Iraq: Iraq’s hidden war

Extremists have shot women activists in the streets and killed them in private. Other threats are more insidious—and may be growing. Article by Babak Dehghanpisheh, Eve Conant and Rod Nordland.
March 7 issue – When the kidnappers came for Zeena al Qushtaini, she was dressed, as one friend put it, “in the latest fashion.” She wore a $5,000 watch, her hands were manicured and her hair was highlighted to accent her blue eyes.
Many of her friends were women’s rights activists, but few were as conspicuously modern as Qushtaini. She was a divorced, single mother in her late 30s who supported two children with a full-time office job. She also ran a pharmacy with her business partner, Dr. Ziad Baho.

It was evening at the pharmacy, and Qushtaini and Baho were behind the counter when six men in business suits burst in brandishing automatic weapons. The men wrapped duct tape across the mouths of Qushtaini and Baho, then took them away in a pair of SUVs. Relatives of the two captives waited for a ransom demand that never came. When the bodies were found 10 days later, beside a highway just south of Baghdad, Baho had been beheaded. Qushtaini was dressed in the long black gown favored by Islamic fundamentalists. A scarf covered her hair—something she never wore in life. It was bloodied from the single bullet to the side of her head.

The twin messages, of her life and her death, were unmistakable. There are a lot of women in Iraq who are looking forward to the freedom that Iraq’s experiment with democracy promises them. And there are hard-liners who would kill them for it. Qushtaini was one of many prominent Iraqi women who have been slaughtered, apparently by Islamic extremists; 20 have been killed in Mosul alone, and a dozen more in Baghdad. Just last week the corpse of a female television presenter turned up with a bullet hole in her head. Raiedah Mohammed Wageh Wazan had been kidnapped by gunmen in Mosul on Feb. 20. Her husband decided not to hold a funeral procession after being warned against it by insurgents.

The terrorists are a minority, yet they are not the only worry for secular-minded Iraqis. As elected officials enter a third week of wrangling over forming a new government, leading Iraqi women are concerned that they’ll lose out. On the face of it, they should be pleased. Nearly a third of the newly elected legislators are women, which is unprecedented in the region. (In neighboring Saudi Arabia, for instance, women can’t even vote.) And Iraq’s politicians have agreed to a transitional law that encourages equal rights for women in the new Constitution. But the National Assembly’s makeup was the result of a quota imposed by the former American administrator, L. Paul Bremer III. Only his veto kept an earlier Iraqi government, the appointed Governing Council, from imposing Islamic Sharia on family matters. And Americans don’t have such veto power any longer.

Prewar Iraq was a brutal dictatorship, but it had a good record on women’s rights, at least by the standards of the region. Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party professed equality and, on many social issues, practiced it. Women could divorce their husbands, inherit property, even keep their children after a breakup. Women commonly held professional jobs, even high-ranking ones. They had equal educational opportunities, and rarely wore head coverings in the cities, except in heavily Shia areas. But the Baath Party was largely a Sunni Arab institution, and the progressive status of women wasn’t shared in Shia areas to nearly the same degree. The Shia, though numerically greater, were largely disenfranchised under Saddam; now they’ll dominate the government. “The Baath regime, despite their thuggery and terror, they did well by women,” says Iraqi-American Amal Rassam of Freedom House, an advocacy group based in the United States.

Already activists have seen changes for the worse that they hadn’t imagined possible. Attendance by female students at schools and universities is in decline, according to a upcoming report by Freedom House, which will be released in May. “Women I’ve met in Baghdad tell me they now have to wear the higab [Islamic headscarf] when they go out, for fear of harassment,” says Rassam, who wrote the Iraqi section of the report. Dalia, a married 28-year-old, describes how she was walking home about six months ago in Baghdad when three men pulled up beside her and berated her for wearing jeans and a T shirt. “I am Christian and not Muslim,” she told them. One of the men jumped out and tried to rip her T shirt off, shouting, “Saddam’s time has changed. Everyone must respect Islam.” Fortunately, bystanders intervened. “In Iraq we’ve lived a modern life for more than half a century,” says Yannar Mohammed, head of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. “This is not a conservative Islamic society like the West portrays us. We’re surprised by the rise of political Islam.”

Fear of terror attacks by Islamic radicals has driven many women to simply stay home; Women for Women International (WFWI) estimates that millions are effectively housebound because of the threat of violence. “This is a critical period,” says activist Naba al Barak, a biology professor at Baghdad University. “But even now, the most important thing is security. Women’s issues will have to come second. If there is no security, we won’t even be able to go out to the streets to protest something that is against our rights.” When the former Governing Council tried to enact Sharia legislation in December 2003, women’s groups protested on the streets, and their agitation persuaded Bremer to intervene and block the law’s enactment. Such demonstrations now would simply present insurgents with easy targets.

The murdered pharmacy owner was one such target. “Zeena Qushtaini lived in Baghdad all her life—she was active and independent and was used to going out in Western clothes,” says Manal Omar, who directs WFWI’s Iraq office. “She didn’t realize how much Baghdad had changed.” Qushtaini’s friend Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American who founded WFWI in Washington, D.C., says, “Women have been targeted for assassination in a very systematic way in Iraq. They each have the same profile: educated, working, outspoken woman who has kept her old lifestyle.”

Two other apparent assassinations of activist women particularly terrorized the well- organized feminist community in Baghdad. Only two weeks before Qushtaini was killed, an activist named Alham (relatives requested that we not use her family name) was abducted near the resistance hotbed of Abu Ghraib, a suburb of Baghdad better known for its notorious prison. Alham had a briefcase full of fliers announcing a women’s conference and an address book listing fellow activists. She was never seen again, and her family has declared her dead. “She had almost all our phone numbers, knew all our locations and the names of all major players working on women’s issues,” says Omar. One of Alham’s contacts also went missing only a week later. Others went into hiding, and some have taken to wearing body armor and carrying pistols. Omar moved to Amman, Jordan, after the CARE director, Margaret Hassan, an Anglo-Iraqi, was abducted and murdered last year. “It’s scary when you’ve entered into a time when women activists call each other at night to make sure everyone is still alive,” Omar says.

Many of the high-profile attacks on women activists have been notably brutal, even by the bloodthirsty standards of the resistance in Iraq. Amal Mamalchi had been at her job at the Ministry of Public Works for only two months when terrorists caught up with her on Nov. 20 last year; she was far better known as a prominent member of the Iraqi Women’s Network, an umbrella organization for 80 Iraqi groups. Four men armed with AK-47s surrounded her car on a Baghdad street and riddled it with 160 bullets, hitting her at least 10 times, according to police. “This is going against years and years of tradition, of honor and culture where women are immune from this [organized] violence,” Salbi says. “Traditionally, women are not supposed to be kidnapped and not supposed to be assassinated.”

The assassination campaign is conducted by Sunni Arab extremists, who make up the active resistance in Iraq now. But there have also been threats from Shia radicals. Fulla Khalil, 20, noticed a creepy change in her central Baghdad neighborhood after followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took control of a Shiite mosque there. “The looks toward me changed,” says Khalil, who works at the office of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. “I felt like I was being monitored.” The young men in her apartment complex stopped talking to her; an elderly guard stopped walking her to her apartment door. About three months ago, the threats started.

The first warning came from a young man she used to know inside the apartment complex: don’t wear tight pants or leave your hair uncovered. Khalil ignored him. Roughly a month later, a second warning was passed to her father: don’t let your daughter wear blouses. The last warning came about two weeks ago and was given directly to Khalil: stop working for the women’s organization or we will kill you. She tried talking to men in her complex who occasionally attend the militant mosque, hoping to get the death threat repealed. They refused to talk to her. “These people have a reactionary view,” says Khalil, cracking her knuckles nervously. “You can’t talk to them in a normal way.” Khalil avoids hanging out in her complex now, and tries to sneak back and forth to work without being noticed.

Women like Khalil share a broader concern about the direction the new government might lead them. The elected government will be drafting a new Constitution; the most contentious issue will be family law, and the extent to which that is dictated by Islamic precepts. The crux of the issue is laid out in the transitional law that Iraqi leaders agreed to, which states that Islam is “a source of law” for Iraq. Secular Iraqis see that as meaning one of the sources, but not the only source. The Shia leadership sees it as meaning the dominant source of law.

Just how that is worded in the Constitution will shape the rights women have, whether it’s the right to take a job if one’s husband opposes it (which conservative clerics condemn), or the right of a husband to have more than one wife. Making Islam the authority in such matters would mean leaving interpretation of family law to clerics. “In many cases the Qur’an isn’t clear on some matters,” says Maysoon Damluji, a candidate in the recent elections. “So the real danger is that clerics would decide how to resolve the case.” Or, in the view of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq: “Sharia only means practicing organized discrimination against women, depriving women of the few rights they had under the former Baath regime.”

The Constitution will have to be approved by two thirds of the National Assembly, so the dominant Shia bloc will need to build coalitions with secular groups. Those groups will have their own agendas, but some key players intend to make women’s rights a central issue. The secular-minded Kurds, for instance, have been holding out for greater autonomy in their northern areas. But they also want guarantees on social issues, including women’s rights. “There’s no way that we would accept a funda-mentalist regime in Baghdad as the price for more autonomy,” says a senior Kurdish official.

Already in the heavily Shia south of Iraq, Sharia is routinely applied in the courts— despite the Saddam-era laws giving women greater rights, says Aseel Abdul Khaleq, a woman lawyer who handles family cases. “They have the same law as Baghdad but they’re using Sharia law. The next government will apply Sharia to the maximum extent.” Even in Kirkuk, a religiously diverse community in the north, women have been sprayed with acid for not covering up properly, says Songul Chapook, a politician from Kirkuk who has survived several assassination attempts. She has finally given in and wears a headscarf, although she insists on a loud pink one. “We have to put the men of religion out of government,” she says. “If we don’t act now, we could lose our rights forever.” For Iraq’s independent-minded women, hemmed in between Sunni terrorists and Shia hard-liners, the struggle for Iraq’s soul could last generations.

With Owen Matthews in Baghdad, Kathryn Williams in New York and Carla Power in London

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.