Iraqi women face widespread abuse and discrimination | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 09.03.2012
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Iraqi women face widespread abuse and discrimination

Iraqi women enjoyed some of the highest levels of rights and social participation in the region before 1991. DW spoke to several of them about the worrying and increasingly deteriorating situation.

Iraqi women protesting

Iraqi women say their rights and personal freedoms are under constant attack

"We had the first woman minister and the first women judge in the whole Middle East in 1959, what has happened to us?" asks Hannah Edward, a leading women's rights advocate in Iraq.

"The situation has deteriorated dramatically since 2003. The government is directing its policies toward a complete discrimination of the Iraqi women from decision making as a whole. We play almost no role in politics or party leadership," Edward told DW from the NGO office she leads in Baghdad's Karrada district, on the east bank of the Tigris river. Unfortunately, it seems that discrimination is not exclusive to the political arena.

"Ours is a country where 10 or 11- year-old girls are forced to marry men who are often 30 years older than them. This implies among other things, a massive psychological trauma. Besides these girls are kept away from school and their kids will be in an irregular situation as we're taking about marriage outside the courts," added Edward.

A women's rights activist

Women's rights activist Hannah Edward

In February 2011, New York-based Human Rights Watch reported extensively on "widespread women and girls trafficking for sexual exploitation" as well as numerous abuses against widows - who number over one million and a half in Iraq - such as so-called pleasure marriages, a previously banned traditional practice which critics say is akin to prostitution. Human Rights Watch said that "religious and government institutions are sometimes complicit in their exploitation."

"We've wasted an awful lot of time trying to ban those laws that go against us, women, but in vain," Ashwaq Jaf, a member of parliament of the Kurdish Alliance, told DW during a Parliament session break, inside the heavily guarded Green Zone.

"We've been moving backwards since 2003 regarding Human Rights. The crux of the matter here is that we have two penal codes: there's the Iraqi Constitution, but also the sharia - the Islamic law. Accordingly, contradictions between both often lead to ambiguous vacuums that make us even more vulnerable," the 39-year old explained.

Jaf claims she faced no discrimination whatsoever during her political career from her fellow male Kurdish political colleagues. Nonetheless, Iraqi Kurdistan is the only place in Iraq where female genital mutilation is still practised in certain isolated areas. Moreover, the government registered 3,766 cases of abuse against women in Iraqi Kurdistan last year.

Two Iraqi women

Iraqi women are subject to a long list of abuses and crimes

Other than the apparently ineffective laws and the blatant impunity in which such crimes and abuses are committed, Iraqi women face all sort of hurdles in their daily lives. Thirty-six-year-old Kholoud Amiry, from the holy Shia city of Kerbala, knows how difficult it is to be a female journalist in Iraq.

"In the beginning, no one at home supported me when I said I wanted to be a journalist," she told DW. "Today I've earned their respect, basically because only a handful of women who get a degree in journalism are actually working as such today."

Once in the street, though, gender discrimination is very much in evidence, Kholoud admits:

"Often, security forces at either demonstrations or the scenario of an attack yell at me things such as 'you're a woman, why don't you stay at home?'"

Another demonstrator, Amiry, dresses in black and covers her head with a hijab as a personal choice but she wonders whether that will be the trend for professional women in the close future.

"They want to pass a law which will ban bright colours and tight clothes at work," she says. "And this is just yet another clear proof of the constant deterioration of personal freedoms we're being subjected to after 2003."

Rowaa Alweany concurs, adding that she "couldn't care less" about the sexist comments she often receives sitting in her car while she has to wait at one of Baghdad's many checkpoints. Once a dancer at the country's most famous dance ensemble, this woman in her mid-40s today shares her experience with young girls and boys through dramatic arts and film workshops.

"There's an increasingly big taboo over arts in Iraq but the government should understand that religion is fully compatible with culture, and even part of it," Alweany told DW. She points to a lack of arts colleges in Iraq, something which "prevents women from taking 'mens' jobs such as a cameraman or computer engineer."

"Getting good skills is a basic step for women to take a bigger role in the community," Baghdadi says after an video-editing class.

Dalal Jumma also works for the female community but she tackles more pressing problems. Ever since the 60-year old set up the Iraqi Women Freedom Organization in 2005, her NGO has given moral, legal and economic support to hundreds of victims of violence and other abuses.

"Those who face such a situation and get to overcome it afterwards are the best ones when it comes to helping others in a similar situation."

Like many other activists, she thinks the separation between religion and politics would be a "mandatory step" toward equality between Iraqi men and women.

An Iraqi child holding up a sign

Education would go a long way toward helping Iraqi women achieve their aims

"I often think the politicians in power want to impose sharia on us, simply because they have millions of hijabs in stock," Jumma jokes.

Among the cases Jumma is currently tackling, is the fate of a number of lesbian girls who are hiding in Baghdad after being threatened by the Mehdi militia, an armed group led by political and religious leader Moqtada al Sadr. Unofficial reports say that dozens of gays have been killed in Baghdad since February 6 following a fatwa - an Islamic ruling - that encourages followers "to kill them in the most brutal way."

"I wish we could travel back in time to the 40s and 50s," says Jumma. "Those were Iraq's years of splendour for women when the majority of us were educated and free."

Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Baghdad
Editor: Rob Mudge