Veiled interests

Iraqi women debate religion, democracy, and head scarves. But is anyone listening?

By Lauren Sandler, 8/31/2003

Boston Globe

BAGHDAD--When 25 members of Iraqi women's groups met in Baghdad's former convention center earlier this month, the most heated debate concerned not women's personal security, economic aspirations, or legal rights but something more quotidianDown arrowwhether or not to wear the hajab, the head scarf favored by a majority of Iraqi women.

The fracas began when a participant circulated a letter discussing whether the hajab is a form of intellectual terrorism against women. One woman stood up and declared, "The hajab is backward! We must move on!" Others began talking loudly about the importance of their culture, their modesty, their history. "They were very confused, but very passionate," says Manal Omar, who heads up the Women for Women International office here. "This was always an issue, but now it's like a duel. I thought they were going to start throwing shoes at each other."When US-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001, Americans were treated to a 24-hour B-roll of images of Afghan women throwing off their burqas. Bare faces smiling shyly at the cameras were beamed around the world as the very symbol of liberation. But the hajab is not the burqa, just as Iraq is not Afghanistan. In Iraq, where women have known both considerable equality and considerable lockdown, they have come to wear the hajab for reasons that are often as contradictory and conflicted as their own pasts.

For the first time in decades, Iraqi women and the organizations that work to promote their interests are speaking out. But it's not yet clear what they want to sayDown arrowor who is listening.. . .

In a pink office off one of the endless, chaotic corridors of the Baghdad Teaching Hospital in Medical City, Dr. Imam Majid tends to women patients in a white cotton hajab. Like so many women here, she speaks of the considerable number of Iraqi women who have been practicing medicine or working as lawyers or teaching in universities since the 1920s."We still all work, yes, but things have changed. Look at that picture," Dr. Imam says, pointing across her office to a framed photograph of the department a few years ago. "How many are wearing the hajab?" (Not one of the 13 women on the staff.) "Today we all do. I began in 1999. When you have a problem, you need to go nearer to God. Many of us have had many problems now, and many of us have lost someone to death. We have changed over these wars."

In the swinging 1960s and oil-rich `70s, while the black abaya (which shows only the face and hands) remained de rigueur in rural areas, most women in Baghdad threw off their robes and joined their cosmopolitan sisters abroad in sleeveless tops and roller-pressed hair. Baghdad's women were among the most educated in the world, says Kaukab Jailil, a member of the Iraqi Women's League leadership committee. "It was the golden era for Iraqi women," she recalls wistfully. Women worked for equal payDown arrowmany as professionals with doctorates, some even heading up ministries and political parties.Amal Al-Khadeiri, a long-standing member of the Baghdad intelligentsia, recalls being part of an all-female Red Crescent delegation that attended a conference in Libya in the `60s. "We got off the plane and they said, `Where is the delegation?' Because we were all women, they couldn't believe we were the representatives of a country. That was the real Iraq then, not like now," she says.

But in the 1980s, as husbands, fathers, and sons were "martyred" in the war with Iran, many women turned to Islam in mourning and began to take up the hajab. Then, after what many now refer to as the "first American war" in 1991 and the devastating years of economic sanctions, another wave of veiling took the city.Partly, the change was cosmetic. "When gray hair comes out, many women cannot afford to dye it. I know so many women who cover for that reason," explains Wassan Al Souz, an old-guard member of the Iraqi Women's League whose own gray hair is dyed a deep mahogany.

Partly, the change was encouraged by Iraqi men, who often came back from the wars looking for a woman who radiated the traditional values symbolized by the veil. (And sometimes looking for more than one woman: In response to the dire man shortage, in the mid-1990s the government reestablished polygamy.) "The mentality of men changed about the image of women, and so the mentality of women changed," says Dr. Fawzia Al-Atia, a professor of sociology at Baghdad University.The 1990s also brought harsh new laws as Saddam Hussein sought to prop up the manhood of returning soldiers while also taking his secular government in more Islamic directions. Under article 427 of the Penal Code, rapists would be forgiven their crimes if they married their victims. And under article 409, those who committed "honor killings" of female relatives for perceived sexual indiscretions -- including being the victim of a rape -- were punished, if at all, with no more than three years in prison.

Now that Saddam's regime is gone, women are experiencing both new freedoms and new threats as reformers, religious groups, and street criminals all wrestle for power. Many women say they are afraid that if they aren't wearing the hajab, they won't get treated at hospitals or that they will become more likely targets for kidnappers and rapists.But the topic of rape is too controversial even for most women's groups to raise. On Aug. 24, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq demonstrated against the abduction and murder of women since the war. The event took place in Firdos Square, site of the famous toppled statue of Saddam. The crowd of 60 or so included only a handful of women beyond the Western journalists hoisting video cameras and notebooks. "This is my first demonstration for 35 years," said a woman in a cream polyester hajab with a matching suit and handbag. "I came out here all by myself today to raise my voice, but where are all the women?"

The only female speaker was Yanar Mohammed, a member of the Communist Party who has quickly developed a reputation by speaking out in favor of free love. But even Mohammed knew to word her group's placards and speeches in terms of abduction and murder but never rape. Wassan Al Souz of the Iraqi Women's League explains with a sigh, "To get involved with rape or prostitution right now would be a disaster. We'd be attacked by religious parties because of all the Islamic issues that could be involved. We have to adopt women's issues step by step.". . .

In an Iraq that still lacks much of a free press, women's groups are largely unknown to the average Iraqi. Founded in the 1950s, the Women's League sank into secrecy under Saddam's regime. It emerged again only four months ago. Now it has some 500 members, though the younger ones tend to act tentatively, as they have known no freedom of speech or organization in their lifetimes.Regardless of their religious or political affiliation, occupation, age, or socioeconomic position, women regularly voice the same two complaints. First, they articulate their paralyzing fear of violence. Then, after some prodding, they speak of their disappointment in the three women on the US-appointed Governing Council. "We do not know them," woman after woman says with a shrug. "Who are they?"

Those who do know them say they are a trinity representing no political parties and that they have limited experience at best."The ones they have picked are puppets. They are terrible symbols for Iraqi women," says a lawyer in a navy blue head scarf, clucking her tongue. Says one schoolteacher with kohl-rimmed eyes, "And if they're going to fail, that's it. They won't give this chance to women again. And we are more than half women here."

These disdained representatives are Raja Habib Khuzai, a Shia maternity doctor; Songul Chapouk, a Turkmen art teacher who heads up the grassroots Iraqi Women's Organization; and a woman known simply as "Aklila" -- Akila Al Hashimi, a close family friend and onetime employee of former Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz.Among those who gathered recently at a women's political leadership event (held, rather oddly, at a restaurant called "La Coquette"), Akila is seen by most as the closest thing to a legitimate appointment.

"She is the only hope on the council, and look at who she is!" exclaims a young Assyrian Democratic Movement member. "Maybe she was a double agent," remarks an art dealer across town in her cool white gallery. She adds bitterly, as do so many women here, that the governing council looks like a radical feminist meeting next to the new constitutional committee, which counts zero women among its 25 members.. . .

Still, basic questions of safety and economic security eclipse talk of politics most days. "I used to think in terms of political reform," says Hanaa Edwards, a veteran of the 1960s student movement who leads a women's organization headquartered in the more liberal Kurdish North. "But now, humanitarian assistance is what's important. We used to talk about equality. Now it's just this desperate push for improvement."Edwards often says that women's lives can be changed only through grassroots efforts, not the efforts of any governing board. "It's the toughest thing now to do this. Women are waiting for orders. All they have is fear, no self-confidence. This is not about hajab. They cover themselves or they don't, it is all the same."

For all her frustration, Edwards believes in the sentiment behind her organization's name, which means "hope." A word more commonly repeated by women these days is "saburat," which means "patience." But what you'll hear even more often from the lips of millions of women, hajab-wearing or not, is simply "inshallah" -- God willing.

Lauren Sandler is a New York-based journalist. She is currently writing from Iraq on behalf of the Carr Foundation.