Women in Iraq: “Like being inside a big prison”
The plight of women in Iraq is of growing concern, with increasing reports of murders, rapes and kidnappings, as well as general intimidation and oppression. Three Iraqi women give their views on living under the threat of violence.
(The names of the interviewees have been changed. 'Leyla' is from Anbar and is active in women’s rights organizations. 'Amina' runs a humanitarian association in Baghdad, helping orphans and the homeless. 'Mona' is an administration official in Basra. All three took part in a conference on the needs of women in conflict , held in Amman in December 2006.)
What impact has the war had on Iraqi women?
Leyla: The internal conflict has caused both direct and indirect effects on women here. As a direct effect, the Iraqi woman has somewhat lost her identity and status in the midst of what is going on in the country. For example, female parliamentarians can not fully assume their status and role; they just represent numbers that were required to fill in and promote election lists.
Direct and indirect effects on women cannot be separated from the general situation, in particular the sectarian divide. There were 500 forced divorces in just a month, simply because husbands and wives belonged to different sects!
Amina: The conflict has had a direct impact on women, both materially and morally. Displacements, killings, abductions, cases of rape have created an atmosphere of terror and anxiety. On top of that, there is the fear of losing family members because of all these dangers and threats. However, there is a positive side, in the sense that families and family ties become all the more important.
Sectarian violence has also strongly affected the social situation of the Iraqi woman. Divorce rates have increased, causing material and psychological damage to women. The Iraqi woman feels as if she was inside a big prison. In addition, the financial and economic situation of men (mainly through unemployment) has worsened, which puts an extra burden on women's shoulders.
Mona: Internal conflicts come out of the very womb of society. They often result from the loss of general security and from external interventions. I think that the problem in Iraq is temporary. Let us hope that it will end in the course of time and with the determination of the Iraqi people to rebuild their country.
How do Iraqi women cope, and can they help others?
Amina: Speaking for myself, seeing the suffering of the Iraqis in general and of women in particular, and wanting to do something about it, I decided to establish a shelter for orphans. I managed to gather together children from different sects and religions – Sunni, Shia, Christian – so that it would somehow represent a small Iraq with all its religious diversity.
By doing this, I also wanted to stress the fact that religion is for God and our country is for us all, and that people can live together without being deprived of their identity and individuality.
Mona: Every family lives in fear of what might happen to its family members. Yet, as individuals living in our society, we keep silent about what is going on. The woman is helpless in such circumstances and cannot be active unless this situation stops.
Leyla: Although the Iraqi woman is quite helpless today, she can still give some economic and cultural assistance, whenever possible. For example, I was able to help 600 d isplaced families with relief provided by the ICRC.
Women in Iraq can also contribute to spreading religious values in the right way. This is particularly relevant nowadays, considering that some media have completely ignored the Iraqi woman and her suffering, especially in Baghdad, while stressing sectarianism.
How do you see the future for Iraqi women?
Mona: The Iraqi woman has proved to have a lot of potential. But all the tragic stories we have heard about her are way short of the reality, w hich is far, far worse.
Leyla: I do not have any clear vision regarding the future of Iraqi women. In Anbar, we do not experience sectarian or domestic violence against women, thanks to the nature of the community which consists of tribes and families that are closely inter-related.
Amina: To me, the future of the Iraqi woman is bright and positive, but only after the tragedy we are experiencing now is over and after all these militias disappear. The Iraqi woman is strong and she has managed to stand the test of history, in particular by helping others regain their humanity and self-confidence.