IRAQ: Iraqi women: Winners or Losers in a War-torn Society?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011
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As the remaining US troops in Iraq prepare to return home, how has life changed for women in the country they are leaving behind? Junior hospital doctor Lubna Naji is used to dealing with mass casualties. Last week it was a bomb explosion at Baghdad's biggest market.

"The emergency room was a total mess. Distressed people, burns, shell injuries. But I finished duty, ordered some food and soon I was laughing again.

"If we grieved about every single tragedy that happens over here we will spend our entire lives grieving because it's continuous," says the 25-year-old.

The number of people killed in terrorist attacks is significantly lower than at the height of the sectarian civil war here. But the death toll last month was 258 and there are fears of another upsurge after the Americans are gone.

"It's all us ordinary Iraqis versus them, the bad guys, who want to paralyse the country. This conflict has not spared a single Iraqi person," says Lubna.

So what are the US troops leaving behind? Lubna and I take a tour of Baghdad to find out.

We start in the staunchly conservative neighbourhood of Sadr City. It is often described as a slum, but most of it is no worse than the rest of Baghdad.

Mariam feels life has improved, but is worried about the future of women's rights. Mariam, who is 38, has six children and has lived in Sadr City all her life. We find the family watching cartoons on a massive TV screen in the corner of their spacious living room. She says their lives have changed for the better since the US-led invasion.

"We have democracy now, freedom of expression. People can breathe and the economy has improved, so it's good for us." But Mariam has one big worry. Her 19-year-old daughter got married last year but divorced shortly afterwards.

"My daughter used to be a star in the neighbourhood but now people look down on her. They never blame the man. Only the woman. They say she must have done something wrong."

For most women in Baghdad the democracy the US and her allies delivered has not brought more freedom. In fact, Lubna says women's rights have deteriorated.

"Women used to behave in a more liberal way under Saddam. And I hate to say that, because I hate Saddam so much, but women were freer under Saddam."

Tahrir protests
En route to our next visit we pass Baghdad's Tahrir Square. Protesters gathered here at the start of the Arab Spring in February, but there was a violent clampdown by security forces. Police and plain-clothed officers easily outnumber the small handful of protesters who still gather every Friday.

The government denies they are worried about the protests. But journalists and demonstrators have been arrested and detained accused of being Baathists, Saddam-era sympathisers.

Our next visit is to Shatha Adnan. At the height of the sectarian violence in 2006 Shatha was nearly killed in a suicide bomb attack.

Her face is covered in deep scars. She still has shrapnel in her knee. The family had to sell their home to pay for all the surgery she needed.

They are victims of political violence, but they do not know who the attacker was, and Shatha's daughter Duaa will not tell us whether her family is Sunni or Shia.

Shatha Adnan said: "We're Iraqis and we're Muslims. We all pray to the same God.

"'Sunni or Shia?' No-one used to ask this question. That's the biggest problem in Iraq today. I'm afraid for my country."

Camp for widows
Our final stop is a camp for widows north of Baghdad.

It is estimated at least 1.5m women have lost their husbands to the violence of the last three decades. About 100 of them live here with their children in rows of trailers arranged around a scruffy yard.

Sitting in a rusty wheelchair, watching his friends play football, is 20-year-old Hassan. It was while playing football that Hassan lost both his legs and one of his arms was badly mangled.

Six improvised explosive devices (IEDs) exploded at the football pitch in Diyala province where Hassan used to play. They were buried in the penalty box. Hassan lost his father in a separate attack.

But it is the Iraq government that Hassan gets most angry about.

"If this had happened to someone with relatives in the government they would have sent me out of the country for good treatment.

"They gave me two artificial legs, but they're too heavy, and they hurt so I had to throw them away."

Um Ahmed invites us into her trailer. It is made of metal and sweltering in the summer, freezing in the winter.

She lives there with her six children. Her youngest daughter nearly died of pneumonia last winter.

"Her little feet were like ice," says Um Ahmed. "The family of a martyr deserves better than this."

Um Ahmed's husband was tortured and killed in Basra five years ago.

She flinches as she recalls the gruesome details of his murder. It was the sort of random killing that is almost entirely unheard of in Iraq today.

Despite everything Um Ahmed said she cannot decide whether she is a winner or a loser in the new Iraq. She is Shia and her people now have the lion's share of power in Iraq's coalition government. And that gives her hope.

"I am pleading with [the Iraqi prime minister] Nouri al-Maliki to provide jobs and social security. On the television he talks about providing a bright future for Iraq, but nothing is changing here."

Charlotte Ashton