The guns are quiet in Basra now, but behind the veil fear lingers
While some security has finally arrived for the women of Basra, deep-rooted extremism remains an obstacle as they attempt to rebuild their lives
Lamis Munshed grew up in a house of music, filled with tambourines, lutes and newly carved guitars, and the scent of freshly cut timber hanging in the air like incense. But that was before the militias over-ran Basra, outlawing most sport and music and confining women like her to their homes.
“That was our livelihood,” the 26-year-old said of the vocation her father was ordered to abandon, leading to the family’s income being slashed. Although security has improved, her father is too fearful of the militias’ return to start up his business again – but Lamis, at least, has been able to restart her studies, walk down the streets and dare to dream again.
Even so, as British troops depart Basra, her life is far short of the utopia she had envisaged when Challenger tanks first rolled into town six years ago. “When the British came first to Basra, the people’s reaction to them was fine,” she said. “Then it started to change, because of the different ideologies and the outsiders who came to Iraq to settle an account with America and the Iraqi people. We were the victims.”
Before the Saddam years and even during them, Iraq blazed a trail in the education of women, with highly qualified females earning prominent positions in many public roles as well as academia and medicine. It was hailed as a hub of learning across the region and a relatively progressive beacon which women in neighbouring states could some day hope to emulate.
But it has never been easy to be a woman in Basra. Under Saddam’s rule, women in the southern city had a much more restricted life than their counterparts in other Iraqi regions.
Basran society had always lagged behind, in attitudes, as well as in tangibles. And when the British arrived in 2003, it seemed at first as though things might change for the better. “It was nice to know there was no longer a dictator looking over us,” said Basma al-Waili, an elderly Basran.
But within a couple of years, the British soldiers had retreated to their bases. Militias filled the void, bringing with them hardline Islamic teachings that made life insufferable for Basra women. Their city and the surrounding areas were ravaged by an insurgency that placed it high among the most violent enclaves in an impossibly brutal country. Many of the basic tenets of family life were simply put on hold. Ambition had to wait. Now, again, the possibility of improvement is beginning to seep into women’s minds.
“We suffered a lot,” said Dr Nisrine Salem, 38, a physician at Basra hospital. “For 35 years we were too terrified to express our opinion. Since 2003, the change has been substantial, but we are still suffering. It’s like when a child is born, he comes from darkness to light. Now we are thinking of studying and travelling, and learning more from researchers and experts.”
Salem feels less opposition from society these days to her role as a professional. “I think women enjoy around 80-90% more liberation than before,” she said. “Basra women have seized their freedom and in many ways we have broken the chains that once bound us … The British gave us security. Now it’s up to us.”
But many other women are far less bullish, believing tribal customs and long-hated societal laws have been legitimised by the enforcement of four years of puritanical Islamic law.
Eham al-Zubeidi, 33, women’s advocate, said the departing troops unwittingly ushered in such regressive moves throughout society. “The coalition forces were responsible for the terrorists crossing our borders,” she claimed. “They turned the streets into graveyards for many women and children.
“The will of Iraqis to save their lives made them stand on their feet again, but we still need to fight prejudice and ignorance in our society. We will succeed … After 2004-05, it was very difficult for women – and it was also harder for the men. There were extra burdens on both sides. People were very tired psychologically, healthcare was crushed. There was no hope. But we have … prevailed. Our land will always create and regenerate.”
“Basra was a sad city over the last six years,” said science student Yisra Mohammed Al-Rubaiy, 22. “All you ever heard was that someone who you know was killed. There was a soundtrack of gunshots or clashes and there were so many problems for women. You cannot imagine the numbers of women who were killed. But now we as women can say the greatest part of the threat has gone, and I hope it will never return.”
Intesar Salem, 48, a secondary school teacher, said breaking the hold of fundamental Islam was a partial key to a budding regeneration she sees now. However, she said attitudes needed to change to stabilise the gains. “We want to separate religion and state in Iraq. We do not want to distinguish between Iraqis on the basis of nationality and religion, gender and race. We want equality for all inhabitants of Iraq and we want equality for women.”
Iraqi women still have a long path to travel. The United Nations Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit says only 18% of women participate in the labour force nationwide, and 24% of women are illiterate. Illiteracy rates are at least three times higher for women over 50, with around 18% of Iraqi girls aged 18-29 unable to read or write.
“My daughters have stopped going to school altogether,” said Kareema Saber, 34, a widowed pensioner with eight children. “They left because I cannot pay for them.” Her three school-aged boys are still attending classes.
Mona Massoud, director of the Iraqi Women’s League, said education was under chronic stress, because many teachers have fled and families who had kept their children from school now wanted them to catch up on lost years of learning. “There are no new kindergartens, the schools are very crowded,” she said. “There are three shifts of children attending schools each day. The militias and the military raids caused chaos in education.”
Vocational training is also under pressure. Many women need to work because the family’s main income earner was killed, but there are a tiny number of training facilities to meet demand.
“Now women have an opportunity to participate more, but there is a quota,” said Massoud. “We are teaching women how to use the computer, and sewing and hair-dressing. They are only small projects, but they are a start for greater participation.”
Kareema Hassan, a social affairs officer in the Basra governorate, said: “Large numbers of women have begun coming to our centre asking for jobs. Many of them are widows, they don’t ask for money, they want to work.” A small number of government and council grants are available, but nowhere near enough to cater for demand.
“We are trying many ways to reduce the effects of unemployment and we are also trying to reduce illiteracy rates,” Hassan added. “Basra society has begun to accept women working to help men. They are getting better salaries, but not by much.”
That is some comfort to students such as Hiba Karim, 21, who attends a college in central Basra. But she still worries intently about her future in the new Iraq.
“We still have many fears. When I go to college I wear a hijab. I am very scared of extremist parties, but I can learn and study. I hope to get work. Security has improved dramatically here. The real war which targeted women has ended, but our fears still exist because Basra is a tribal society and it is restricted by religious and tribal tradition. But I can say that the women of Basra have finally started to breathe the freedom.”
Suha Abbas, 24, a recent engineering graduate, is still looking for a job two years after graduating. “Young women here have the same problems as other Iraqi women,” she says. “Most companies prefer to employ men only. We don’t have an equal chance.
“Security has improved, but not everywhere. It seems unbelievable that in some districts, women doctors, teachers and activists have been assassinated for not wearing hijabs. But it’s true … In Basra, a woman can go to college and work, but she cannot drive a car, go out for the evening, or play sport.”
Assma Abdul Majeed, 32, an Arabic teacher, said piecemeal gains would be close to pointless without a revolutionary approach to shifting centuries of tradition and a blind acceptance of crimes against women, such as violence, which remains pervasive in Basra society.
The United Nations report found that one in five married women throughout the country had been a victim of violence. Prosecuting a violent husband is almost unheard of, because of a woman’s reluctance to bring “shame” on her family by going to the police and because of cumbersome laws that require two witnesses to support any accusation.
Zainab al-Zubeidi, 40, who runs a women’s charity in Basra, said: “Violence is a very, very big problem, especially in the tribes. We have established a violence against women network. But there is also a role for women themselves. If they don’t want to change, how can we change them?”
But, she continued: “If I have to compare, or choose I would go with life as it is now. We know that sacrifices have to be made … It is the price we pay for something they really want, in our case freedom. It was worth every drop of blood spilled on this land. It is our fate and our future. Women in Iraq are becoming more visible on many stages. They need that and have earned it.”
Part of a longer article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/18/iraq-legacy-extremism-basra-women
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