office until she found Zahra Abdul-Zahra, a former student, and greeted her with a kiss on the cheek.

"I want to find a job for Selma," Saud said quietly, pulling a résumé, tucked neatly in a blue folder, from her black bag.

Saud helps lead the Iraqi Women's League, an activist group whose members teach women computer skills, English and how to be assertive in a male-dominated world.

Saud is thin as a matchstick with an angular face and sad, piercing eyes behind oval glasses. She wore a black blouse and a black skirt -- and pink lipstick, just enough to not attract attention.

With violence falling across Iraq, urban women have gained some freedom. They can drive, wear makeup or walk in some areas without head scarves -- actions once forbidden by religious vigilantes.

Saud said she hopes that women such as Selma can help embolden other women and change perceptions by becoming role models in the workplaces. But on this day, as on many others, Saud was confronted with Iraq's reality: One of Abdul-Zahra's co-workers, also in a head scarf, blurted, "Doesn't she have wasta?"

Saud remembered when Iraqi women didn't need wasta -- connections -- to find a job. In the late 1970s, thousands of Iraqi women, then among the most liberated in the Arab world, worked as doctors, engineers and civil servants.

The daughter of a tailor, Saud wanted to become an accountant. But she soon realized that only women who joined Hussein's Baath Party could succeed in such a profession, so she left the university and found work in a pharmacy. There she held secret meetings of the Women's League.

Her brother, Mahmoud, was taken into custody for being a Communist. Inside her cramped bedroom, where buttery sunlight floats through tan curtains, Saud keeps her brother's execution order in a box under her bed. She has worn black since he was hanged in 1983.

"The power I get is because of these experiences," said Saud, who has not married.

After the invasion, she and 30 Women's League members started their workshops. But by 2005, Iraqi women were being attacked for not covering their faces or for being too educated. Some had acid thrown in their faces. Many feared leaving home.

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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