Saturday, February 26, 2005

Women of Iraq

This was a really interesting article I came accross in New York Post titled Democracy V. Women:

The excuse for the man-bites-dog headlines is a new study from Amnesty International, detailing the challenges facing Iraqi women. They are subject to violent crime. They are subject to the retrograde attitudes of certain men, whether sanctioned by Islam or not. Rape is on the rise without Saddam to maintain order. And women who take an active role in politics are targeted by Islamic radicals.

The Amnesty report is complex, and addresses some critical issues for human rights — but that wasn't what the scribes got out of it. "RIGHTS REDUCED, SECURITY WORSE SINCE OCCUPATION," tsked the Toronto Star.

"IRAQI WOMEN NO BETTER OFF POST-SADDAM," offered Al Jazeera. "IRAQI WOMEN STILL SUBJECT TO ABUSE," lectured Reuters.

In each case, the subtext was clear: Things have gotten worse for Iraqi women, and America is to blame.

Under Saddam Hussein, Amnesty concedes, individual women may have been raped, tortured and murdered for their political activism, ethnic group or for no reason at all. But as a group — human-rights groups have become fond of noting — women were respected. Ideologically, Saddam was a great feminist.

The source for this is the 1970 Iraq Constitution, which established a secular regime and at least theoretically granted women equal rights. Saddam allowed, unlike the Taliban, that women be educated. His regime was happy to employ them in large numbers, as doctors, university professors — even as a chief biological-weapons expert, in one notorious case.

True, the literacy rate among women dropped from 75 percent in the late 70s to 25 percent in 2000, one of the lowest in the region. Saddam's fault? No, according to the chorus, the fault of the U.S. for imposing economic sanctions on Saddam's regime after the first Gulf War.
Yet they rose to the occasion. Women will hold 86 of 275 seats in the National Assembly, a number higher than the suggested quota and unparalleled among Iraq's Arab neighbors. That they did so despite the threats and reality of violence is only greater testament to what they can do when the situation cools.


The security situation in Iraq is bad, for women as for others. Like all Iraqis — at least those who favor a modernizing country — Iraqi women worry about whether democracy will just empower religious reactionaries. In fact, part of the trouble here is that the report singles out women. What about Jews, Christians, Sunni Muslims, secularists, those who enjoy a nip of adult beverage once in a while?

All Iraqis have fears and hopes for their country as Iraqi society fumbles its way toward a new order. But the headlines bespeak a journalistic mindset that really has little to do with Iraq. The editors who gave the Amnesty claim prominent play no doubt see the report as an extension of the Larry Summers controversy at Harvard. Women are deemed a special victim group; any critique of the U.S. occupation has instant credibility if it simply affirms our own society's guilt toward women.

That's not to say that the place of women in Iraq won't be just one more subject for Iraqis to argue and fight about — one hopes in democratic way. Fighting for equality wasn't a walk in the park even for American women, who didn't get the vote until 1920. During their struggle, suffragettes were assaulted, arrested and forced to campaign using aliases to hide from police and avoid embarrassment to their families.

Iraqi women will have their struggles, too. But they are in many ways well-prepared for the fight — already well organized and well buttressed with support from international groups. Women for Women International surveyed Iraqi women last year: 93.7 percent believe in legal rights for women and 87 percent wanted the right to vote on the constitution. Those ladies make up 60 percent of Iraqi society, otherwise so divided ethnically and religiously.

Democracy? You do the math. Not only can we expect democracy to be good for women in Iraq, but we can expect women to be good for democracy — precisely because they represent a principle and a cause that crosses tribal and religious boundaries.

The following is an e-mail I received a while ago regarding a conservative yet political active Iraqi woman, that I truly enjoyed:

Before plunging into politics, before surviving twoassassi-nation attempts and before losing her eldestson in an ambush, Salama Kha- faji had a simple wish:to be a good Shia Muslim woman.

But in the days of Saddam Hussein, a woman studyingthe tenets of Shiism was considered a subversive. Evenif Khafaji did not want to become involved inpolitics, she committed a political act by attending aclandestine religious academy. She risked imprisonment, perhaps even death.

From that experience, Khafaji has grown into one ofIraq's most popular politicians. She was one of three women who served on the Iraqi Governing Council after the U.S. invasion, and is now a member of the country's interim parliament. And despite repeated attempts on her life - the latest on Jan. 16 - she is a candidate for the National Assembly in Sunday's elections.

"I did not plan on entering politics, but after theAmerican invasion I realized that the voice of themajority of Iraqi women - who are religious and not returning exiles - was not being heard," said Khafaji,46, a soft-spoken dentistry professor with asympathetic smile. "I wanted that voice to be heard."

On the surface, Khafaji is a contradiction: She is a devout Shia, but she does not want Iraq to become atheocracy. She wears an abaya - an all-encompassingblack veil - but she is also an outspoken advocate for women's rights, and she favors quotas for women in government. Hers is a contradiction that embodies the complexity of Iraqi society, and shows why it isimpossible to fit all religious Iraqis into simple categories.

Khafaji played a key role in negotiating with renegadeShia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during his numerousconfrontations last year with U.S. forces in Najaf andSadr City. This role raised her political profile andhas translated into broad popular support for Khafajiin Shia areas. But her political success has come witha steep personal price: She and her family have beenvirtually living on the run for more than a year. Shesleeps in a different place each night, her childrenmust travel with heavily armed guards and, after thesecond assassination attempt against her, she stoppedcampaigning.

In May, her 17-year-old son was killed when theirconvoy was ambushed on the road from Najaf to Baghdad(she had been in Najaf negotiating with al-Sadr). Inthe eyes of devout Shias, this gave Khafaji more

Khafaji has been ranked in several opinion polls asthe most popular female politician in Iraq. Becauseshe is running on the slate backed by Grand AyatollahAli al-Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq, sheis virtually assured a seat in the new parliament.

But Khafaji is engaged in a larger struggle thansimply campaigning for a parliamentary seat. She istrying to stake out a position as a homegrown Iraqileader. The next major fault-line in Iraqi societywill fall between two political forces: six parties,made up mostly of former exiles, and the indigenous leaders who never left Iraq.

"Those who came with the Americans are not well-known,or well-liked, inside Iraq," said Wamidh Nadhmi, apolitical science professor at Baghdad University. "Inthis context, Dr. Khafaji might have a role to play asa leader who never left and suffered under Saddam like everyone else."

Khafaji and her mentor, Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitta, arean example of the indigenous Iraqi leadership that islikely to take power if elections are free and fair.Both espouse an Islamic vision of democracy, humanrights and women's rights. They supported a 40-percentquota for women in government, a radical demand thatput them in the company of Westernized feminists andexiles.

The American leadership in Iraq has been much morecomfortable with secular former exiles like theinterim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and one-timePentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, both of whom lived inthe West for decades. Homegrown leaders are lesspolitically skilled and have fewer resources than theformer exiles, many of whom received U.S. funding foryears.

Khafaji's story illuminates a critical question forIraq: Will former exiles like Allawi, who haveWashington lobbyists and public relations firms topush their case to U.S. politicians, continue todominate Iraq's government? Or will leaders withgrassroots support like Khafaji get a real chance torule?

Stayed away from politics

Salama Khafaji was born in 1958 to a middle-classBaghdad family; she was the second-youngest of five children. Her father was a carpenter, her mother ahousewife. Her parents were not overtly devout, but her father was a voracious reader and he enjoyed Islamic philosophy.

Growing up at a time when Iraq was roiled by repeatedmilitary coups and nationalist fervor, Khafaji noticedthat her parents stayed away from politics. She didthe same, focusing instead on her studies.

At age 15, she decided to wear a hijab, the Islamic headscarf. She discussed it with her parents and they supported her decision to become more outwardly religious.

"My father was a self-educated man. I was always closeto him, and I got a lot of my ideas from him," shesaid. "He made me love reading the same way he did.Since I was a child, I read about Islam and I knewthat wearing the hijab was important."

In 1979, the year Hussein became president andconsolidated his absolute power over Iraq, Khafajientered college. As a child, she had wanted to becomean artist or an engineer. She was not accepted intothe engineering school, but she got into the Collegeof Dentistry.

By then, she was wearing the head-to-toe abaya, whichmarked her as a pious Shia. Hussein's Sunni-dominatedregime persecuted the Shia, and those who showedoutward signs of religious devotion were monitored bythe secret police. Khafaji was certain that several ofher Baathist classmates were filing reports about her,and they sometimes tried to entice her into politicalconversations.

"Any woman wearing a hijab, there was a mark againsther," she said. "They had to follow her, find out whoshe was in contact with and what groups she was partof."

Khafaji went on to obtain a master's degree indentistry and, when she graduated in 1989, she wasoffered a teaching job at Baghdad University. She alsoopened a private practice, and most of her clientswere Shia women.

"In Iraq, they say that you have to have a man toextract teeth. But I always did my own extractions,"she said, laughing mischievously. "So I was famous atthe college because they knew that in my practice, Idid the extractions myself. My hand is bigger thanother women's - and this is from doing my ownextractions. Religious women like to have other womendo extractions for them."

A clandestine schoolWhile Khafaji was satisfied with her teaching anddentistry career, she yearned to learn more aboutIslamic law and philosophy. In the early 1990s, shesought out Ghitta, who was making plans to operate aclandestine school for Shia women at his Baghdad home.

Ghitta comes from a long line of Shia scholars and isthe leader of a prominent family rooted in the Shiaholy city of Najaf. He modeled his school on the Hawzaal-Ilmiya, the revered center of Shia learning inNajaf that has produced most of the religion's leadersfor centuries. But the Hawza is not open to women

With the help of his mother, a pharmacology professorand author, Ghitta recruited about a dozen women intohis academy. He required his students to have at leasta bachelor's degree and insisted that they undertake amuch wider course of study than just religion. Hetaught them philosophy, logic, rhetoric, jurisprudenceand history - the same Hawza curriculum that, aftertwo or three decades, produces Shia ayatollahs.

Khafaji persuaded her two sisters to join the classes,which met two or three times a week. But she did nottell her husband or four children what she was doing."I was afraid that someone might ask one of mychildren, and we would all be in great danger," shesaid. "We didn't hide the fact that we were gathering.We used to say that it was just a women's meeting.Sometimes, we would say that we were going to havelunch at one person's house. Another time, we wouldhave tea at someone else's house."

Once, Khafaji's husband asked her what she was doingduring her afternoon sojourns. "I am doing what isright," she responded.

Anticipating his almost inevitable arrest, Ghittataught his classes from behind a screen. He never sawhis students' faces and didn't know their names. "Ididn't want to know who my students were, becauseunder torture, I would be forced to give their names,"he said.

In Abu Ghraib

When he was arrested and tortured in 1998, therewasn't much he could give his interrogators. Ghittawas sentenced to death for teaching Shia theology. Buthis students, Khafaji among them, sold their gold andother possessions and managed to bribe the judge tosentence him to life at Abu Ghraib prison instead. Thestudents and Ghitta's mother raised nearly $20,000 - ahuge sum for Iraqis. They gave the judge about $8,000,and dispersed the rest to various Baathist officials.

"He's worth it. He's worth more than that," Khafajisaid of her teacher. "One lecture from him is worththat $20,000."

Listening to his student recount the story, Ghittatightened his thick eyebrows. "Well, everyone is worththat," he said. "Many others died in Abu Ghraib, andthey were worth that, too."

For six months after the sheik's arrest, the womenstopped studying together. After his sentencing, theybegan to meet once a week. Ghitta's mother led theclasses, and whenever she visited her son in prison hewould smuggle scraps of paper to her with suggestedreadings and assignments.

The sheik spent five years at Abu Ghraib, untilDecember 2002, when Hussein pardoned politicalprisoners before the U.S. invasion.

Her first political post

Even after his release from prison, it was toodangerous for Ghitta to meet his studentsface-to-face. But once Hussein's regime was toppled inApril 2003, the sheik sought out Khafaji, his star

Soon after the regime fell, Khafaji became active inthe Iraqi dentists' union. In June 2003, she waselected to her first political post - a member of theunion's executive committee. Before Hussein came topower, labor unions, student groups and other civilsociety associations produced many of Iraq's leadersand bureaucrats. These institutions are trying onceagain to generate homegrown leaders.

In December 2003, Khafaji was appointed to the IraqiGoverning Council, a 25-member body that ruled Iraqunder the auspices of the U.S. occupation. Shereplaced another Shia woman who had been assassinatedthree months earlier. Khafaji had the distinction ofbeing the only council member chosen by her fellowpoliticians, the others all having been appointed byU.S. officials. This helped Khafaji avoid the taint ofU.S. cooperation that has haunted most other councilmembers.

Khafaji infuriated women's groups and the two otherfemale council members when she supported a proposalto abolish Iraq's civil law on family matters. Themeasure would have placed family issues - such asmarriage, divorce, children's custody - underreligious jurisdiction, as is the practice in manyArab countries. The proposal eventually was nixed byU.S. officials.

While the episode turned women's groups against her,it earned her the respect of Muqtada al-Sadr and hisfollowers. Then, in April 2004, Khafaji's popularitysoared when she spoke out forcefully against the U.S.siege of the Sunni city of Fallujah and a crackdown onal-Sadr's militia in Shia areas.

"Salama Khafaji's shoe alone is worth more than theentire Governing Council," an al-Sadr aide told a20,000-strong congregation at Friday prayers in SadrCity in April.

As fighting between al-Sadr's militia and U.S. forcesintensified, Khafaji tried to mediate. She used hergrowing popularity and the religious credentials ofGhitta, who served as her deputy on the GoverningCouncil. Throughout April and May, Khafaji engaged ina kind of shuttle diplomacy, driving from Baghdad toal-Sadr's home in Najaf. She and Ghitta also lined uptribal leaders and members of the Shia religioushierarchy to pressure al-Sadr into agreeing to acease-fire.

Son, guard killed in ambush

On May 27, as she drove to Baghdad from Najaf toBaghdad after one of her marathon meetings withal-Sadr, Khafaji was ambushed. She escaped unharmed,but her son Ahmad and her favorite bodyguard werekilled. What haunts her most is that she had to driveaway without knowing their fate.

It was early evening and her three-car convoy wasracing through a militant Sunni area south of Baghdad.Suddenly, four men riding in a red Opel sedan overtookthem. The sedan then turned around and sped past theconvoy in the opposite direction.

"They looked at us and knew who we were. They wentaway to get their weapons and came back," sherecalled, betraying no emotion. "I saw Ahmad's carveering off the road into a canal, but there was somuch dust that I couldn't really see what happened."

To save her life, Khafaji's driver had to speed awayfrom the scene.

Later that night, Khafaji was told her bodyguard'scorpse had been found. Her son's body was notrecovered from the canal until the next day.

"The news about my bodyguard's death was veryupsetting. I thought that night about his mother, hiswife, his young child. There were a lot of people thatlost him," Khafaji said, her voice trailing off. "Thenext day, when I received the news about my son, itwas a little easier to accept it. ... I had lost myson, but a lot of Iraqi women have lost theirchildren.

"When I was in Najaf, I met many women who had losttheir sons, husbands, brothers and I was very moved bytheir desire for peace," she said. "It's the women whohave suffered the most under this occupation. Andthat's why it's women who want peace the most."

After her son's death, Khafaji became even morepopular. In a poll conducted by the InternationalRepublican Institute shortly after the transfer ofpower to an interim Iraqi government on June 28, shewas ranked as the most popular female leader in thecountry. She was the 11th most popular among both maleand female politicians.

Popular among devout Shia

Her base of support is among devout Shia men and womenin Sadr City and Shia-dominated southern Iraq. Shiawomen affectionately call her "Dr. Salama" and compareher to Zainab, the daughter of Shiism's 7th centuryfounding figure, Imam Ali.

"We need to have women in the government, especially adaughter of our country like Dr. Salama. She isstrong-willed and a fighter," said Shayma Khalida, 26,a student who lives in Sadr City. "Dr. Salamasacrificed the most valuable thing she had, which washer son. She showed her patriotism, strength andreligious devotion."

Despite her popularity, Khafaji is facing an uphillbattle as she tries to establish herself as anindependent national leader. So far, the budding Iraqipolitical system has favored political parties ratherthan independents.

Khafaji is running on a slate called the United IraqiAlliance, which is backed by al-Sistani. Last month,as she negotiated her position on the slate, she waspressured to join the two leading Shia politicalparties in Iraq.

The groups - the Supreme Council for IslamicRevolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party - are dominatedby former exiles, many of whom spent years inneighboring Iran. After Khafaji refused to join eitherparty, she was given the No. 30 slot on the slate,despite her national reputation and appeal.

"These parties are trying to control the politicalsystem," she said, "and I do not want to be part ofthat."

As the political wrangling over party slates unfoldedearly last month, a group of gunmen ambushed Khafaji'shusband on his way home from work. He was wounded inthe leg, hand and abdomen and spent two weeks in thehospital.

On Jan. 16, gunmen wearing Iraqi police uniformsattacked Khafaji's convoy in central Baghdad. Hersecurity guards returned fire and the gunmen fled. No

The ambush forced Khafaji to suspend her politicalcampaign. She canceled plans to drive to southern Iraqand she began sleeping in a different location everynight. "I'm frustrated that I cannot go out and meetwith people to talk about the election," she said. "Iwant to listen to their ideas and problems. This iswhat political leaders are supposed to do."

When her three surviving children complain that theyare tired of living on the run, she tells them topersevere. "They want to move around freely and have anormal life. They want to be able to leave the housewithout guards, and live as other children do," shesaid. "After I talk to them, they realize that we haveto work toward making a normal life for all Iraqis."

And what would she do if life in Iraq ever returned to"normal"?"

I would go back to teaching and practicingdentistry," she said, laughing. "I'm not really a politician."